Rayomand Coins

Facts and fiction

Editing the print edition of Parsiana or the social media outlets require the same set of journalistic skills. But the audience and reaction differ widely. The magazine primarily reaches subscribers, people who have paid money to read the contents. In addition, copies are shared with family and friends, placed in libraries and waiting rooms. But the reach is limited, especially overseas where the print edition is expensive due to escalating postage charges and may take a week or even a month to reach some parties. Access to the website is open to all but again the full contents and the archives are available only to subscribers.

But when it comes to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the other outlets our posts are accessible to the public, gratis [Parsiana has an active Facebook Page; Twitter is occasionally used, Instagram (popular among the young) not as yet]. On social media the readership is diverse and geographically spread. The viewers’ feedback is instantaneous. The viewer does not have to wait for editors to okay, edit and then publish their comments two or three weeks later; sometimes longer. There is instant gratification. In print, space is at a premium; on Facebook there is no such limitation. One can comment at length. Of course, any lengthy commentary on social media means fewer readers. People prefer to read brief, to-the-point statements, whether to elaborate or voice an opinion.

Social media requires quick response from the editors. There is a rapid back and forth. In print, by contrast, a dialog could go on over several issues and months.

Of course, if a post is controversial, the comments on social media may continue even up to a month. Seldom longer. Readers move on, see other posts and the issue is relegated to the back-burner. An interesting or contentious item in print may result at the most in a dozen letters to the editor over the course of a month or two, sometimes even years. But in social media a post may draw hundreds of comments in a week or two or three.

People want to express a point of view and they want that opinion to be seen and commented on. The post then becomes a battleground, a forum for matching wits, writing skills, insults, praise, and even thoughtful commentary. The variety of responses from different geographic locations offers interesting sociological insights into the community.

In print, as on social media, one can never accurately gauge what the readers’ response to a piece may be. In August 1973 our cover story ("Parsi divorces: The cultural alternative") was on the high divorce rate in the community, around 10 percent, probably the highest in India at the time and even today. The percentage was calculated by taking the number of marriages in the year prior and dividing that by the number of divorces during the same period. It was not a scientific method but the data offered an indication of what was occurring in some Parsi marriages.

We assumed there would be much consternation and soul searching. But the response from readers was muted. In the following issue we carried a statement by then Bombay Parsi Punchayet (BPP) trustee Shiavax Vakil ("The living and the dead") on the pitiable state of the dakhmas. He and BPP trustee Dr Aspi Golwalla had entered the Towers of Silence several times and were aghast at the sights they witnessed.

Vakil noted, "When the bodies are lowered in the well, they are consigned one over the other like dead carcasses and remain so in that state for months, rotting and stinking in the process of decomposition." Golwalla did not issue any statement at that time, a lacuna he later publicly regretted.

Vakil’s disclosure created a storm of controversy and eventually the dissension made him decide to step down on the understanding that the other trustees would support the candidature of his nominee, industrialist Jamshed Guzder. They agreed but subsequently BPP trustee Dr Nelie Noble backed the unsuccessful candidature of solicitor Jimmy Shroff.

If Vakil’s statement in print could draw that much flak, one can only guess what would have happened if the same item had appeared today on social media. Religious issues arouse ire. Failed marriages are less of a concern.

When Parsiana carried a 18-second video on May 21 this year of Dastur (Dr) Kaikhusroo JamaspAsa’s uthamna ceremony at the first floor hall of the Anjumanna Atash Behram, some of viewers were livid, with one even sending us a legal notice threatening civil and criminal action, and another posting an anonymous WhatsApp audio clip replete with expletives.

On Facebook, the page administrator can hide, delete or even block a person from adding their comments. But as long as the post is not libelous or personal, Parsiana avoids censuring the contents. People need a public outlet for their emotions and thoughts. Rather than posting the comments on their individual page they opt for institutional pages that usually attract more readers and feedback. Sometimes commentators uses a pseudonym to hide their true identity.

Is social media the wave of the future? Possibly. But print still has a place for thoughtful, well researched, balanced and independent journalism. A newspaper or magazine offers an array of information at a very nominal cost. That content when uploaded on the web is accessible to people all over the world. The revenue traditionally comes from the print edition but publications like The New York Times are reporting higher revenue from online subscriptions and advertising than print. But they are still the exception. Most websites and social media outlets struggle to make ends meet. Even popular online, independent news based websites are laying off people.

As people move away from print, the advertising and subscription revenues suffer. If print is to continue, it can only do so with the support of public spirited individuals and institutions. Social media has its pros. But if it is not complemented and countered by serious minded news outlets that verify the authenticity and relevance of the news, the main source of information will remain dubious WhatsApp and Facebook posts.





Villoo Poonawalla