Practical tips from a Dutchman on how a newspaper can be made better

I was quite surprised by the enthusiasm shown by Gerard van der Weijden in conducting workshops for smaller (regional and local) daily and weekly newspapers. I had met the Dutchman in Chennai, in the foyer of the hotel he was staying, ahead of a WAN-IFRA workshop. He seemed to have a far greater idea of Indian newspapers than I had thought.

The smaller or vernacular newspapers depended more on the youth in the community and had more chances and room to improve than some of the national publications, Gerard felt. He loves taking questions, loves a good fight, and was certain the smaller publications in India would have all kinds of questions for him. What about a workshop just for local, regional magazines focused on family, sport, youth, he asked me. Most of the magazines had not ever thought of youngsters/new readers and the possibilities via schools, he said.

Pointing to some of the pages in the copies of journals of the Press Institute of India I had taken to show him, he asked whether the journals reached journalism students/ schools. Then why was there hardly anything about any of those schools, hardly any article by a journalism student? He then wondered why some of the pages were so text-heavy.Pay attention to whether the reader wants what you are giving, he cautioned me. Relevancy is what matters, he kept stressing. "Make it attractive to the reader; make it relevant. Give specific examples. Don’t theorise. Don’t pester, be tolerant.”

It was all so very true. Do newspapers in India really have a bottom-up, readers-driven approach? Does the person laying out the pages care much about the relation between text and visuals? Gerard represents the reader and he tries to tell newspapers what the reader does not want. Before any workshop, he flips through hard copies of the publications, studies them and picks some concrete examples from the copy. And then he gets ready for a “fight”. Advertisers understood the reader better, he said. I couldn't but nod in agreement.

Gerard says the pure presence of reading stuff is a very decisive element in encouraging people to read; the second decisive element he says is when there is no TV or if the TV is switched off. “Then we found for creating the reading culture, families might be more important than schools. If you teach children Literature you don’t create Literature readers. Every Indian, Dutchman, Belgian has been taught Literature in school but how many continue to read Literature? Very few. Because that’s connected to culture and assignments etc and so it does not mean if you teach Literature they will read Literature. Likewise, if you teach (people) how to read a newspaper they will not read one. Just give them ten minutes to choose what they want to read… be quiet… then let them get back to the order of the day… do that for six months… and then you have done something,” he explains. 

Youngsters don’t read books because they associate it with literature, with assignments. At home, they don’t read. “School books – that’s not reading!" he exclaims. 


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