Welcome to the first monthly Readers’ Editor column. On the cusp of its fourth year, ThePrint and Shekhar Gupta, Editor-in-Chief-cum-Founder, decided the time was right for the news portal to open itself up to greater public scrutiny.
The Readers’ Editor has a grave and often unenviable job: she must respond to complaints on errors in content, accusations of bias, questionable journalistic practices – or, simply anything that dismays readers – in a manner that is reasonable, fair and objective, knowing full well that she could incur the displeasure of readers and the editorial team at ThePrint.
A daunting challenge, but since Shekhar Gupta (ThePrint) believes I can fulfill the role of ThePrint’s first Readers’ Editor, I will sincerely endeavor to live up to its high calling.
So I urge readers to write in, join the conversation at ThePrint, and participate in making it more democratic and responsive to criticism.
Readers have already written in and I have either replied to them directly or forwarded their complaints. We look forward to more readers asking questions, demanding answers, and forcing us to listen to voices outside our own echo chamber.
In this first piece, let’s enter ThePrint’s newsroom and see if we can discover the ‘Who, What, Where, When, Why and How’ of the organisation — if readers are to demand genuine accountability of ThePrint, they must know who ThePrint is and what it aims to achieve.
For instance, complaints that ThePrint’s coverage of the Tokyo Olympics is barely visible would be misplaced because we don’t really do Sports (that doesn’t mean we won’t do some going ahead).
So what is ThePrint?
It’s a digital news portal.
Yes, but what does it do? Ah.
On social media or through reader feedback, what we do, defies definition — we are all things to different people. Much of the unparliamentary language about ThePrint is based on either misconceptions or personal grouse: you are Left, Right and Centre are nothing but ‘CTC’; you Modi media, you Rahul rabble rousers, you Pak apologists, you anti-farmers, you cover defence too much, you don’t cover Bollywood or Shilpa Shetty enough, — you’re just all over the place.
Such comments tell you something about what ThePrint is and isn’t: like an Olympic wrestler, it’s hard to pin down but it isn’t ideologically or politically aligned. It isn’t neutral either — it always has a view, but just when you think it’s going this way, it swerves to the other side. Some would say, it’s trying to have it both ways; you could also say, this reflects an open mind, one that reacts to each issue on merit.
This is the basis of ThePrint’s credibility, its coverage — as the name suggests, it lives by the values of print journalism.
…where all the action takes place
ThePrint’s premises, on the third floor of the Express Building in New Delhi, tell you more about who we are and what we do, four years since the August 2017 launch. The symbolism is unmistakable: ThePrint locates itself at the very heart of India’s Fleet Street, where many publications still reside.
Inside the brightly-lit office, in red, white and grey, are cabins and work stations wherever space permits. It’s something of a maze the first time you enter, but once you’ve found your way around, you notice people everywhere — that is, before Covid restrictions emptied out offices.
Even now, you’re always about to bang into a colleague: someone’s editing video footage on a big console, someone checking camera equipment, there’s a live shoot in a corridor, a zoom call elsewhere, people lounge on sofas in meeting rooms, others spill over into the reception area and the pantry — all to the clickety-clack jugalbandi of keyboards in the background.
The office was designed as a compact unit, to accommodate up to 40 people. In 2017, perhaps 12 people trooped into the office on that first day. As of now, there are 90 plus here, the overwhelming majority, editorial.
In the first year, ThePrint would publish up to 20 stories, daily. Today, the volume has more than doubled, and during the high season of the pandemic in 2020, it touched 100 on a day. Now, there are videos — up to 15 daily — and podcasts have just started coming into their own.
With three photographers, ThePrint has a sizeable archive of photographs on current affairs and the pandemic, reducing its dependency on agency pictures.
All of this tells you ThePrint sees itself as an independent, digital news organisation with multi-media output – one that has expanded beyond its original concept in size and ambitions. If that has created systemic pressures, confusion and strained resources, so be it.
…for the news we do
So, ThePrint is about news, right? Well, yes and no.
Journalists who joined ThePrint early on, say they were told to concentrate on four key focus areas: politics, policy, government and governance (2P-2G).
Routine matters, press conferences, daily beat stories were out — exclusive, special, explanatory, analytical journalism was in. And don’t forget opinion: respected names, strong arguments. In other words, serious journalism.
The website has remained faithful to this SOP but become more elastic, allowing much more to fit into the 2P-2G formula. On any given day, there is content related to governance, politics, legal issues, the economy, agriculture, defence, diplomacy, foreign affairs, education, the environment, technology, media and social media, health, and science – since Covid in March 2020, the last two have involved almost the entire editorial staff in their coverage.
This wider catchment area has attracted more eyeballs – our readership can go up to 35.5 million page views a month, YouTube has touched 22.5 million video views and Instagram approximately 800,000 interactions in our best month.
The coronavirus and elections since 2019 have seen ThePrint evolve in other significant ways: the return of good old-fashioned ground reporting would be the foremost.
Senior editors and the junior-most reporter have crisscrossed the country, putting ThePrint on the map of ground reportage. ThePrint’s investment in younger people – up to50 per cent of the newsroom is below 30 – has allowed it to put fresh, young legs on the ground, from Assam to Gujarat, Punjab to Tamil Nadu, for months at a time.
A larger audience has a voracious appetite. It wants special stories but also the latest news — today’s Covid case load, or Rahul Gandhi driving a tractor through Delhi. Also, as governance has become more opaque and political parties mistrustful of the media, information is difficult to come by for exclusive stories.
ThePrint’s answer has been to increase ground reporting, explanatory journalism and its audio-visual content. But routine news has become the default alternative – hence more agency copies (PTI, ANI) — although not what you want to be known by.
For that, ThePrint’s specials and in-depth stories must lead the way.
Bigger than a name
In the beginning, there was Shekhar Gupta, the founder, and then there was ThePrint. Reporters frequently used his name as a calling card —“Shekhar Gupta’s online news portal…”.
However, since 2019, it’s often enough to say you’re from ThePrint for a nod of recognition — in urban areas. The website has developed a life beyond Shekhar Gupta. Special stories, ground reports along with social media engagement, and the visibility gained on a multi-media platform, means many bylines have acquired a face and name for themselves, irrespective of age or seniority.
So who is ThePrint beyond Shekhar Gupta?
A number of senior editors and experienced correspondents with a newspaper background lead the team. But ThePrint is a youthful newsroom, predominantly female — fresh graduates thrown into the deep end of journalism. These young people have enthusiasm and energy: they inhabit social media, they adapt to multi-media easily, are self-confident, self-aware and constantly challenging more seasoned journalists, especially on gender issues.
A youthful editorial team comes without the baggage of newspaper journalism. However, it is still learning to develop the rigour, knowledge and skills required in a newsroom. This leads to considerable hand-holding by seniors, especially the editing team, and is time consuming.
The tough questions
Into its fifth year, ThePrint has much to be proud of as well as questions to answer: how does it continue to become financially viable? How does it resolve the constant demands of quantity and quality, in equal measure? Can the team, pulled in so many directions — routine news, ground reporting, specials, video and podcasts — produce good journalism, consistently? And can we call ThePrint truly a digital news portal, one that has speed and is user-friendly?
These and other dilemmas face ThePrint daily, some find resolution only for others to surface. The digital space is dynamic and ThePrint will have to constantly reinvent itself.
We are here to keep an eye on it.
Legacy journalism, as it is fondly referred to, as if it’s already one for the history books, believes the report, not the reporter, is the story. But digital, multi-media journalism gives both equal importance, placing immense pressure on journalists who are followed and trolled, and must cope with the consequences.
On 5 July, ThePrint published a report about the app ‘Sulli Deals’ that put up 90 Muslim women for sale — with their photographs and Twitter handles. ThePrint’s senior correspondent Fatima Khan was one of those named on the website — the app was subsequently removed.
The original report in ThePrint named and carried reactions from some of the women. It did not, however, mention Fatima who had tweeted a personal reaction but not informed the editors of the incident. The editorial decision to omit her name was based on the belief that she didn’t need further exposure.
I believe Fatima ought to have been asked if she wanted to be part of the story. She needed ThePrint’s support in public, not just within the newsroom. A later version of the report named and quoted her as well as Shekhar Gupta.
In a toxic media environment, it isn’t always easy to decide how best to respond to such provocations. There is no blueprint. So, as ThePrint evolves, it needs to keep an open mind, be flexible and more agile in navigating such minefields.
Shailaja Bajpai is ThePrint’s Readers’ Editor. Please write in with your views, complaints to firstname.lastname@example.org
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)