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Finding Their Mojo: How Independent Media Became The Newsmaker

Small, tech-driven, nimble, independent news media are like voices talking back from the abyss, challenging the government and the legacy of mainstream publications

Finding Their Mojo: How Independent Media Became The Newsmaker
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In December 2020, a few months after the agrarian protest had begun against three farm laws, a group of activists and artists launched a publication, Trolley Times, in Gurmukhi and Hindi, to counter a section of mainstream media that had been discrediting the protestors. The publication went on to play a major role in shaping popular perception about the protestors, as well as influencing voters’ opinions during the Punjab elections. On February 23, the day of the fourth phase of polls this year, independent journalist Ajit Anjum, who had earlier covered the farmers’ protest, held an election debate on his YouTube channel. With 1.2 million views, the debate soon became the most watched show that night. Indeed, with 2.43 million subscribers, Anjum’s channel is a huge success story of alternative media in recent years.

They are not alone. Over the last few years, a large number of media ventures have emerged, which primarily build their identity by questioning not just the government but the established media houses as well. Most of these are run by very small teams or even a lone person. Some are by senior journalists who left their jobs to begin their own ventures, others are by newcomers, and some by people who have absolutely no training or experience in journalism. The ventures are marked by an intense desire to innovate and chart new territories. Perhaps the most outstanding ins­tance is of AltNews. Founded by Pratik Sinha and Mohammed Zubair, the venture that does rigorous fact-checking of various news items and political claims has won international accolades in little time. Until a few years ago, one couldn’t have conceived a media venture that solely devotes itself to busting fake news.

The new or alternative media has challenged and impacted the media industry and consumption of news in more ways than one can perhaps fathom at present. The new media has often forced the mainstream publications to follow up the issues they had raised. A few years ago, soon after some women journalists began the #MeToo campaign on social media, it became front page headlines in major newspapers.

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Alternative media is not a new occurrence in history. The world has seen a number of publications that came up during resistance movements to voice people’s concerns and counter State propaganda. However, in the past few years, India has seen a staggering range of media ventures in various genres, ranging from websites, YouTube channels and newsletters, which have informed politics and elections in multiple ways. In particular, YouTube channels—mostly run by small-town journalists in regional languages with local flavour—have given voices to the proverbial last citizen and deepened our understanding of both the country and of democracy.

Most of these are run by very small teams or even a lone person. Some are by senior journalists who left their jobs to begin their own ventures, others are by newcomers.

Rajnesh Kumar Yadav, an assistant professor at Lucknow University who has a thesis on alternative media, writes that it differs from mainstream media in its “content, aesthetics, modes of production, modes of distribution, and audience relations”. The new media aims “to challenge existing powers, to represent marginalised groups, and to foster horizontal linkages among communities of interest,” he says.  

Mainstream publications often bec­ome the first target of the new media, and not without reason. As the boundary between advertisements and news got blurred, and editors buckled under political and corporate pressure in the last decade, a large number of media personnel turned against their emp­loyers. It coincided with the tightening grip of the State over big media houses in the past few years. Gauge the situation by the fact that employment in the media and publishing industry—which stood at 10,42,835 people in August 2016—fell drastically to 2,92,263 in March 2021, according to a study by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy. A staggering number of journalists quit or were forced to quit their jobs in the last six years. If one reason for the exodus was the censor on issues one could report, which made many journalists feel stifled in newsrooms, the media industry also found itself stagnating and couldn’t offer space for its professionals to grow.

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Independent journalist Hridayesh Joshi, who now does multimedia journalism on the intersections of environment and politics, had been drawing a handsome salary with NDTV, but increasingly felt disillusioned with his job. “I quit my job without any pressure to do so, and without any other job at hand. I quit because I realised that a TV reporter’s job had become redundant. It was mostly about taking bytes, and the rest was with the anchor,” he says. His words will echo with a large number of journalists who, after a few years of work, find that their organisations are unable to accommodate their growth. The digital revolution provided just the right space to the disillusioned, as well as the dissenting voices, a much-needed platform to bypass their dependency on print publications and TV news. Soon Twitter, Instagram and YouTube became the carriers of this new media, where a video clip tweeted by a Dalit journalist about caste atrocities in Madhya Pradesh or Rajasthan could get immediate attention of the world. 

These ventures have scripted remarkable success stories in no time. One such is The Reporters’ Collective, which investigates the contours of India’s political economy and the sources of funding for political parties. It is an independent collaboration of investigative journalists who work with technologists and experts to produce deep-dive reportage that holds powerful people accountable during and after elections. They encourage independent journalists across the country to do investigative reports and facilitate their publication in various languages. “Our previous work blew the lid off the electoral bonds scam—a scheme the NDA government brought, to secretly funnel unaccounted money into political parties from India and from secret foreign donors,” says TRC’s co-founder Nitin Sethi, a senior journalist who had worked with various organisations in the past.

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Since these media organisations are innately subversive, it follows that there will always be new voices questioning their predecessor. The first phase of the new media was led by ventures like Newslaundry, The Wire, Scroll and The News Minute. They challenged the “legacy media” and did exemplary reporting on a range of issues. The second phase, in turn, was marked by a dissent against the previous ventures by Dalit organisations like The Mooknayak and The Shudra. They focused on the plight of Dalits and stood up against “Savarna media”. The Mooknayak’s founder-editor Meena Kotwal und­erlines that the “alternative media claims to challenge the mainstream media, but there are no Dalit-Adivasis in decision-making positions” in their newsrooms.

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And then came yet another challenge, this time by the Adivasis, who questioned not only mainstream media but also their immediate predecessors—Dalit media. One such venture is Voice of Rebel, a YouTube channel dedicated to Adivasis, launched by Jitendra Meena, an assistant professor at Delhi University, and student activist Arjun Mehar. “Mainstream media has been working against Adivasi interests. In the last few years, members of Dalit, backward and Bahujan communities have raised their voices through social media. However, even they didn’t give the requisite attention to Adivasi issues,” says Meena. Both have absolutely no training in or prior experience of journalism. All they had was zeal and a digital platform. “We have formed our YouTube channel to raise issues of Adivasi identity, culture and history,” Mehar adds. Launched by non-journalists and members of marginalised communities, such ventures epitomise the character of the new media.

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Most of these new media share a left-liberal worldview, with B.R. Ambedkar among their icons. They are radical and vocal, actively seeking change.

While this media may be marked by different categories and conflicts, most of them share a left-liberal worldview, with B.R. Ambedkar among their icons. They are radical and vocal, actively seeking change, and wear their politics on their sleeves. One of the chief traits of the ventures that emerged during the second phase is that they don’t want to profess ‘neutrality’. They approach a topic as a participant, a stakeholder, and not as a mere outsider whose task is to observe, record and narrate. Their identification with their subject is absolute, be it Muslim journalists reporting on the anti-CAA protests or Dalit journalists writing about atrocities on their community members. No surprise then that the inaugural edition of the Trolley Times quoted Bhagat Singh: “The sword of revolution is sharpened on the whetstone of ideas.”

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This media is for the community, by the community and of the community. Their positioning strengthens a perception that they are laden with political bia­ses and prejudices. However, can one say that the mainstream media has no biases and preferences of its own? The first preference of a journalist is perhaps reflected in the very moment they choose a topic to report on. Rajnesh Kumar Yadav points out that the biases of the new ventures are “significantly different from that of the mainstream media, because they have a different set of values, objectives, and frameworks”.

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The divergent views have led to growing fissures among the journalist community to an extent that the Indian media now finds itself at a juncture where a staggering number of journalists are dissecting and commenting on each other’s work. The coverage of news is itself news, as organisations like AltNews and Newslaundry have subjected media activity to greater scrutiny.

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These ventures are not without pressing issues. The first is resource crunch and a consequent lack of technical and editorial expertise. Joshi recalls that during his NDTV stint, he “travelled more than he wrote”. He had quality cameras, other equipment and support staff, whereas now he travels alone and shoots on his phone. “Since I left, I have made 50 films of varying durations, mostly shot on the mobile phone,” he says. The next concern is a weak editorial filter, which again is attributed to limited finances that restrict these ventures from investing in a robust editorial team. But all of this is perhaps inevitable. These are the initial years of these ventures, an experiment driven by a need to register one’s protest, to record one’s voice.

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The bigger concern is elsewhere. Since these organisations mostly draw sustenance from social media traction, a treacherous matrix of likes and retweets, this journalism often becomes about catchy video clips that draw instant views. It tends to push sensationalism, and also curtails the space for in-depth investigations. More and more journalists are now being asked to shoot YouTube videos. The journalism that rests on Twitter, that monster of scrolling down, also tends to veer towards outrage while stifling the space for long-form prose. As follower count comes to determine the worth of a journalist, a complex reportage brings fewer rewards than Twitter outrage. We journalists are outraged—more than ever. We barely turn pensive or introspective. Journalism based on catchy clips honour assertions, and make rigour and nuances look unglamourous. In the era of YouTube videos, even a 500-word story may appear like a dhrupad composition.

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One can hope for a self-correction in the future, because after all, the desire is to make a stronger republic, enlarge the space for journalism and ensure greater public participation in the production and dissemination of news. These ventures have been able to reach places where not many could, and have thus informed the electoral process in innovative ways.

Few journalists can predict elections, fewer can impact the nature of campaigning. What they can do is to uncover the many ways elections are being fought—and lost. The new media may be short of resources and some expertise, but certainly not the intent.

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(This appeared in the print edition as "Their Mojo")

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