Local News Publishing In India: Wanted, A Million Mutinies
#5 of the Indian Journalism Project.
When V S Naipaul, the literature Nobel laureate, published a book in 1992 titled India: A Million Mutinies Now, he gave us—in the title alone—a framework for thinking about several aspects of life in this country, including, to me, local news.
Think about it. India is a hugely diverse country with a population that is about 135 crores, or 1.35 billion. That's almost 14 followed by nine zeros. A quick paper napkin calculation reveals that, were India to have a million news operations (a million mutinies!), they would need to each serve a population of about 1,400 people.
1,400 is about the audience of a small community news publisher in some countries.
How many news publishers are there in India? If anyone knows the answer to that, it would be John Samuel Raja. A former data journalist, John co-founded How India Lives, a firm that works extensively with data. The Registrar of Newspapers for India, he says, has the records for all the print media in India. As of this month, that number stands at 48,727. India also has 392 TV news channels, according to a 2021 report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ). And as for digital news publishers? John’s way to count this is to pore over filings at the Ministry of Corporate Affairs. These filings, however, will not take into account the lakhs of blogs, newsletters, WhatsApp Groups, Facebook Pages and Groups. The actual number of news publishers could well be in lakhs.
Is it a stretch to declare that a million news publishers in India is actually possible?
A vibrant culture of local news makes for better democracy. Done well, a local news publication can bring in more scrutiny of local-level corruption. It can make leaders more accountable and create a feeling of community. Because local news is all about the here and now, its focus is on the concrete, not the abstract. That means it could also be less polarising, an important point for the times we live in. The journalist and columnist Ezra Klein says as much in his book Why We’re Polarized:
“We give too much attention to national politics, which we can do very little to change, and too little attention to state and local politics, where our voices can matter much more. The time spent spraying outrage over Trump’s latest tweet—which is, to be clear, what he wants you to do; the point is to suck up all the media oxygen so he retains control of the conversation—is better spent checking in with what’s happening in your own neighborhood.”
According to an article published in 2020 by Gaon Connection, India has nearly 3.1 million elected representatives. That’s 30 lakh elected people! There are also more than 2,50,000 local government bodies. Think of the number of people whose work needs to be scrutinised. Who can do the job, other than a professional journalist?
This relative lack of news about all that’s going on in India is nothing less than a silent crisis. When we don’t have a vibrant local news scene, “the cost to democracy is great” writes Margaret Sullivan in her short book on local news titled, Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy. She continues, “it takes a toll on civic engagement — even on citizens’ ability to have a common sense of reality and facts, the very basis of self-governance.” Sullivan is not as concerned about what she calls the “politicized ‘fake news’ problem”, her focus is on what she calls the “real-news problem”.
All this is very well. But how can local news organisations sustain themselves? Especially if their readership is in the thousands?
Meera K, the co-founder of Citizen Matters, a nonprofit local news publisher in Bangalore, Chennai and several other cities, says that most of the city-wide reporting they do is done by journalists, but a lot of hyper-local journalism is done by citizens. There’s an idea there.
If we stop thinking of local news organisations and focus instead on the idea of local journalists running small news businesses of their own, the possibilities become immense.
Because access to sophisticated publishing tools online is now easy, the creator economy is thriving. Journalism already has a stringer model. And stringers have for years made a living through unique and local business models. So the ‘weather’ for a strong local news model is now good.
Two challenges are: how to ensure good and ethical journalism, and how to share good business practices. Luckily, both of these challenges can be met through teaching.
India’s journalism schools have not offered entrepreneurial journalism courses so far, but that may be changing very soon: at least two such courses are close to launching in India. Create the supply and you’ll create the demand, it is said. Local journalism in India can only be benefitted by such initiatives.
The Entrepreneurial Journalism Creators Program at the Newmark School of Journalism, City University New York has already trained half-a-dozen Indian journalists (disclosure: I am an alumnus of an earlier version of the program and a current mentor).
One of the trainees is Mohammed Rayaan, a young journalist who is testing out a newsletter in Chennai. The newsletter, titled The Chennai Emailer, is a local journalism project that covers human interest stories. “What I am hoping”, says Rayaan, “is that it becomes a source for city residents to learn more about Chennai.” Rayaan currently works for a national newspaper in the city, so the newsletter is just an experiment. But the learnings from the program will stay with him and likely spread to other journalists.
It may actually take several years, but local journalism in India is poised to take off. It has the capacity to radically alter the news ecosystem in India, for the better.
As part of the Indian Journalism Project, we are matching mentors and mentees in a structured mentorship program. If you are interested in mentoring a journalist, or if you are interested in being mentored, do fill up this short four-question survey.
The Indian Journalism Project is a 100-day effort by BOOM and Media Buddhi starting on World Press Freedom Day (3rd May) and ending on India’s Independence Day (15th August). Read the inaugural piece on the four challenges of Indian journalism.
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