The death of young journalist Raman Kashyap in the violence at a farmers’ protest in Lakhimpur Kheri of Uttar Pradesh has, once again, laid bare the perils of being regional stringers and freelancers.
On October 3, Kashyap was at the protest site to cover the unfolding story for a private news channel. It promised to fetch him a few hundred rupees. He died in the melee, after a vehicle, allegedly owned by the son of Union minister of state for home Ajay Kumar Mishra, ran over the crowd from behind.
With his death, there are stirrings within the media fraternity about the high risks and low returns involved in working as independent regional journalists, about their meagre payouts, their exploitation by media houses who sometimes don’t even ascribe credit to them for their stories.
Like Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s character Rakesh in Peepli [Live], ‘stringers’, as they are called, are paid a pittance. They are not issued a press card or a contract. Often, they are even denied bylines, when their reporting gets included as “inputs”.
Few years ago, fellow journalists in vernacular newspapers had told me that some media houses made their stringers fill up a form, where it was clearly written that they are volunteering their services, and hence can’t ask for any benefits from the newspapers. It’s impossible to corroborate this story, but given the sorry state of affairs, I have no reason not to believe it.
Despite these difficulties, freelancers and stringers are often the sharp end of the media’s insatiable hunger for ‘breaking news’. Most of the stories which make headlines in the national media are first ‘broken’ by these smalltown stringers. But their contributions remain largely ignored. They never make it to the headlines, until they meet Kashyap’s fate.
No, I’m not talking about the handful independent reporters who have achieved celebrity status. They contribute to foreign media and earn several times for a single story than what stringers and freelancers in the boondocks do in a month.
I’m talking about stringers who serve local and national media, and are immediate sources for celebrity ‘parachute’ reporters from metros, who land up in far corners to cover big stories that were first spotted and reported by these locals.
These parachute journalists get their feedback from the regional freelancers; follow them in the field for a day or two, making them work for free by promising to give them a break at the headquarters in return—a promise that’s never fulfilled.
In Peepli [Live], Siddiqui’s character Rajesh is an underpaid, smalltown stringer who works for a vernacular newspaper, with dreams of making it big in Delhi’s national media. One day, he lands a scoop—a local farmer, Natha, is planning to commit suicide. He writes a news report on it, which gets published in the vernacular press. The story gets picked up by national and international media. Suddenly, he gets a call from a high-profile lady reporter of a Delhi-based TV news channel, whom he adores. He is happy he would finally get to serve a Delhi journalist and possibly land an opportunity to make it big. But the Delhi reporter is only interested in covering the ‘breaking news’ of the farmer’s impending suicide attempt. Her promise to help Rajesh is a ruse. She uses him for her reportage for free. In the climax, as Rajesh dies in a fire, police confuse his body for that of the farmer. With this, interest in the story wanes, and the Delhi reporters leave just the way they had arrived—in a huff. From a story on farmer suicides, the narrative suddenly transforms into an unsparing spotlight on the media, and its treatment of stringers.
Raman Kashyap’s brother with his son at Nighasan village.
When I had started my career with a newspaper in Calcutta, I found out that stringers were paid according to the number of column centimeters that got printed. This tradition continues till today, with the condition of stringers having worsened.
Take the case of Syed Shadab Alam, 32. A stringer in Bihar’s Katihar district, he has been working for seven years. “I worked for free as a stringer with several TV channels for two-and-a-half years. Often, my only earnings would be the commission I would get for fetching the occassional advertisement for these channels. It’s the commission that runs my family. Later, I started working for an app-based portal, where I get Rs 24-25 per video report. That involves scripting, visuals and bytes,” he says.
I’ve myself been freelancing since 2018, after I got bored and left my job at the desk of a vernacular newspaper. Three years down the line, I know the challenges stringers face daily. They have a thankless job of choosing newsworthy incidents, preparing a pitch, filling it up with local ‘colour’, waiting for a response from the city office. Only after that would the story get written. And it wouldn’t end there. Once the desk started editing it, they would ask for more inputs—case studies, quotes, data. It would go on into the night. Every night.
Stringers don’t get a press card, which means they can’t go to any sensitive place or meet government officials. I remember at least two incidents when security demanded proof of my journalistic credentials—once, when I was trying to meet an agriculture department officer in Bihar; another time while I was covering the lynching of three people in Chhapra, on charges of cattle theft.
Police allowed me to reach the locality only after I showed them my Aadhar card and my byline in several websites.
Syed Shadab Alam says he nowadays only visits the spot when in company of journalists with press cards. “I accompany reporters with established news channels. This way, despite not having a press card, police don’t stop me.”
Then there’s the question of money. There is hardly any media firm that gives an annual increment per story to stringers. Rather, most companies still pay what they used to when I became a stringer in 2018. In many cases, they have even reduced the rates unilaterally, forcing stringers to somehow file more stories a year to cope with runaway inflation. On top of that, many firms take months to disburse dues. Sometimes, they take years to do that.
Survival strategies for freelancers include content translation, regularly applying for reporting fellowships/grants and non-reporting assignments, and running errands for foreign journalists. That too is an opportunity few stringers get.
Bihar-based Guddu Rai, 45, is another example. He used to work as a stringer for a Delhi-based news agency. He was afflicted with Covid this year, but without any financial help from the company he used to freelance for, he died.
Guddu has left behind his wife and three children with no support. His younger brother Ganpat Rai says, “As a stringer, he’d earn just Rs 15,000 a month. When he was infected, some acquaintances helped him personally, but the company did nothing.”
Sanjay Kumar, 50, of Begusarai, works as a stringer with a vernacular newspaper. He earns Rs 5,000-7,000 a month, though it’s not called a salary. “We get maandey (daily wage),” Kumar says. “The condition of stringers has been the same for years—miserable. No one—neither media organisations nor civil society—bothers about them.”
In a nutshell, stringers and freelancers lie at the bottom of the ever-shrinking media job landscape that is loaded top-heavy with a thin layer of celebrity TV anchors and reporters with astronomical paychecks. An urgent intervention is needed for them, but who will bell the cat? Although I’m not very optimistic, I will watch with interest whether the current spotlight on the plight of stringers yields concrete results.
(This appeared in the print edition as "Unsung, Underpaid, Unacknowledged")
Umesh Kumar Ray is a freelance journalist