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My reason for being

As far as I know, besides The Hindu, the Hindustan Times’ Mumbai edition is the only other newspaper in the country that now has a Readers’ Editor. Five months ago, we created this post and began this column. Yet many readers, including friends and acquaintances, tell me that they still do not have a clear idea of what this person’s role is and where they, as readers, fit in.

india Updated: Aug 28, 2009 15:48 IST
Sumana Ramanan

As far as I know, besides The Hindu, the Hindustan Times’ Mumbai edition is the only other newspaper in the country that now has a Readers’ Editor. Five months ago, we created this post and began this column. Yet many readers, including friends and acquaintances, tell me that they still do not have a clear idea of what this person’s role is and where they, as readers, fit in.

So this week, with about 20 columns behind me, I thought I would explain in some detail what the Readers’ Editor post is all about. Some newspapers also call this person an Ombudsman or the Public Editor.

The Hindustan Times’ model for its Readers’ Editor post closely follows the terms of reference that The Guardian, of London, has set out. I will produce from those terms of reference excerpts that I believe encapsulate what we, too, have in mind.

According to The Guardian, the Readers’ Editor’s job is “to collect, consider, investigate, respond to, and, where appropriate, come to a conclusion about readers’ comments, concerns, and complaints in a prompt and timely manner, from a position of independence within the paper.”

I would like to highlight here the issue of independence, which is critical if the post is to be effective. The Readers’ Editor should freely be able to criticise decisions that the newspaper has taken, as indeed, I have done on a fewoccasions.

For instance, spurred by readers’ letters, I evaluated the newspaper’s decision to publish on its front page the photograph of a young woman stripping.

Mid-Day had first broken the story about howher former boyfriend had sent these pictures around to friends after she declined his offer of marriage. I concluded that left to me, I would not have published the photograph. (See February 22, page 4) Further, The Guardian’s terms of reference for the Readers’ Editor stipulate that this person has the responsibility “to seek the views, and where appropriate, the written comments, of journalists whose work is the focus of readers’ concerns: to take these views into account when responding to readers, and to make critical appraisals, if judged necessary, on an objective and fully-informed basis.”

Here, I would like to highlight the word “critical”. The Readers’ Editor’s job is not to defend the newspaper from readers’ criticisms.

This person must analyse whatever issue the reader brings up with a fresh eye and can, as I pointed out in the case above, conclude that the newspaper did not do the right thing.

But at the same time, there may be many occasions on which the Readers’ Editor genuinely believes that the newspaper did the best it could. In that case, the Readers’ Editor can then present to readers some of the internal debates and thinking behind the decision.

The post is an attempt to start a genuine, lively dialogue between those who produce the newspaper and readers, and make what we do much more transparent to those whom we serve.

So I would urge many more readers to write in.

For examples of the kinds of issues people can raise, readers might want to go to The Guardian’s site, www.-guardian.co.uk, to get an idea. What’s interesting is that just as HT Mumbai experiments with the post of Readers’ Editor, some newspapers are getting rid of the position.

In December, at a meeting of journalists and media NGOs in Athens, Steven Pritchard, the Readers’ Editor for the Observer, London, who heads the Organisation of News Ombudsmen, reported that 12 of his confrères recently lose their jobs, thehoot.org, a South Asia media watch website, reported.

So make the best of me while you can!