There used to be a time, and all not all that long ago, when fathers and mothers would tell their children to read the edit pages of newspapers to improve their English. No longer. Not only do parents not care anymore about the edit page, their kids don’t even look at newspapers.
But that is not the only problem: with the proliferation of websites and blogging sites, the edit page is not the only place for finding well argued opinion pieces written in plain but correct English. In the early 1990s, a survey showed that only two per cent even opened the edit page. Now, I am fairly certain that the percentage is probably close to zero.
In short, it has become like nipples on the male chest: decorative but useless. So in my considered opinion, the time has come to abolish it totally. Shed a tear for it, by all means if you are over 50, but let it go. Its time is past.
In case you are wondering if I am nuts, there is a precedent. In the late 1990s my good friend R Jagannathan who now edits FirstPost, was editor of the Financial Express. He did do away with it. His successor, Sanjaya Baru, restored it. But neither the abolition nor the restoration has made any difference to the paper’s fortunes. The Times of India did away with the edit page for some of its regional editions.
People have been led to believe that the edit is the considered view of a group of talented intellectuals. This is simply not true anymore. My son started writing edits when he was 24 years old. He would give the draft and the editor would make the necessary changes to tone and view.
Some editors are openly contemptuous of their colleagues. One editor with whom I worked in the 1980s was known for his autocratic ways. He was asked by the senior-most assistant editor about the pecking order in the room. The reply was short and to the point: “There’s me and there are the rest of you.”
The warp in the weave
Long ago, newspapers were started by passionate men with their own money to espouse a political, social and economic point of view. As the editor and owner, he enjoyed absolute authority and power. In fact, to begin with these people were just pamphleteers. News as such crept in only much later, in the 19th century.
Next came the age of proxy owners. These persons, because they could not openly espouse a cause, would finance someone to do it. The editorial became important for that reason: the reader would know what the real owner’s views were. Since many of them were politically deeply aligned, this helped politics and democracy in many ways.
But here lies the rub, the main warp in the media weave: even though the editor became an employee like everyone else, his old powers did not change. There is no organization where such absolute power is vested in a single employee. It is a truly extraordinary sight. On the editorial side, in every media organization, there exists an absolutist dictatorship. The Editor is supreme in ways that the lay public cannot even begin to imagine. If more of them don’t abuse their power, it is only because most of them tend to be sensible and decent people.
But on the edit page even this good sense can vanish. It is the editor’s domain and he or she can do exactly what he or she wants with and on it. There are no ‘reasonable’ restrictions, none at all. The result is that the edit page can and does become the forum for one person’s opinions and prejudices. In this day and age, this is quite senseless.
And when that is not happening, the edit page can be shoved way down in the order of precedence. See the websites of large newspapers. Most of them have opinion somewhere near the bottom. On the print side, the page is run by some junior sub whose only job is to clean up and fit into the page whatever the editor sends to him or her. It is a completely pointless exercise.
Finally, there are the costs of such vanity. These costs come in several forms, the costliest of which are salaries of, and payments to, those who write editorials and articles. And of course there is cost of paper, 365 days a year minus Sundays, for very little return even in branding terms.
On an average, a newspaper pays around Rs 2,500 per article. If there are two such articles, it comes to Rs 5,000 per day. If you take 300 days of publication it costs Rs 15 lakhs a year in just payments to contributors.
Then there are the assistant editors who get paid around Rs 15 lakh a year and usually there are at least two, if not three, of them. That is another Rs 45 lakh in salaries alone. Add other costs and they can cost as much as Rs 60 lakh a year.
So without even counting the cost of the newsprint, ink, machining etc, we have almost Rs 75 lakh being spent on the edit page. Why? What does the paper get out of it? Or the reader? For that cost you can hire six good reporters.
All told, I think newspaper organizations should think about the utility of the edit page. After all, if you can do away with the editor, as one major paper has done, why not his page too?