2021 – What a year it’s been. To rephrase Charles Dickens’ memorable lines in the novel A Tale of Two Cities, it wasn’t the best of times, but it wasn’t the worst of times either. As coronavirus darkened the horizon, there were glimmerings of hope in the form of vaccines, and clouds of despair as new variants combined with the miscalculations of human beings to spread death and the disease through the world.
On the eve of 2022, the Omicron strain has already breached our immunity system as well as national borders, travelling across continents and is now threatening India with the grim prospect of a third wave in the new year.
ThePrint will be here to report it just as it did on the second wave in 2021 and the first in 2020.
Before I look back at a few distinguishing features of the year at ThePrint, I must thank readers who have written to the Readers’ Editor ever since the post was created in July 2021. I have tried to play the role as faithfully as possible, to reply to their queries, satisfactorily, to share their comments and suggestions with the website’s leadership – and of course, to admit an error when one was made and pointed out.
What have I learnt in the last six months? Well, it’s been an exercise in humility to discover how carefully readers follow ThePrint and care enough to share their viewpoints. They are acute, careful readers and listeners who have spotted a mistake in a trice and then, rightly so, ticked us off.
It’s a relief to be able to say that no monumental mistakes have been made by ThePrint nor has there been any major difference of opinion on editorial content with readers – both would have reflected poorly on ThePrint’s editorial judgement and integrity as an independent, objective journalistic enterprise.
Readers have, mostly, nailed blunders related to names, places or the timeline of an event; others have been distressed by a headline that they felt didn’t reflect the contents of the report. There have been several complaints that certain reports or opinion articles in ThePrint reflect a ‘bias’ – often, for or against the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Next year, I intend to write about headlines, how and why they are worded the way they are. I also hope to reflect on that crafty character – the ‘bias’— an imprecise, indeterminate concept that is almost impossible to pin down in hard fact.
As Readers’ Editor, I have learnt to respect readers’ opinions and to look at ThePrint through their eyes – one reader has accused me of simply being a messenger for ThePrint (read apologist). Oh dear.
I see the Readers’ Editor as someone who tries to explain ThePrint to its readers and vice versa, someone who builds bridges between the two, as well as someone who takes her colleagues to task when necessary. There have been times when I haven’t agreed with a reader’s comments but that is because I have felt it was unjustified, not because I feel obliged to blindly defend the website.
Reporting on Covid and staying safe
Meanwhile, back at ThePrint in 2021.
What stood out during the year? Two very different aspects of our work: ThePrint’s commitment to ground reporting and the pandemic’s impact on work culture.
As in the case of most individuals and institutions, 2021 was defined by the pandemic. ThePrint’s editorial output, as well as its daily life as an online news portal, were dictated by the vagaries/trajectory of the virus, throughout the year but in particular, at the peak of the second wave in March-May 2021. The editors had to reconcile the need to report on the coronavirus’ deadly progress through India and the state assembly elections held during that time, with the imperative to protect ThePrint’s staff. As it was, up to two dozen of Team Print contracted the virus but, luckily, they recovered without hospitalisation.
Coming as it did on the back of a trying 2020 when we first learnt to live in lockdowns and to work from home, 2021 tested everyone’s staying power: ThePrint came through it with much to be proud of although it did pass through a period of churn and change, which has seen it regroup and reassess its priorities.
Boots on the ground
I believe ThePrint has been most successful when it has kept its ear to the ground and followed the basics of good journalism – to report a story firsthand, and to follow where it takes you. And this it did in 2021.
ThePrint’s reporters were eyewitness to the worst weeks of the coronavirus across the country as they travelled to hotspots in the worst-hit states, from Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh to Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal—and to others like Madhya Pradesh, Punjab and Bihar, and further east, Manipur, Mizoram.
This is where ThePrint has made its mark, so much so, that it has now become something of a habit: no sooner is there an incident of some significance, an editorial team is up and running — think of the state elections in Assam, Kerala, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, which were covered extensively by ThePrint from February to May; of the devotees at the Kumbh Mela in Haridwar during the worst days of the second wave; the extraordinary confrontation between the police of Assam and Mizoram, the Lakhimpur Kheri incident that left eight dead, the farmers’ protests against the three farm bills in Punjab, the acquittal of 127 Muslim men accused of being terrorists in Gujarat, or the outbreak of a peculiar dengue-like disease among children in Uttar Pradesh, to say nothing of Jammu Kashmir where one editor and two senior reporters travelled to at different times in 2021.
Before writing this article, I did a straw poll among reporters and photographers, asking them to share with me their assignment travelogue for the year. A rough calculation indicated that they had ‘been there seen that’ in more than 20 states and Union Territories during the last year—not counting states where ThePrint already has reporters besides Delhi.
This was taken to another level when ThePrint sent a senior editor to Afghanistan in early August – Nayanima Basu was amongst a handful of reporters there for the Indian media to cover the departure of US security forces and the Taliban’s virtual walkover in Kabul.
For me, what stood out besides helicopter journalism – when journalists fly in and fly out to report a story – was that reporters were on the road, in a state or states, for long periods. It’s not possible to mention all the young journalists who spanned out across the countryside but there was Jyoti Yadav in Uttar Pradesh, Sajid Ali in Bihar, Angana Chakrabarti in Maharashtra and Revathi Krishnan in Tamil Nadu while Fatima Khan travelled non-stop in different states. Not to mention the tireless photographers, National Photo Editor Praveen Jain and Manisha Mondal, Suraj Singh Bisht and video editors like Urjita Bhardwaj, Nirmal Poddar, and Reeti Agarwal.
It’s worth noting that ground reporting is expensive, and that’s why ThePrint is seeking more and more subscriptions, the only practical way to fund good journalism.
The efforts of reporters on the ground would have come to little had it not been for the people who you seldom realise exist — the editing desk and the publishing desk known as CMS at ThePrint. They are the ones who work diligently and selflessly since they don’t receive bylines (although ThePrint does acknowledge them at the end of each story); they remain in the background, shaping and restructuring stories, rewriting, checking facts and checking for plagiarism – the latter rampant during the pandemic; they are the ones who put the stories out, promote them on social media and keep a watch on the news flow. I will allow them to remain anonymous but must acknowledge their invaluable contribution.
The way we work
The pandemic and the second wave have changed the way we live and work and this has had its own consequences.
The most significant has been its impact on the work culture – the hybrid model of work from home and work from office that became the norm in 2020 carried on to 2021.
By and large, barring a period of mid-April to mid-June this year, ThePrint’s office at the Express Building in New Delhi remained open, on occasion with a skeleton editorial staff led by Managing Editor YP Rajesh.
In the beginning, only the reporting team went back to office. Then by early March 2021, it seemed safe enough for more people to return after receiving their first vaccine doses. We had begun to straggle in when the second wave hit us in April and sent us scurrying home.
In July-August, many more reassembled at the office and by November, it was deemed safe enough for the entire staff to go back – for the first time in almost 20 months, the whole team was together in one place.
While the work-from-home model may have yielded greater productivity by cutting back on travel time and allowing us to multi-task, it had a downside too, especially for the young team, at ThePrint: Youngsters had to work from home without the benefit of editors and senior reporters standing by them, Zoom calls notwithstanding. Editors found it difficult to judge skills and ‘bond’ with the team over a mobile phone. A newsroom full of people generates its own energy and the exchange of ideas no video conference can replicate; it also creates a sense of belonging and togetherness.
I think we have begun only now to appreciate the importance of constant, personalised interaction in a newsroom, something the pandemic made virtually impossible. This absence may go a long way towards understanding why media houses, including ThePrint, saw many individuals leave their jobs and make a fresh start elsewhere in 2021, and why ThePrint has also seen an influx of new hands on deck at all levels – Tanushree Pandey, Ishadrita Lahiri, Vandana Menon, Abhishek Dey, Shubham Batra, Nikhil Rampal, Anusha Ravi Sood, Sreyashi Dey, and Purva Chitnis are some of the new bylines at ThePrint.
The biggest loss for ThePrint in 2021 was the tragic passing away of Renu Agal, editor of its Hindi section, after a hit-and-run accident in Delhi. Agal was one of the finest journalists, fluent in Hindi and English, an excellent reporter and an editor who was greatly loved and respected by her colleagues. She put ThePrint’s Hindi section on the map – she is deeply missed. To the credit of the Hindi team, it has forged ahead, despite such a loss.
As for content, I have noticed ThePrint’s consciously playing to its strengths: There’s more emphasis on politics and governance, economy and education, defence, law and culture. There’s also more room for features and long-form writing in sections like ‘Past Forward’. And sports is fighting for space too.
Will ThePrint be able to capitalise on these strengths in 2022? Once again, the answer depends on the whims of the coronavirus and our responses to it.
A very happy new year to all our readers.
(Edited by Neera Majumdar)