By Ila Ananya
Khabar Lahariya, an eight-page weekly newspaper brought out by a collective of rural women journalists from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in local languages, was founded in 2002. Last year, Khabar Lahariya made the radical decision to go digital first. First sign that this was a wise direction to go? The share of female readership has jumped to 33 per cent. Compare that to when there was only a print edition — the percentage of Khabar Lahariya readers who were women was hardly at two to three percent.
Today, the redoubtable Khabar Lahariya journalists use their phones and selfie sticks when they go reporting, taking photographs and videos of interviews, before writing them up and sending them via WhatsApp to women working at the office of their sister enterprise, Chambal Media, in Delhi. Here, the videos are logged according to the reporter and their region, before they are sent to be edited and uploaded on their website and social media. Since the decision to go digital, six to seven videos now go up every day. At the end of the week, the same stories are also written so that they can go into the print edition. Since this began 2 months ago, Khabar Lahariya’s readership has increased manifold — now, they reach more than seven lakh viewers online.
According to a report released by the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) in 2015, the number of local language users of the internet in India is rising by 47 per cent. The newly set up Chambal Media, a rural digital media company — founded by Shalini Joshi, Disha Mullick, and Kavita, who have also been running Khabar Lahariya since it began — has positioned itself as one of the only ways that anybody who wants to reach a rural audience can do so. They have a partnership with Khabar Lahariya and plan to take local news to as large an audience as possible. The interesting thing about the digital first strategy is that knowing how it functions and why it was started. It also offers insights into the rural audience for whom Khabar Lahariya journalists are writing.
Very often, we assume that smartphones and the internet are not accessed in rural areas. Chambal Media found that in the three districts of Bundelkhand, there were more than 50,000 internet users with Facebook accounts that were accessed through 3G data connections. Another video feature story from their pilot run of video news content — about a young boy from Tindwari in Banda district, who made a helicopter with a motorcycle engine and was arrested by the police — had 13,000 viewers on Facebook (out of 16,000 people from the district accessing Facebook on 3G connections). Mullick said that the decision that Chambal Media had to take was to choose between keeping their primary audience as rural, or providing content for an urban audience about issues in rural India. Of course, as Khabar Lahariya has been doing for 14 years now, they chose to keep their focus on creating content for a rural audience.
“In these places, media consumption is basically through phones,” said Mullick. “There is a whole industry around downloading films, music, and people usually go to side cafes and small corner shops for this.” Mullick also said that when they were trying to reconcile the future of an independent newspaper like Khabar Lahariya with how widely the internet is consumed, they suddenly started to see that news consumption was through social media platforms. “Where we struggled with distribution, social media could now help us spread our news because so many young people accessed the internet through their smartphones,” she said.
So what do they know about their audience so far? Mullick says that with the internet and social media, most of their audience comes from rural Bundelkhand, where they have 1.5 lakh viewers, from people who are between 18-35 years old. While their audience does have more men than women, the 33 per cent increase in women readers shows that there are more young women with smartphones. How is this different from the reach they got with only print newspapers? Khabar Lahariya works in nine districts of UP and Bihar. Four thousand copies are printed, and when distributed, one paper is estimated to be shared between 16-20 people. The audience here comprises of much older men — the traditional set that has been reading newspapers for many years now.
Just that so many young people in rural UP and Bihar are accessing news through their phones also means that Khabar Lahariya is trying to produce content for them. Mullick indicated that there is more variety in the stories that the women have been covering and producing: there’s been an increase in the number of in-depth local investigative stories, and subjects that don’t get reported on by Hindi newspapers also do well. Local news — like this, this, or this; like accidents, murders, and interviews with the local administration — is very popular. Upbeat stories get more shares and likes on Facebook. Mullick also said what particularly took off was a series of memes on the nine districts where Khabar Lahariya news is produced — either on local issues that are in current news, or pegged to culture andlocal heritage.
Apart from logistical challenges like data connectivity, which makes it hard for the journalists to send them their videos via WhatsApp, Joshi said a part of the challenge is to prove such a model is sustainable. “Everything is so fast online, new content is constantly being produced, and I don’t think it’s possible for us to stand away from this and say that we’ll continue to produce just a story a day. We’re also trying to prove that this model can pay for itself. Finding this balance is tricky. In the process of producing lots more content, it can become difficult to retain the ideas of what kind of journalism we started off wanting to do,” she said. At the moment their funds come from friends and family who are keen on the idea, but there is a revenue plan is to create a sustainable model through advertising, and helping brands that want to know the rural demographic better.
“Going digital feels like we’re now much more in the public eye of the media at the district level. We’re part of the same platform now,” said Mullick. Meera, Khabar Lahariya’s chief reporter from Banda, says that now people from other newspapers know she is a journalist. After having gone to cover large public events where journalists with huge cameras and stands were given more importance than her, people now treat her like press, telling her where to stand so that she can get good videos and photographs. Others remember her as the journalist who used to write down notes —Meera, who likes to do in-depth stories, says that by going digital, the videos seem to make everything more real, not only for her, but also for their audience.
“Khud ki image change ho gayi hai, pehchaan bani hai,” said Meera, when asked about the transition to digital journalism. “Accha lagta hai (we’ve made an image and people know us. It feels good).”