Voices – Freedom with Responsibility

Almost six and a half years ago, the then Students’ Council proposed the idea of a Students’ Council Newsletter. One of its objectives was “to create a platform where individual students can voice their concerns”. The proposal gathered momentum and came into existence a platform with an apt name: VOICES.

The idea of a Students’ Council Newsletter is not new. In the 70s, there was a students’ magazine called RAG. The Editorial Team used to come up with stories, type-write, and within a night, cyclostyle several copies from a small shop in Malleswaram to be distributed the next morning. It died before the dawn of the next decade. 80s witnessed a renewed comeback of the magazine and its name was, well, DRAG. It is unknown whether the name hinted at it’s predecessor or on the students’ condition, but the pun was intentional. Dying a similar death as its predecessor, DRAG could not sustain itself beyond a few years. Another pun brought the magazine SCAMPUS in the 90s. Although the student issues and the campus condition were the same as those during RAG and DRAG, an important leap was in the technology used: SCAMPUS started using Desktop Publishing for designing the newsletter. Each page became double-columned and the visual appeal improved as the Editorial Committee added a lot of cartoons. If one compares the current Voices to all these previous magazines, SCAMPUS comes the closest in terms of visual similarity. In fact, until late 2005, Voices continued using the email id of SCAMPUS (scampus@tejas.serc.iisc.ernet.in) for its communication. Unfortunately, SCAMPUS also had to meet its fate within a few years. The new millenium witnessed a new student magazine in a new format: it was a booklet. There was a lot of improvement over the previous newsletters in terms of, at least, the paper quality. The booklet had a glossy cover with the name MILIEU. It inherited the double-column setting from SCAMPUS, but had page-size smaller than A4 (the one used by other newsletters). MILIEU, an expensive magazine, followed the fate of its predecessors rather early.

The experienced students must have expected a similar outcome for Voices, when it was born in 2003. Indeed, if we see the Voices archive, we realize that there were periods of inactivity when Voices was not published or was irregular. But Voices has this adamant habit of bouncing back. Although it is inevitable that some day Voices will no longer be heard and some other magazine will take over, the way it is going today, Voices is only strengthening itself.

The first issue of Voices and the cover letter from Students’ Council to the Director clearly suggest that the original motive behind the newsletter was to enable news reach all corners of this lush green campus. Being a member of Voices, I assure you that collecting campus news is a time-consuming job, which becomes more difficult as only a handful of students work on it. As these handful get busy elsewhere or leave campus, the centrifugal force driving the magazine reduces. This phenomenon is the main reason why all IISc campus magazines die out.

Then how could Voices sustain itself for over six years? One reason is the successful migration of responsibilities from former teams to their future counterparts. Another reason is the Students’ Council bylaw that the council must have a newsletter. However, one important reason is the evolution that Voices, a newsletter, went through. During 2006, Voices changed its gears to allow more creative writing. This led to newsletters containing one cover story, a few news items and a large part containing poems, general articles, and even jumbles. The idea was two-fold: one, to improve student participation and two, to reduce the burden on the handful of the active people in Voices. It actually worked out well — as far as sustaining regular publishing was concerned. Five issues came out in 2006 and 2007 each. Voices, originally planned to be a monthly, evolved into (almost) a bimonthly.

This evolution had a significant impact on its functioning: its attachment with Students’ Council loosened. Originally started by the council, continued by members of the later councils, Voices finally had no members from the governing students’ body. This led to another important aftereffect: from a Students’ Council’s Newsletter, Voices became a Campus Magazine. At times, faculty wrote articles, crosswords were published, blogs were featured, Gymkhana Corner made its entry (Gymkhana has a separate governing body from the Students’ Council). Even today, although answerable to Students’ Council, the functioning of Voices is entirely independent of the council. The editors and members of Voices are not elected or nominated. It is a group of volunteers.

One of the most successful and the longest running features of Voices had been Mr. Laapataa. As the name hints, Laapataa, a cartoon created by Sujit Kumar Chakrabarti (Alumnus, CSA), was an innocent representative of all lost researchers in IISc, who gave a satirical tone to various campus related issues raised, from food wastage in mess to the tunnel-vision of researchers. The cartoon made a significant impact to the pick-up value of Voices. Despite being shabby, Laapataa undoubtedly won many hearts during its tenure of five years in Voices.

Voices gave another chance to technology in 2007 by going online. Even earlier, Voices issues used to be preserved online, on a member’s webpage, but it used to work more as an archive. The team got a URL http://www.iisc.ernet.in/voices redirected to a server in CES on which Voices website was designed using Drupal, an open source content management software. The access to Voices website was restricted to the IISc campus. Later, in early 2009, to be accessible outside IISc, Voices moved to a server in NCSI. Going online was not simply a way to embrace technology, the idea was to create a forum for the IISc community to discuss and share views (in the form of comments on articles). The idea worked with limited success. But it gave birth to a feature Voices uses to have opinions from its readers: online polls. Voices conducts online polls with almost every issue on various concerns in campus.

Voices had conducted a few polls in its early years. One poll regarding the Health Centre titled “How healthy is our Health Centre?” was conducted in early 2004 that had attracted 889 respondents. Another poll was conducted to mark the first birthday of Voices asking respondents to comment on its past performance and suggest improvements. The birthday issue of February 2004 was significant in the history of Voices: it not only contained some surprising results of these polls, but it was also the first colored issue of Voices. Taking polls a step further, in early 2008, Voices conducted a survey of various facilities in campus. Unlike previous polls, that used to get conducted outside the messes, this survey was online. Although some results looked counter-intuitive to some readers, although some services were left out, and although the number of respondents was around only 10% of the student population, benchmarking, as the team named it, succeeded in arousing curiosity amongst students, faculty, administration and staff. This was a major activity undertaken by Voices to widen its scope, only to continue with time.

Voices took advantage of the online issue for Students’ Council Elections 2008. No hard copies were printed, but the information about candidates, their answers to a Voices questionnaire, and the soapbox details were made available on Voices website as and when available. The website witnessed good traffic and helped several IIScians to know the candidates better. The team did not realize it then that while widening its scope of activities it was undergoing training for a stupendous task kept in store.

The Centenary Conference (December 2008) was a milestone in the history of IISc and Voices was asked to play a key role: to come out with bulletins on each of the four mornings of the conference covering the events of the previous day, the first bulletin being an overview of the conference. Voices was finding it difficult to become a monthly and the Centenary Conference’s organizing committee was asking it to be a daily! Not that Voices was never a daily. During Vibrations 2003, an all India cultural fest organized by IISc Gymkhana, popularly known as Vibes, Voices published three issues covering events of the three days of the fest. The daily update on Vibrations was aptly called Seismograph. But after five years since then, at the Centenary, the team constituted of only amateurs. The only commonality was in the spirit of Voices. How did this team of amateurs perform? Well, it outperformed: Voices came out with five bulletins in four days, the last bulletin in the evening of the last day. Apart from that, Voices published an 80-page Centenary Magazine (100 enLIGHTening YEARS) consisting of articles, poems, photos and cartoons from students, faculty and alumni. Voices permanently stamped its name on the history of IISc.

While several IIScians praised Voices and looked in awe at the job done during the Centenary, the team had one major impact: boosting self-confidence. Centenary ended, memories faded, but this confidence remained with the team. Voices conducted the second benchmarking survey of campus facilities. At the same time, it produced its first ever tabloid (A3 size), and that too, in color. The issue created its impact on the readers. It was soon followed by Students’ Council Elections 2009 and this time too, Voices went a step ahead compared to the previous year’s online issue: it came out with a printed issue before elections with the candidates’ responses to the questionnaire and the soapbox details.

Voices continued broadening its scope of activites. It helped the Archives and Publications Cell in setting up the Centenary Exhibition at the Valedictory that covered all events happened during the Centenary Year. Voices also monitored the interactive session with Mr. Ratan Tata during the Valedictory Function in May 2009. A few days ago, Voices published Joining Day Tips for the freshers.

When you are a failure, nobody bothers about what you do. But as soon as you are successful, every move of yours is watched. The editorial of June 2007 of Voices blamed the Students’ Council’s Elections to be “mostly driven by region politics”. The then Students’ Council took objection and it gave a hint to the team that we needed to do a more responsible journalism. After April 2009 colored tabloid, the then Students’ Council posted letters written by two readers bashing Voices. A common grievance across the two letters was that Voices had not remained a newsletter — but had become a platform for creative content. The team learnt that it was time to reverse the evolution that started in 2006. Voices had to become a “newsletter” again. The team worked harder to collect news, to gather information, to investigate matters, and what resulted was the largest issue of Voices — a 16-page news-rich June 2009 “newsletter”.

The next challenge was to increase its periodicity: from a bimonthly to a monthly. Voices came out with another 8-page newsletter in July 2009 and what you are reading is August 2009 issue, a Freshers’ Special.

The reach Voices has gives it the freedom of the printed media and with this freedom it owns a lot of responsibility. When Voices provides a platform for IIScians to put forth their thoughts, it also insists on responsible journalism and balanced writing. Several articles reach Voices with an incomplete picture of the situation and a very uncivilized use of words. This is where the editorial freedom of the Voices team comes into play. If we find the investigation incomplete, either we provide inputs to the author to investigate more or we take up the task on ourselves. We attempt to rephrase/remove the unacceptable part of the submitted articles with a conscious effort not to touch any ideas presented. The author has the final say in deciding whether to publish the edited article.

Voices has a strange unwritten membership rule: you can join Voices, but you can never leave it. Instead, you become a Voices alumnus. Several students joined and left Voices, but the team still considers them part of this tiny vibrant community. We all know, if need arises, all Voiceans will stand together.

Come, join us.

Rupesh Nasre (CSA)
with inputs from Sujit Kumar Chakrabarti (Alumnus, CSA) and Vasanta (CSA).

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