Organising the community of readers

Attempts to understand the intangible actually end up delivering something tangible. Trust is the driving factor for The Hindu Open House, where readers are invited to interact with the senior editorial and management teams of this newspaper. Trust is a qualitative attribute; no mathematical formula can capture its power. In our latest interaction with readers in Bengaluru on December 8, a young student proudly declared that she is the fourth generation reader of this newspaper. It is impossible to create a matrix to measure this trust. However, for the journalists and managers who witnessed this display of respect, faith and conviction in the newspaper, it was a moment to reiterate their commitment to the core values and cardinal principles of The Hindu . A viable suggestion Some readers felt that The Hindu should have more such interactions with its readers and establish a proper readers’ forum in various cities. These fora, they said, could feed citizen journalism, monitor events, and help form an effective community. Unlike on social media, where there is less of the community and more of the individual, this community of readers with shared ideas will generate space for the common good, they said. Readers wanted the office of the Readers’ Editor to initiate the move. The existence of a viable forum where readers, journalists and managers of a newspaper can freely interact is not only an interesting idea but also a viable one. We need to think about its structure and the organisational arrangements required to make it mutually beneficial. One of the aspects of being an independent news ombudsman is to know about one’s boundaries as well as possibilities. Where does one’s remit end and where does one’s overreach begin? We need clarity on a few critical elements. Will a larger engagement with readers undermine the fundamental role of a news ombudsman, which is to ensure fairness and accuracy, carry out corrections and clarifications, and maintain a critical distance from the editorial and management of the newspaper? Along with the Terms of Reference for the Readers’ Editor and Living our Values: Code of Editorial Values, I also draw from Carlos Maciá-Barber’s eight edicts for a news ombudsman. First, ombudsmen should act in an ex-officio capacity. Second, ombudsmen should put their official duties ahead of their own careers. Third, ombudsmen should assist journalists’ self-evaluation and self-regulation. Fourth, ombudsmen should promote the right to information and citizen participation. Fifth, ombudsmen should foster media literacy. Sixth, ombudsmen should guard the rights of journalists. Seven, ombudsmen should be given the power to ensure that editors meet their obligations. And ombudsmen should not yield to depression or despair. It requires a clear vision to ensure that one does not overstep boundaries while implementing these edicts. What is clear is that an ombudsman is a part of a narrative where every strand is committed to the common cause called good journalism. The readers’ forum will promote citizen participation and foster media literacy. The Guardian has a created a web community for “lively, entertaining and, above all, intelligent discussions”. It has 10 guidelines to define the nature of online engagement in this time of extreme online hostility. Here, the relationship between the publication and the readers’ community is mediated only in the virtual world. However, the request we got from our readers, including those from Bengaluru who attended the Open House, is for a physical readers’ forum. To borrow from the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR), it is true that most readers do not know much about how journalism works, or its organising principles. I have relentlessly followed CJR’s directive to keep talking about basic questions such as, “What is journalism and why does it matter?” CJR also urges news ombudsmen to “embrace the idea that we’re all teachers and ambassadors — and get aggressive with it.” A readers’ forum may be an ideal platform for taking these ideas forward. Readers, the editor, the editorial staff and the management should all come together to decide the contours of such a forum.

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