Conventionally, newspapers have seen themselves as objective reporters of news and, at most, presenters of opinion — albeit in a separate section of the newspaper earmarked for this purpose. They have generally shied away from actively participating in the events that shape news. The caution is justified, because objectivity and balance are cornerstones of a newspaper's role as society's conscience keeper.
But it's possible for newspapers to play a far larger role in the life of their readers, without losing their carefully built values of balance and fair-mindedness. It's possible — indeed desirable, to my mind — for newspapers to grow from being mere presenters of opinion to mobilisers of opinion toward important and socially desirable goals that resonate with their readers.
Around the world, people are increasingly losing faith in their political leadership. The reasons could be many — from a general disillusionment caused by the ongoing economic crisis to specific anger caused by corruption, oppression, or abuse of civil rights. The Internet has further fomented this disillusionment by allowing a better flow of information and freer exchange of ideas. Newspapers have, by and large, been content to report the emerging dynamics between people and the state, rather than take part in actively steering the conversation.
At The Times of India, we feel newspapers can play a strong role in filling the leadership vacuum. In the absence of credible public leaders and a reliable state machinery, we have a natural opportunity to step in and take up causes important to readers. We have tested this belief for ourselves over a four- to five-year journey, which began with our taking up city-level causes — from a fund-raising campaign seeking the redevelopment of Kolkata's central park to petitioning the Prime Minister for a better fiscal deal for Mumbai (in the wake of a series of mishaps, including a flood), to campaigning for better public transport in Bangalore.
The enthusiastic response to these campaigns emboldened us to scale up the scope of the causes we took up. We launched India Poised, a nationwide debate on the priorities India needed to take up to realise its bid for global “superpower” status. This campaign progressed to Lead India, a massive hunt for potential public leaders, and Teach India, perhaps the world's largest volunteering programme that saw 90,000 readers enroll to teach underprivileged children.
The journey continues with Aman ki Asha (a people-to-people peace initiative between India and Pakistan), and new chapters to the Teach India and Lead India programmes. Over the past year, we have also played an important part in raising our readers' consciousness against the plague of corruption that infests public life in India, with more than 3 million readers joining our online campaign, ACT (Against Corruption Together).
All the above programmes have been designed as platforms for widespread interactivity, using specially created Web sites, as well as the social media, in addition to ground-level discussions and debates — all anchored by fulsome editorial in the newspaper. The level and quality of response to the various campaigns clearly shows that a newspaper is welcomed in the role of a thought leader and an activist agent of change for the good.
Of course, a newspaper needs to take care that in the process of plunging into the thick of things, it retains its objectivity and neutrality. This has sometimes posed challenges for us, especially since our newspaper is strongly committed to remaining unaligned with any particular political ideology or party. Over the next couple of posts I'll share some of the dilemmas we have faced and, of course, some learning on how to plan and roll out the campaigns for maximum traction with readers.
Meanwhile, I welcome other experiences on “newspaper activism” that readers of this blog may have had.