The space where a newspaper prints letters to the editor has the potential to acquire the flavour of an adda, a place for intelligent, lively and sometimes heated discussions about current affairs and the coverage of them, in this instance, conservations among readers, and between readers and journalists.
Yet there is a crucial difference: An adda typically is self-regulating and has no referee, while in a newspaper, editors decide which letters to publish and at what length. With many newspapers moving to the internet, space has become less of a problem. But editors largely retain control over what goes up on the official site, even though readers are free to continue their conversations in private or in non-mediated online forums. One of the great things about the internet is that it allows readers to communicate with each another without having to go through the newspaper each time.
Yet in India, large numbers of readers still turn to the printed version of the newspaper, where space is always at a premium. So it’s not surprising that readers regularly write to say that they want more space to air their views or that what’s been printed was a waste of precious real estate. Paresh Vaidya is among them. “What I notice very often is that the selection of letters seems to have been done in a casual manner or in a hurry,” he wrote. “In four to five cases, I have noticed that the letter-writer has not understood the article or news item about which he or she is commenting.”
He cited an example of a Bengali reader who wrote that she was upset with Suhel Seth for calling Bengalis parochial although Seth had criticised only one of them who goes by the name of Mamata Banerji. “Her [the reader’s] letter is based on the thesis that Seth thinks that Bengalis are chauvinist,” wrote Vaidya. “She wanted a reason to talk about the broadmindedness of Bengalis, and has used Seth’s article as a pretext.”
This is a good point, but the space for letters in the daily, Vox Pop, is the purview of HT’s Delhi editors. But that is precisely why a newspaper that is now the fastest growing in Mumbai needs to allocate space for local readers’ letters.
Which is what Alpana Chowdhury, a close reader of HT, wrote to ask for at the start of the new year. “Your Vox Pop asks us to address letters to email@example.com but keeps printing Delhi letters,” she wrote. “HT’s local reporters do an excellent job uncovering Mumbai scams and focusing on city-based issues but there is no page on which we can express our appreciation or criticism of this. Page 2 [this page] carries letters on specific topics. A vibrant city paper like HT should have a daily column for citizens to air their views on issues you focus on.”
I asked the editor of HT Mumbai, Soumya Bhattacharya, as well as the deputy editor, Pravinchandran Nair, what they felt. “We are open to the idea and will certainly consider it,” said Nair. “It’s a good idea, and one we should begin doing,” said Bhattacharya.
Let’s hope readers see the newspaper version of a local adda opening up soon.