A matter of opinion(s)

A couple of months ago, when Amit Varma first sounded me off on the idea of putting together a slate of columnists for Yahoo, the attraction was obvious.

I had just recently joined Yahoo; in my short stint there, I had just enough time to understand the organizational architecture, to scope out its basic strengths and identify pain points that needed to be addressed.

Aggregation is something we do well through an eclectic slate of content providers/partners that at this present point number 30, and rising all the time. And content, clearly, seemed to be what people came to the site for [in surprisingly large numbers, I must add: it startled me at the time, and it still gives me pause, when I learnt via Comscore that Yahoo, besides being the second most visited site in India, topped all other sites in categories like News, Entertainment and, glory be, Cricket].

That learning was not just startling — it was also in a way sobering. As a journalist, I’ve always been a votary of “original content” as the key attraction; I’d always believed that a newspaper or, since I joined Rediff in late 1995, a website, lives or dies by the quality and frequency of the “original” stories it does.

Gradually, I am finding out different.

Not that original content does not work — but that the average reader is not too worried about where the content originates from, as much as he is in finding it in front of his nose when he wants it.

So the first step in the process of assimilation into Yahoo was to swallow my personal preference, to put aside my dream [purely temporarily, note — the dream is postponed, not abandoned] of creating a crack team that would produce compelling original stories, and to devote my attention to fine-tuning the aggregation play.

The numbers continue to rise, so somehow, we seem to be doing something right. Yet Amit’s point was well taken: Yahoo was an anonymous ‘aggregator’, albeit a good one. It didn’t have a face, a resonant voice with which to engage the audience.

Creating that voice has been Amit’s preoccupation these past two months. He selected the slate of columnists, the over-arching idea being to resist the temptation to pick “names” and instead, to pick voices that are eloquent and individually compelling, and that together create a mosaic of thought and opinion that collectively address all of our preoccupations. The list speaks for itself.

In his inaugural, scene-setting column, Amit speaks of the hazards of column-writing:

The act of writing for an audience is an act of hubris. When you set out to fill an empty page, you assume that the words you write will have some value, that your thoughts will move readers from one paragraph to the next, and keep them turning the pages (or scrolling down). How presumptuous is this? What leads me to imagine that mythoughts are worth your time?

Reporters who write for the news pages can plausibly claim that their writing has value because they are setting out, as is often said, the first draft of history. The facts that they report are the essential raw material from which we manufacture the story of the world. But columnists make claims on your time with nothing to offer but opinions; perhaps an argument for this or that; a worldview they want you to share. Why should their opinions be worth more than yours?

One conceit that a columnist might have is that his calling is to help you make sense of the world. Reality is complicated and confusing, and no one has the time or resources to figure it out on their own. To construct narratives that make it all simple and explicable, the columnist might say, does you a service — and it’s damn hard to do.

Well — yes and no.

There are a number of traps inherent in creating such narratives, and most of the opinion columns I see in the daily papers fall into them. They have implacable opinions on whatever they write about; they exude certainty; contributing to a public discourse that is severely polarized, they choose black or white. They construct simple narratives of a complex world — and when the columnist gets lazy, simple can fast become simplistic.

The point is well made, and argued with characteristic eloquence. But there is a counter-point:

There is news, the famous “first draft of history” [a draft that increasingly, in these days of sound-byte journalism, tends to sound confused, even cacophonous, but let’s not go there now], and there’s history.

And then there’s a middle ground.

Columns by definition, lacking as they do the distance, the perspective, that time lends narrative, can never hope to be definitive. But at the same time, Amit and I are convinced that considerable insight is discoverable in the middle ground that lies between journalism and history — and it is this middle ground that the Yahoo Opinions section seeks to occupy.

This is Amit’s baby — my role, other than agreeing to the original idea, has been to stand by and see this develop, go through various birth pangs [you don’t even want to know!] and finally, a fortnight or more behind schedule, finally see the light.

But it is also your baby. Over time, we hope to make this more relevant, to use these columns to reach out to you, to spark your ideas and your imagination, to move from the one-speaks-to-many model and use columns as the spark of vibrant conversations. Enhancements and larger ideas are in the pipeline — but while we work on those, we await your thoughts, ideas and suggestions.

PS: I love fish, but this past week, I’ve been discovering my favorite food’s less savory underside — a bad case of food poisoning compounded by my initial neglect of the symptoms ended up knocking me out, hence the radio silence of the last couple of days. When India starts its campaign for the T20 World Cup tomorrow, I hope to follow it on Twitter [find me here]. And to get back to work — and to the blog — Monday. Till then, be well. Eat lots of fish — the food is, I am told, rich in Omega3, which for some unexplained reason is supposed to be altogether a good thing. But be careful — as I have found out these past two, three days, a stomach bug causes problems hugely disproportionate to its size. 🙂