* Independent voices on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are giving people a wide variety of trustworthy circuits to plug into
* While digital media has helped amplify local issues and movements, its emergence has also turned the lens on issues concerning vulnerable communities, remote regions and the environment, subjects that many sections of the media had long turned away from
* When we consume news from our echo chambers we believe that people around us agree with our deepest biases. Whatever hatred and bigotry we repressed within us for fear of being ridiculed now have both room and an audience
* With the growing lack of editorial transparency the credibility of television is at its lowest. It’ll have to be reimagined
After much contemplation, Priyata Brajabasi decided that her terrace, lined with plants sprouting out of terracotta pots, would be just the right background for the inaugural video of her independent YouTube news channel.
Brajabasi, 30, knows the significance of the visual element in news — having worked for nine years in a host of television channels in jobs that ranged from writing scripts to producing prime-time shows. Last October, she quit her job at TV channel Wion in New Delhi and moved back home to Kolkata.
“I was fatigued by the kind of news being generated and not happy with the way channels were riding the wave. It wasn’t what I wanted to be associated with any longer. There was a void in terms of stories of real people from the ground,” says Brajabasi, who launched her channel that goes by her name on February 11.
Her channel is running a series titled Epicentre , themed on the upcoming West Bengal elections. Brajabasi and her two-member team, consisting of a videographer and a video editor, have put out stories that include an election explainer of the hot button issues and ground reports from Kumartuli (where puja idols are crafted) and Tangra (where the city’s Indian-Chinese community resides), unpacking Bengal’s hyper local concerns, insecurities and aspirations.
“I want to put out news that people can’t question in terms of facts. I want to bring good and authentic stories from the ground that haven’t been covered,” Brajabasi says, stressing that she does not seek to dispense opinion or advocate political ideologies.
Sustaining her channel financially is a concern. She spends between ₹8,000 and ₹9,000 on each of her videos. The cost includes equipment rentals, travel costs and salaries. Brajabasi is now looking out for ad revenues from small local businesses with no political leanings. In two weeks since its launch, the channel has acquired over 550 YouTube subscribers. Her videos have over 1,200 views.
Brajabasi and hundreds like her are spearheading India’s digital news boom. Independent voices on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are giving people a wide variety of trustworthy circuits to plug into.
Many news consumers — especially millennials — have lost faith in television channels and large sections of the print media, which has also been battered by the Covid-19 pandemic. There were unfounded fears that handling newspapers could lead to the spread of the virus – a dread that prompted many to stop subscribing to their papers, despite information and broadcasting minister Prakash Javadekar tweeting that people would not get infected by newspapers. The Indian Newspaper Society, which represents around 1,000 publishers, estimated that the industry in 2020 would have faced a loss of around USD 2 billion.
Digital media, on the contrary, saw an explosion. According to the Internet and Mobile Association of India, 500 million Indians are now connected to the internet. App Annie, a mobile insight firm, states that YouTube in India recently crossed 425 million monthly active users over the age of 18, making India its largest and fastest growing audience in the world. All this means Indians have more choices than ever before — including a wide variety of news portals to choose from. What does the democratisation of news look like from close quarters? And are Indians better informed now than before?
News born out of a movement
Doomscrolling or the act of endlessly scrolling through social media ingesting bad news is now how most young people ingest the day’s developments. But Krittika Roy, a 19-year-old economics honours student at OP Jindal Global University in Sonipat, Haryana, knows how to draw a line around her engagement with news. It was during the student protests in Jamia Millia Islamia and Jawaharlal Nehru University that she felt mainstream news was being filtered. The television channels, she felt, made no attempt to conceal their bias against the students.
It was then, while searching for authentic ground reports, she switched from television news to Instagram. And now, a voice like that of 18-year-old Vibhu Grover — an independent photojournalist and film-maker who reports from the ground for his nearly 40,000 followers on the social media site — holds her trust.
During the ongoing farmers’ protest, too, Roy and her peers have been following independent journalists who show up on their timelines with a steady supply of reports from the Singhu and Tikri borders and parts of Punjab.
Sandeep Singh is one such reporter. On November 24, the 29-year-old freelance journalist from Ludhiana visited the Samrala toll plaza after hearing that farmers were gathering there and preparing to March ahead to Delhi.
“They were on a war footing — with rations, generators, firewood, water tankers and supplies for months. I thought this is going to be historic. I went back to my village, packed my clothes, and then went along with them past Shambhu, past Sonipat right up to Singhu. I haven’t got back since,” says Singh, who has been staying with the protestors since then to document history unfold.
Singh had 1,000-odd Twitter followers before he began reporting from Ground Zero. Today his handle @PunYaab has over 32,000 followers while, on Instagram, he has 12,000 followers. In the initial days of the protest he took to Facebook to post videos and ground reports in Punjabi of how the movement was gathering momentum.
“But then I thought the rest of India doesn’t know the magnitude of this. I need to get active on Twitter so that news of this reaches far and wide,” he says.
Sometimes he posts 50 tweets in English on a single day, encapsulating reports of farmers breaking barricades, police atrocities, tractor rallies and stories of resilience. Given the trust deficit with large sections of the mainstream media — and television reports that described protesting farmers as separatist Khalistanis — many reporters have not been given access into Singhu, which accounts for the great thirst for news from the area.
His inbox, he says, is flooded with congratulatory messages from people, several of whom are people of Punjabi-origin living in other parts of the world. They write notes of gratitude to let him know that he is their eyes and ears to the ground.
The farmers’ protest has been a catalyst for the rise of independent digital news makers. While Punjabi language YouTube channels such as Pro Punjab TV and On Air were launched in the early days of the protests, Punjabi language newspapers including Punjab Tribune and Rozana Spokesman have marked their digital presence in recent months.
“We woke up to this much before the farmers themselves did,” says Nimrat Kaur, a psychologist and journalist who heads the digital operations for Rozana Spokesman . It covers a wide spectrum of issues — from farmers diversifying their crops, experimenting with natural farming or village-level development concerns to in-depth interviews with farmer union leaders on the contentious farm bills introduced in Parliament, or unfiltered ground reports from Singhu and Tikri.
Kaur and her team’s hard work has reaped rewards by way of a growing subscriber base. It now has over 9,75,000 subscribers on YouTube tuning in from over 40 countries.
“We’ve never enjoyed government support so we’ve never had to toe a line. We took a stand that we were going to show our solidarity with the farmers. We want the farmers to know that they aren’t alone in their struggle,” says Kaur, who manages the 55-member strong digital team. Devoid of government ads, Rozana Spokesman earns revenues from a small number of social media ads. “We can just about pay salaries. With tight print budgets, the digital boost has been a saviour,” Kaur says.
A spotlight on darkness
While digital media has helped amplify local issues and people’s movements, its emergence has also turned the lens on issues concerning vulnerable communities, remote regions and the environment, subjects that many sections of the media had long turned away from.
Raees Muhammed recalls how he always felt a simmering anger at the way Dalit issues were reported when he was a student in Hyderabad’s English and Foreign Languages University in 2008.
“Television news would always dissect the issue of whether Dalits needed any reservation but there was no reporting of the atrocities happening against them,” the 38-year old journalist says. When Ambedkar statues were desecrated across undivided Andhra Pradesh, Muhammed picked up his camera to record atrocities, discussions and press conferences which dealt with the Dalit crisis.
At first, he says, he did so merely to keep a record of events that found no mention in the media. But later, when he realised that members of the Dalit community actively sought out his content, he started a channel on YouTube.
Today @DalitCamera has over 72,000 subscribers who tune in to Muhammed’s audio-visual ground reports and aggregated news of attacks on Dalits across the country, drawing strength from the channel’s bold battles for equality.
Last year when his team found that Dalit sanitation workers in Tamil Nadu’s Nilgiri hills were being transported in garbage trucks, the channel carried out extensive reports on this, forcing the local and mainstream media to pick up the issue. The collector and local authorities had to revoke the practice and pay the workers bus fares so that they could commute to work with dignity.
Muhammed now plans to widen the campaign for the rights of sanitation workers in all districts of Tamil Nadu.
Like him, there are other independent units on social media that battle caste discrimination. Voices such as @DalitAwaz, @DalitDiva, @AmbedkariteIND and @Dalit_Swag are quick to amplify Dalit atrocities to ensure the subjects get public attention.
Dhanya Rajendran, co-founder of The News Minute , a Bengaluru-based digital platform with a specific focus on news from the southern region, agrees that the success of digital news lies in steering the gaze of mainstream news to dark corners that need to be exposed.
South India, particularly, receives a stepmotherly treatment and is often relegated to a “southern news bulletin” by the media at large, she contends. This neglect prompted her and her colleagues Chitra Subramaniam and Vignesh Vellore to kickstart the digital venture which now enjoys over 1,70,000 followers on Twitter and a similar number on YouTube.
“The point is perception, not volume of coverage. Are we able to place southern issues on a national map? Are we forcing Delhi news channels to cover it? Are we making it a talking point? On these fronts, we have done considerably well,” Rajendran says, reflecting on the work they’ve done since 2014. The News Minute has a 40-member strong team across the five southern states of India.
The price of democratic news
Rajendran recalls the days when newspaper reading rituals required an audience’s engagement with all the varied news items published daily. Today social media algorithms act as gatekeepers for the news people consume, playing up biases.
“When we consume news from our echo chambers we believe that people around us agree with our deepest biases. Whatever hatred and bigotry we repressed within us for fear of being ridiculed now have both room and an audience. It polarises and emboldens people,” Rajendran says.
This is also why trolling, online abuse and threats, followed by even physical stalking, are a grim reality for independent women journalists in India, many of whom have to pay a hefty price for using social media to hold truth to power. Earlier this month, media bodies urged the Delhi police to take action against those who were stalking Delhi journalist Neha Dixit and threatening her with rape and murder.
Independent digital media is also an easy target for any ruling establishment. Two weeks ago, the enforcement directorate, suspecting the inflow of foreign remittances, raided digital media platform NewsClick . Ten premises, including the homes of staff, were raided for over five days. The portal issued a statement that the raids were an attempt to browbeat “an independent and progressive voice through a vindictive course of action”.
Algorithms — a system by which content on your timeline is second guessed by AI based on your browsing history — have been around for a while now. But users have started to understand them, feels Vipul Mudgal, director and chief executive of Common Cause, a New Delhi-based civil society watchdog.
“Global digital platforms are under the scanner. Anti-monopoly (anti-trust, as the US terms it), algorithm transparency and privacy are the three pillars around which new digital media would be shaped,” he says.
With the growing lack of editorial transparency — as seen in the recent TRP scam (when it was alleged that a TV channel paid money to fix viewership figures) — the credibility of television is at its lowest, he holds. It’ll have to be reimagined, around objectivity and around notions of justice, Mudgal feels. For independent digital media, that is the starting point.
Three Hindi words feature on the walls of The Lallantop newsroom in the capital. Sprasht (clear), Saral (simple) and Saras (piquant). Can you offer clarity, can you cut the jargon and keep it simple and can you make news fun so that viewers remember it? The words form the motto of the 2016 digital news venture that has over 1,70,00,000 YouTube subscribers today. For context NDTV India , on YouTube since 2008, has 1,09,00,000 followers.
“The language of mainstream television news is formal. The anchors with their suits and ties preach to the audience from a pedestal. We complain that the young don’t engage with news but that is because we’re not serving it to them in their language. That’s where The Lallantop creates a breakthrough,” says an insider on the condition of anonymity.
The channel, owned by the India Today Group, has a variety of shows aimed at educating a regional audience and getting them up to speed on developments. While Kitabwala explores books, Duniyadari dissects international news, Sciencekari unpacks scientific developments and Bargad offers in-depth conversations with public figures on a spectrum of subjects. The tone is attentive, friendly and probing — yet somehow light, and never for a moment pedantic.
The 60-member strong team across India puts out 30-35 videos every day. Recently, it launched a show called Tera Tujhko Arpan where The Lallantop viewers from around the world share knowledge of an expertise they’ve acquired that might be useful to others.
The channel prides itself on being neutral.
“Our viewers neither want a Ravish Kumar nor a Sudhir Chaudhary. We don’t steer Left or Right. Our job, as journalists, is to present a 360-degree vision and not impose our ideologies on our audience. As journalists we challenge our own notions every day,” another insider says pointing that the channel is consumed by the old and young, in Hindi and non-Hindi belts, both in India and abroad.
“ The Lallantop has become a part of people’s lives and their daily routines. That’s a big responsibility,” he adds.