In response to my column, “Breaking silos, regaining trust” (September 30, 2019), a media scholar presented a counterargument. He cited Christine Schmidt’s article, “The business case for listening to your audience is still murky (but early results are promising)” in the Nieman Journalism Lab. The thrust of the article is that though newsrooms have increased their levels of engagement with readers, this has not yet yielded results in terms of revenue. The report was based on a study titled “Learning to Listen: Building a culture of engagement in newsrooms” by the Lenfest Institute which is working towards new business models, innovations and diverse audiences for public-benefit journalism. His question was, why should The Hindu pursue an idea whose efficacy is yet to be proven?
The idea of constant dialogue did not flow from the fact that the business model is broken; it stemmed from a fundamental concern about the rupture of the public sphere and the corrosive power of disinformation. I draw inspiration from my alma mater, the Reuters Institute for the Study in Journalism (RISJ) at the University of Oxford, which redefined its mission earlier this year as “exploring the future of journalism worldwide through debate, engagement, and research”. According to Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, Director of RISJ, the change in mission was premised on three things: “(1) we don’t want to fight yesterday’s battles, but will look toward the future, (2) we don’t know what that future looks like, or should look like, so we want to explore it by all means available, and (3) we don’t believe anyone can succeed on this journey on their own, so we will focus on collaboration and conversation.”
Waging a perception battle
The Hindu’s Open House has gained momentum because it was the first realisation that in this era of digital disruption, the news media has to wage perception battles in addition to being a carrier of credible news. Face-to-face interactions allow readers to give feedback and suggestions to the editorial team. The Open House also provides an opportunity to explain to readers how decisions are taken in the newsroom. Some of the imaginary tropes created by the virtual world are countered in these encounters, sometimes to the full satisfaction and sometimes to the partial satisfaction of the participants.
Explaining the craft of journalism
A weekly section called ‘Notebook’, which is published on the op-ed page, is an attempt by journalists to explain their work; write about the challenges they face, the ethics that govern their work, their dilemmas and their vulnerabilities; and, above all, talk of the sense of satisfaction of informing people. This section resonates well with the readers as reporters display their humility and frailty. It fails to touch minds and hearts the moment journalists begin to pontificate.
Sobhana K. Nair, in “Turning the tables: when respondents ask reporters questions”(July 7, 2019), writes about a dilemma that journalists grapple with during election time. Some of the questions she poses in that short piece are reflective of our troubled times. Ramya Kannan’s recollection, “That one phone call” (March 15, 2017), is a poignant reminder that there is a human element in the interactions between journalists and citizens; such relationships cannot be treated as purely cold, professional exchanges of information. Mohit M. Rao’s “Covering a tragedy with empathy” (February 19, 2019) explores the tricky question of how to cover tragedies. He asks some pressing questions that haunt responsible journalists: “When does the quest for details become an intrusion into moments of grief? How do we move beyond basic facts and provide a human face to a tragedy in a sensitive manner?” In a sense, ‘Notebook’ exemplifies the newspaper’s commitment to transparency and explains the craft of journalism to our readers.
A new initiative
Moving beyond Open Houses and the ‘Notebook’ section, the Editor of this newspaper has decided to open up two crucial daily meetings a month to our readers. The first will be the noon editorial meeting during which senior editors discuss the important issues for the day. The second will be the evening news meeting during which they decide what to publish that day and how. From this November, on the first Tuesday of the month, five readers will be invited to attend the noon meeting and five to the evening meeting. Since the idea is to break out of the comfort zone, the Readers’ Editor’s office will ensure that readers who are sceptical about the newspaper’s editorial processes are part of this dialogue.