“Hands off the computer!”
The words, spoken in chaste Bundeli, still ring in Meera’s ears. Computers were things Meera had first heard about in 2005 while she was still in college, graduating in social sciences. They helped you work faster, she knew that. You could write, no, type, endless reams of text on them. You could even copy and “paste” entire paragraphs.
“Computer choone ka bahut man karta tha”, she says. (“I always wanted to touch a computer”) “Par operator choone nahi deta tha, bolta tha choo bhi loge toh bigad jayega. Magar andar se itni besabari hui thi choone ke liye!” (“But the operator never used to let me touch it. He used to say that it will break down if you touch it. But I was so impatient to touch a computer!”).
Earlier this month, Meera used a Redmi Note Prime, a five and a half inch smartphone with a 13 megapixel camera to shoot a video story about a family in Badokhar, a village in Uttar Pradesh’s Banda district, that had asked local authorities permission to be euthanised since they could not afford medical care.
Meera, who lives in Banda, a is chief reporter at Khabar Lahariya — which literally means “News Waves” in Hindi — a local language newspaper that is a product of a Delhi-based gender education organisation called Nirantar, as a part of a movement of sustaining literacy in rural communities. The grassroots publication is now a part of the Women Media and News Trust, which is also based in New Delhi, was set up in 2013 by members of Nirantar and Khabar Lahariya to set an up an independent media collective with rural, Dalit women journalists in leadership roles.
Since it was first launched in 2002, the paper has grown from what its editors describe as a “boutique, feminist media house” to a formidable force in Bundelkhand, the arid, drought-stricken region that straddles southern Uttar Pradesh and a large part of Madhya Pradesh.
The eight-page weekly publication, which specifically covers local issues that are ignored by mainstream publications, is written, edited, produced, and distributed exclusively by a few dozen women who are Dalits, Muslims, Kohls, or among some of the most oppressed groups in the region.
In its 15 years of existence, Khabar Lahariya’s intrepid team that now has 22 women reporters has covered stories that matter to their readers living in the country’s largest socio-economically backward region — everything from exposing local scandals to narratives about entire villages being held captive by bandits — through feminist and secular lenses. The reporters use only their first names, discarding their last names since they often refer to years of caste-based subjugation.
It has won numerous national and international awards, including the King Sejong Literacy Prize, awarded by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), in 2009, and is the country’s only newspaper published in four dialects — Bundeli, Awadhi, Bhojpuri, and Bajjika.
The print edition has a circulation of 4,000, but boasts of readership of around 40,000. For a newspaper produced by and largely for rural women, that’s significant, but now, Khabar Lahariya is gearing up for bigger things. Just like most media houses, big and small, in India and around the world, it is taking on a new challenge: cracking digital publishing and distribution.
BEYOND THE CITIES
Conventional wisdom says that the explosion of digital news and reading online is a phenomenon that is restricted to India’s 3G-saturated urban spheres, and that, for the most part, is true. 71% of India’s 306 million mobile internet users are located in cities, says a study published earlier this year by the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI), an industry body of leading Indian mobile service operators. But the country’s rural mobile internet user base shot up 93% from 2014 to reach 87 million at the end of last year.
The problem was that none of the national media had as many feet on the ground as Khabar Lahariya.
“News delivered online, especially over Facebook, was a big source of information for a lot of people in the regions we operate in,” says Disha Mullick, an editorial coordinator at Khabar Lahariya who has been associated with the organisation for over a decade in New Delhi. “And big, national Hindi newspapers were also producing digital content.”
The problem was that none of the national media had as many feet on the ground as Khabar Lahariya. “Their content wasn’t locally generated unlike ours, which is why there was no local news available online for local people to consume,” says Mullick. “We saw huge potential for Khabar Lahariya to step into that space.”
Last month, Mullick, along with Shalini Joshi, one of Khabar Lahariya’s New Delhi-based founding members, broke off from the company to start a brand new venture called Chambal Media. The objective: to distribute and market content produced by and relevant for a rural audience online in a way that is sustainable. Joshi is now Chambal Media’s Chief Executive Officer, while Mullick is the Chief Operating Officer.
Chambal Media currently has a six-month agreement with Khabar Lahariya to distribute and market its content, that, says Mullick, will be renewed on a rolling basis. Chambal Media will keep 80% of any revenues generated through this, while the remaining 20% will do directly into Khabar Lahariya. Chambal Media will also handle Khabar Lahariya’s social media platforms, revamp its website, and develop an app.
“It is possible for an NGO to have a strong marketing arm,” says Mullick, referring to Khabar Lahariya, which has so far relied completely on grants for funding. “So we are separating content creation from marketing and distribution. Opening a for-profit enterprise like Chambal Media opens up the potential for scale, and the kind of talent you can access is very different from a non-profit organisation.”
Chambal Media is currently bootstrapped by donations from friends and family members, and has an investment of Rs. 10 lakh from Suhas Misra, the founder of Hector Beverages, which makes the popular Paper Boat drinks. It is also seeking Series A funding.
Misra says that he is not just an investor but is also a mentor to the company.
“My primary reason to get connected was that it seemed like the strongest riposte to patriarchy,” he said. “If you take a look at all our major problems in healthcare, literacy, and other areas in India right now, you will see that there is a patriarchal element that pervades through them all. And this happens across class and caste.”
But beyond it all, says Misra, he also saw a business opportunity. The cost of content production by a team of rural reporters for a rural audience is really low — the company, which doesn’t generate any revenues yet, is burning just about Rs. 2 lakh a month — and at a local level, the content resonates extremely strongly.
“Khabar Lahariya is just in four districts right now,” says Misra. “But imagine if they eventually end up expanding to 50, 100 districts. That will open up a lot of monetisation opportunities.
GOING DIGITAL FIRST
In Chambal Media’s spacious basement office in South Delhi’s Adchini neighbourhood, 28-year-old Lakshmi stares at a widescreen monitor where a stream of WhatsApp Web notifications blinks endlessly.
Lakshmi hails from Sheohar, a district in north Bihar close to the Nepal border that still follows the purdah system. By the time she gave her Class 8 final exams, she was married, and now has two children, a girl and a boy aged 11 and 13 respectively. Two months ago, Lakshmi moved from Lucknow, where she was first an assistant editor and then the Lucknow bureau chief, to New Delhi, where she is an associate producer.
Lakshmi has one job: to keep track of the dozen or so videos sent each day by Khabar Lahariya’s 22 reporters across six districts — Jhansi, Lalitpur, Ambedkarnagar, Banda, Chitrakoot, and Faizabad. The videos, which are shot on standard-issue Redmi Note Prime smartphones, are sent to the Delhi team exclusively over WhatsApp. Lakshmi downloads each one as it comes in, sorts it according to the reporter’s name and location, reviews the clips, gives feedback to the reporters, and decides which ones can be passed on to Khabar Lahariya’s video editors to cut into a video story. If she has time, she also edits the stories herself using Adobe’s professional-grade Premiere Pro editing suite, which, she says proudly, she taught herself.
“Even while I was growing up in an atmosphere where women would never step out of the house or be seen too much in public places, I was a tinkerer,” says Lakshmi in Hindi. “If there was a power outage at home, I used to mess with the wiring and the fuse to see if I could fix it. Once, my FM radio broke down and I opened up the thing to see what the problem was and put it back together. I enjoyed it.”
Like most big national media brands in the country that decided to go “digital first”, the Khabar Lahariya team discovered that it had to completely rethink its editorial strategy built up since 2002 to align with the faster pace of publishing online. “We suddenly went from a weekly print paper to publishing videos and photos on a daily basis on Facebook, WhatsApp and our website,” says Joshi.
The newspaper did set up a website in 2013, but it was merely a collection of stories already published in its print edition. With its digital first approach, Khabar Lahariya now publishes every story online — on Facebook, in various WhatsApp groups, and its website — first, and pulls stories from its digital repository into its weekly print edition. It now reaches more than seven lakh readers online.
“We turned the system around on its head,” says Joshi.
A DREAM COME TRUE
For Khabar Lahariya’s all-women reporting team, the transition is both challenging and exciting.
“When I used to go to the collecterate in Banda to talk to officials, the electronic media there always had big cameras,” says Meera in Bundeli-laced Hindi. “This made me very restless. For years, I kept asking myself, why should I not do this? Voh kehte hai na, sapna dekhna…ek din mera sapna poora hua.” (“They say that you dream…and then one day my dream came true.”)
Armed with a smartphone and crash course in shooting and transferring videos over WhatsApp, recording audio, taking pictures, and writing scripts in Hindi and local dialects using Google’s Indic Keyboard on the go, Khabar Lahariya’s reporters, most of whom have never owned a phone in their lives, feed the digital beast with video stories about rain water destroying kachcha houses in Mahoba, the least populated district in Uttar Pradesh; about crumbling streets in Faizabad; and about the dismal state of the public health machinery in Chitrakoot’s Ram Nagar tehsil — stories that mainstream India media turns a blind eye to but often mean everything to the people living in places you would be hard-pressed to find on a physical map.
“Women in these areas don’t have access to phones or computers, and there is always a fear in their minds that things will break if we use them,” says Joshi. “But, we have discovered that these women are actually very comfortable with technology. You just have to demystify it for them and explain things in a way that is accessible. Nobody does that for them.”
“We have had fathers driving through the village market, seeing their daughters shooting videos, and pulling them out of our training sessions.”
The smartphone is a powerful instrument of empowerment, but in a country ruled by patriarchy, smartphone-toting women, especially those who come from marginalised communities like most of Khabar Lahariya’s staff members, ruffle their share of feathers. In February, several villages in Gujarat banned girls and single women from owning mobile phones saying that the devices distracted them from their studies.
“We have had fathers driving through the village market, seeing their daughters shooting videos, and pulling them out of our training sessions in a fit of rage,” says Joshi.
“Hum un gaon ki mahilao ke haath mein pehele kalam thamate the jinki koi samajik sthar pe pehechaan nahi thi,” says Lakshmi. “Ab unke haath mein hum camera de rahe hai.” (“We used to put pens into the hands of women in these villages who had no standing in society. Now we give them cameras.”)
THE MILLION-DOLLAR QUESTION
Still, Chambal Media is faced with the same question that digital publishers around the world are trying hard to answer: how do you make money? Mullick and Joshi say that they are currently exploring multiple streams of revenue rather than putting their eggs in any one basket.
“When we decided to go digital first, we had a series of conversations about what our online presence should be like,” says Mullick. “Instead of actually doing local stories for a rural audience, we thought about doing features that talk about issues in rural India to an urban audience since we had feet on the ground.”
Ultimately, the team decided to do what they did best: stay focused on doing stories about rural India for people from rural India in the various dialects they speak.
Chambal Media wants to be the one-stop rural media brand partner for brands that want to enter rural markets in the country. “Aspirations in rural India are huge,” says Mullick. “And we are the only organisation that has such a niche and focused outreach. We want to be the company that knows the rural demographic better than any other company and have revenue generation from that, whether that is through advertising, or providing rural consumer insights to brands.”
Mullick is particularly excited about producing local media events — “think Bundelkhand idol!” she exclaims —and getting local sponsors for those events as a possible revenue stream too.
Already, the company has done trial advertising runs with Sun King, a maker of ultra-portable solar lanterns that are extremely popular in the villages of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. And since traditional advertising within Facebook or the Khabar Lahariya website may not be as effective for the company’s audience as it could be with urban consumers, the company is exploring native advertising for a rural audience (a Khabar Lahariya reporter interviewing a villager about a lantern or a water purifier, for instance).
“The interest from brands that make things like water purifiers, or provide job services online in advertising with us has been really strong,” says Mullick, who says she is particularly excited about producing local media events — “think Bundelkhand idol!” she exclaims —and getting local sponsors for those events as a possible revenue stream too.
And even though it relies on Khabar Lahariya for all its content right now, the company is open to partnering with more rural content brands in the future, and hopes to expand beyond Uttar Pradesh to every district in India eventually.
To make sure they know their online audience inside out, the Chambal Media team is currently looking hard at Facebook Insights — Facebook is their primary source of traffic — and keeping an eye on certain key metrics like how many people from a certain district they operate in have internet access and how many of those engage with Khabar Lahariya content on Facebook.
“Traffic is important, but we focus more on what proportion of our audience in the districts we operate in is viewing our content compared to what population of that district has internet access. If a substantial part of that population is engaging with our content, that’s good for us,” says Joshi.
It’s early days but the initial trends seem positive. Nearly 30% of Khabar Lahariya’s audience is female, “which is wonderful,” says Joshi, “because that means that many more women are accessing our content. We struggled with this a lot with our print edition because reading a newspaper is not part of the culture for rural women.”
The team is no stranger to obstacles, but going digital first throws its share of spokes in the wheel. The lack of high-end recording equipment means that sound quality on videos is still an issue, says Joshi. In Banda, Meera says she struggles to find a reliable 3G signal to send videos and scripts, and sometimes walks over 10 km before she can upload something. And Vodafone’s data plans, she says, are confusing and expensive.
“But I feel that my stories are deeper because I can use Google to do more research,” she says in Hindi, “And I can use a selfie stick, and a smartphone and connect with other people. I feel professional. Baaki log bolte hai ki aap bada camera use karo…mein unko bolti hoon ki bhaisaheb, aajkal movies bhi smartphones pe ban rahi hai.” (“Other people tell me to use bigger cameras…I tell them that even movies are shot on smartphones these days.”)
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