Monday, 8 August, 2022
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One year of being ThePrint’s Readers’ Editor – my job, your mails, our stories

As Readers’ Editor, I want to say, dear reader, we hear you although we may not always agree with you.

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This is an anniversary piece. It marks one year since I was appointed Readers’ Editor at ThePrint. I have Shekhar Gupta, publisher and Editor-in-Chief of ThePrint, to thank or blame for that – so thank you, Shekhar, thanks a lot.

When I became Readers’ Editor in July 2021, I said in the first article (rather pompously) that the job is a pretty thankless task – ‘The Readers’ Editor…must respond to complaints on errors or shortcomings in content, accusations of bias, questionable journalistic practices…. 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.’

One year later, that still holds true – as the Readers’ Editor, I act as a watchdog, and try to ensure that ThePrint is not just accountable to its readers but also just to ThePrint colleagues – not an easy job, believe me.

But while this remains a daunting and challenging task, it has also been rewarding: I get to interact with readers on a day to day basis, and learn how they feel about ThePrint – what they see as its achievements or its shortcomings.

So, first off, a big thank-you to all the readers who have written in. I hope more of you engage with ThePrint through me, even if to just let off steam. As Readers’ Editor, I want to say, dear reader, we hear you although we may not always agree with you.

When I started out in the role, I defined it for myself – besides being a watchdog, I wanted to be a bridge for readers and ThePrint: I hoped in my replies to readers and the monthly Readers’ Editor column I write, they would gain a better understanding of ThePrint’s journalism while my colleagues would appreciate vital public feedback.

That has happened, partially. Most readers have accepted my explanations for editorial content, but there are instances when the chasm between the reader and ThePrint remains too wide to cross. We will return to that, shortly.


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Recognise your reader

I check the Readers’ Editor mailbox every or every other day. I have replied to every mail received – always respectfully and politely. Often (when it is a diatribe) I simply reply, ‘Thank you for taking the trouble to write in with your views. Warmly, Shailaja.’

Normally, that is the end of the matter.

Perhaps the most important lesson I have learnt as Readers’ Editor is this: Readers want to be recognised, not taken for granted. Some have written back expressing gratitude for my replies –that’s how much being acknowledged means and how little it takes to make them feel wanted.

Sometimes, I have a conversation with a reader – back and forth, forth and back, over an article in ThePrint. Another lesson: Readers want their views to be taken seriously and are happy to engage in an argument to support their point of view. So, I can’t be dismissive. I have to do my homework.

‘Will you publish poetry’

In the mails to the Readers’ Editor, which drop almost daily, I receive a few bouquets of appreciation for articles and many brickbats that hit out at ThePrint, mercilessly – some fair and some not quite so.

There are innumerable well-meaning suggestions about what ThePrint should or should not do – include space for comments with each article, don’t carry false advertising, will Shekhar Gupta please talk about RTI in Cut the Clutter?

There are also requests – Do you publish poetry/please publish my article/please make the paywall affordable for students, etc.

Besides this, readers share their take on anything from the tax regime to how Muslims need to ‘integrate’. I receive lengthy commentaries on such subjects along with press releases, and sometimes, legal suits that have been filed in a court.

Then there are subscriptions and technical glitches readers encounter– happy to say these have been speedily addressed by ThePrint.

Some readers detect factual errors – but fewer than I expected, so that’s good news for ThePrint.

In instances where my domain knowledge is poor, I refer the readers’ comments to senior editors. Then I scrutinise the article in question, research the subject and take the editors’ point of view on board. I also do a random fact check – see, if the story’s argument is consistent and if the sourcing is impeccable. Then only do I reply to the reader.

That’s another lesson: I need to take an informed stand based on what the reader says, ThePrint’s editors’ reply, and what I learn from due process. This usually applies to readers’ complaints against ThePrint’s apparent ‘bias’. Most of this criticism is general and applies to opinion articles by Print editors or external experts.


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Bias in the eyes of the beholder

I have to admit, these mails sometimes give me heartburn. They can be vituperative and vicious. And the thing about a bias is that it is impossible to prove or disprove—it lies in the eyes of the beholder.

In such cases, my answer is that while the reader has every right to her or his opinion/criticism, the same right must be accorded to the writers. If journalists or writers display a ‘bias’, so do the readers and it would require mind-reading skills I don’t possess to detect who is biased.

Argumentative Indians, however, don’t accept another point of view–especially in cases of perceived communal biases against Hindus. ThePrint stands accused of peddling ‘paid’ news by several readers. Nothing I say can convince them of ThePrint’s bonafides, so I simply thank them for their mail and leave it at that.

Once I shared a list of regular opinion contributors to convince a reader that ThePrint publishes views from Right to Left and in the centre – and he was convinced!

One more lesson learnt: I have to be patient, and I have to politely persevere. There are times when I have to press the editorial team for answers – sometimes, I haven’t received one – but with a little persistence, editors have been very cooperative.


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Whose headline is it anyway?

The most difficult part of this job? To strive for fairness – to the reader and to ThePrint or its contributors. I have to remind myself that while I represent ThePrint as its Reader’s Editor, I also represent the reader.

I’d like to think I have achieved this delicate balancing act, but I know certain readers or some colleagues will disagree. At least one reader referred to me as a mere ‘postman’. Well, as the saying goes, you can’t please all of the people all of the time – and in this case, nor should I seek to.

The simplest part of the Readers’ Editor’s job? When ThePrint makes a factual or spelling error. Then, there is no argument and I am happy to concede the point. In one instance, a reader pointed out that the date of the last state elections in Andhra Pradesh was wrong – he was right and the error was corrected.

Trickier territory are headlines: In at least one case, a reader rightly argued that due to a punctuation mistake, the headline said something, the story something else. The headline was duly changed. In other cases, it is a matter of interpretation.

Lesson number whatever: Readers don’t skim articles, they read ThePrint carefully. And this article would be incomplete if it did not acknowledge ThePrint’s vigilant readers who, over the last 12 months, have regularly written to the Readers’ Editor – to point out errors, to compliment ThePrint or, to call it out. A special thank you to them – you know who you are.

The fact that they continue to write in, even when I disagree with them, makes me optimistic: If we can continue a conversation, despite our differences, then perhaps we are taking a small step towards bridging that gap between the sceptical reader and ThePrint.

Shailaja Bajpai is ThePrint’s Readers’ Editor. Please write in with your views, complaints to readers.editor@theprint.in

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