Sumana Ramanan Senior Editor
In the age of innocence, i.e. in the pre-26/11 era, Hindustan Times invited a few high school students to spend a day at its office in Mahim. They turned up on November 14, Children’s Day, to help us decide what to put on our all-important front page.
At the day’s first editorial meeting, at around noon, when senior editors plan what stories to follow for the day, these students merely listened. But as they grew more comfortable with us and their surroundings, they began to shed their inhibitions.
By the time it was evening, when senior editors review what stories have actually come in and take a first stab at what should go on the front page, the students were in full flow, fearlessly voicing their opinions.
Two of them began arguing about the merits and demerits of newspapers giving space to fashion.
One of them said that newspapers should shun the subject because only a fraction of Indians could afford the lifestyles portrayed in reports about fashion. She felt it was a frivolous topic with no larger social ramifications.
The other argued that newspapers could not afford to ignore fashion because many readers were interested in reading about it.
Without perhaps knowing it, they were grappling with a central dilemma that dogs editors: should they give readers what they think readers want or should they dish out what they think readers ought to read.
I’d like to concentrate on the first part: what readers want. To begin with, our readers are not one undifferentiated mass. Some might think their ideal Sunday morning read is a fullpage interview with Amartya Sen; others may be eager to hear about what Priyanka Chopra ate for dinner the previous night.
We like to think we traverse the full range between these two extremes. We try not to stuff the newspaper with so much gravitas that it sinks or with matter so frivolous that it floats away. We try to achieve a—yes, it’s that ‘b’ word again—balance.
Nevertheless, what to offer readers is never a closed topic. We are constantly trying to figure out what you want. Our marketing colleagues conduct periodic surveys to this end.
But there is another way in which readers can help us serve them better. They can write to individual reporters, whose email ids appear at the bottom of their stories, with concrete suggestions about issues they want covered and people they feel the city should hear about.
Rather than just telling us that you want more news about some topic, say women, it would help us if you send in specific ideas — for instance, a suggestion to write about a woman in your neighbourhood who has managed to convince a whole housing colony to recycle its waste. It could be as simple as that. Simple yet far from insignificant.
This is just a step away from fullblown public journalism, where readers become journalists. Just as we journalists try to think like readers, perhaps it might be interesting for readers to start thinking like journalists.