The hardships of news reporting beyond the metros

The challenges of local journalists and the rise of YouTube media

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(L-R) Sugata Srinivasaraju, Amar Sangno, Sumit Chauhan, Ruben Banerjee and Snehasis Sur at the Editors Guild concave. They discussed the working conditions of journalists reporting beyond the metros.

Freedom of the press, newsroom diversity, sustainability of independent media, and changes in the new laws to govern online media were hotly discussed and debated at the Editors Guild of India (EGI) conclave in Delhi on 15 March 2024. However, amid the larger debates, a key issue that had heads nodding in affirmation was the working condition of journalists reporting beyond the metros, operating in remote locations, in India’s hinterlands – many a time for a stipend that would be less than a day’s salary of top journalists in the metros and sometimes with just an ID card as an incentive. The threats they often face are the only ‘perks’ (pun intended).

Initiating a panel discussion, Ruben Banerjee, general secretary of the Guild, recalled his days as a state correspondent in small towns and how local reporters often find themselves way down the journalistic ladder in status and facilities.

There was a considerable amount of surprise when Amar Sangno, who came all the way from Arunachal Pradesh, explained how the largest state in the Northeast in terms of geographical area, has a vibrant print media with nine newspapers – all in English. Sangno, president of the state’s union of working journalists, works for The Arunachal Times, one of the oldest dailies in the state. “We are more vocal than many others in the mainstream media when it comes to raising issues of importance. Unfortunately, Arunachal finds space in the news only when the McMohan line is violated, when China makes a statement, or when there is a helicopter crash. Forget the plight of media personnel working for pathetic salaries in tough working conditions where you may have to walk for miles to get a story,” Sangno said.

Snehasis Sur, an independent journalist and president of the Kolkata Press Club, minced no words while listing the reporting challenges of district-level journalists – lack of recognition by mainstream media, no appointment letters, no social security, no mediclaim, no perks, and fewer opportunities. Top it up with pressure from political sources, police and criminals, and poor salaries. “This leaves them with no other option but to moonlight to sustain,” Sur said.

Journalists who double up as teachers, farmers, or small traders to supplement their income are no big news in the hinterlands and small towns. But on the flip side, the lack of salary or incentives also leads to a vicious circle where local reporters are often patronized by politicians or local ‘bahubalis’ – leading to corruption, PR, and blackmail.

Sugata Srinivasaraju, a senior journalist and author from Karnataka, expressed concern over how mainstream journalists overshadow their often untrained hinterland counterparts and hog all the limelight. “Anglophone journalists set the agenda and hold on to the bigger issues but in the hinterlands or non-metros, the issues are completely different…local journalists are often treated as mere informers. Mainstream journalists fly in on choppers, ask questions, extract inside information, and get the best stories from the hinterland for big publications. But they do not even have the ethics to acknowledge the local journalists, who are their primary source,” Srinivasaraju said.

Community media and YouTube journalists

Apart from hinterland journalists, the challenges before independent media and YouTube journalists came up for discussion. Inclusive and sensitive reporting of less understood and marginalized communities came up for discussion. Sumit Chauhan, founding editor, The News Beak, explained how caste issues often go ignored in mainstream media unless there is caste-related violence or a big story on caste discrimination. The News Beak is a small community news organization with a decent YouTube presence (908K subscribers and 1,28,036,663 views) and a website named theshudra.com. He says they aim to present a strong alternative to what he called the ‘Manuwadi media’ in the form of ‘Ambedkarite journalism.’

A chunk of the reports on community media come from remote areas, where verification of information and allegations can be quite challenging. Journalists from marginalized castes face discrimination when they visit remote places to report. “Most of these journalists are not professionally trained. We face financial issues. There is a lack of protection. So maintaining such a media platform is quite challenging,” Chauhan said.

Lack of official recognition and the need for identity and empowerment for independent journalists were some of the issues highlighted by Naveen Kumar, who runs Article 19 India, a YouTube news media platform on current affairs with 2.73 million subscribers and an amazing 6,58,486,872 views. Sharing his journey, Kumar, who was retrenched from TV in 2020, started his YouTube video channel from scratch. At the conclave, he claimed a monthly viewership of 50 million.

Kumar felt there is still a lot of scope and demand for quality content with journalistic integrity, which mainstream media seems to have abandoned, and that is why there are millions of takers for such independent YouTube channels. He took the example of Shambhu Kumar Singh, who runs National Dastak, a YouTube channel that focuses on marginalized sections of the citizenry. “Not many here may know him but he is one of the biggest in the Hindi independent news space and runs this channel with more than 9 million subscribers.”

Visiting the website, we found that the National Dastak channel, launched in 2015, has 9.34 million subscribers and 36,06,582,889 views as of date. In fact, YouTube has turned out to be one of the biggest platforms for independent journalists who may not have the wherewithal to run a full-fledged website. Somewhat belatedly, mainstream media is seeing its immense potential even as it sees its younger audiences fleeing to this medium.

Former NDTV journalist Ravish Kumar, who quit the news organization in 2022, has managed to draw in 8.97 million subscribers and 8,39,960,141 views on his YouTube channel Ravish Kumar Official in just a couple of years of its launch. His current subscribers are now more than half of NDTV India’s own YouTube channel, which is a commendable achievement for an individual journalist. NDTV India’s YouTube channel, launched in 2008, has 16 million subscribers.

According to the FICCI-EY report released recently, YouTube had around 467 million global monthly users as of the end of 2023, of which 18.7% (approximately 87 million) are from India. The report says YouTube has 61% of TV’s reach across India, but in certain states has a reach similar to or even higher than TV, particularly in Hindi-speaking markets such as Delhi, UP, Bihar and the Northeast. With creators using Shorts as another tool in their arsenal to express themselves, YouTube Shorts’ average daily views grew by over 120% year-on-year. In abandoning evidenced-based journalism, mainstream media is helping to create the opportunity for independent media and individual YouTube journalists.

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