Recognising that the lack of participation of Indian youth in mainstream social discourse is the flip side of an opportunity waiting to happen, Anshul has created India’s first platform that crowdsources opinions of the youth on their experience of social problems. Leveraging this as media content, Anshul has built an engaging and purposeful national conversation between citizens, aimed at challenging status quo and catalysing social change they want to see.
The New Idea
Anshul is creating an open and democratic, online media space to build an informed and engaged citizenry among youth. His media company, Youth Ki Awaaz (YKA), crowdsources written narrative pieces, op-eds and personal stories to highlight issues of social, cultural and political importance which are not reflected in mainstream media narratives. He combies journalism with technology to change the way media is produced and consumed, therby overcoing structural limitations to media’s capacity to actively engage citizens.
Youth, even if they are aware, are familiar with cultural expectations to remain silent on socially provocative issues around sexuality, violence, religion and political patronage. They have had little opportunity to voice their experience of social problems to an audience larger than their immediate social groups. By creating a powerful space for speaking and responding to issues tabooed by society, but which nonetheless have a deep impact on citizens’ lives, Anshul is gradually shifting this generation from silence to engagement and action.
Anshul is generating an online, national conversation between citizens. That conversation not only breaks stereotypes around the apathy of the youth, but also demonstrates that citizens can be a core part of creating quality ethical media. YKA’s unique editorial policy and standards actively build capacities of youth and citizens to develop journalistic skills. For instance its ‘online internship program’ trains young people on the requisite skills and confidence to articulate crucial issues and challenges they face, and contributes to their further development as communication professionals through ongoing feedback. While spurring 100-150 new writers every month, with a readership of over 2 million a month, YKA connects citizen voices to a wide audience to advocate with like-minded people and organizations, by strategic use of social media tools, digital campaigns and online journalism skills.
Anshul is now targeting potentially active audiences in tier-2 cities and smaller towns, to position YKA as a hyper-local platform where issues of local importance and can be read, and written about by citizens. In addition to developing Hindi and other regional content for the website, Anshul is launching a mobile app to spread to different geographies, given the high levels of mobile penetration in rural areas, and especially amongst the youth. Anshul is designing to crowdsource local content, in order to spark granular-level conversation and debate about issues important to citizens and youth of the areas, and to give them the platform and voice to make that happen.
Instead of depending on the corporate or political adverstisements so familiar in media, Anshul innovatively ties up with large non-profit organisations to co-create in-depth and editorially comprehensive campaigns that engage a vast number of people on social issues. This new type of business model helps YKA engage their readership with these issues, as well as create a sustainable revenue stream to build an independent, citizen-driven and non-partisan media outlet.
In the general elections of 2015, almost 23,000,000 young voters, between the ages of 18 and 19 were registered to vote (The Indian Express). This indicates that India’s growing youth population will have a significant impact on voting trends, policy decisions and cultural changes as their voting share increases.
However, despite their political importance as a voter base, they remain disconnected from mainstream opinion-making. Discouraged by a culture of silence enforced by adults in society, the youth seldom find opportunities to speak up about their experience of social and political phenomena. Status quo is encouraged not only in social circles, but reflected in mainstream media, which is not designed to spark action by citizens.. Media channels, online and offline, are focused largely on politics, sport and entertainment, media channels (online and offline) which by their nature focus on other than youth opinion, or youth’s experience of social problems, or dissent against status quo. In the end, instead of actively participating in creating its content, citizens, particularly the youth, are turned into passive consumers of media.
The internet has created the potential for people to express their views online, but the design of the tools is well-suited to short-lived social media posts, or blogs, which have a small, and often homogenous audience. Additionally, while there have been nascent efforts to introduce ‘citizen journalism’ by mainstream media, these efforts have not been scaled and remained ‘alternative’ news. This is because media houses are not designed to invite, vet, edit and publish citizens’ views on a regular basis, and depend on the authority of a select group of established voices. They do not spend time or resources collating, curating and presenting the views of the citizens, especially young people, to a wider audience. Their online platforms also mimic the offline space. In addition to this, given the reliance of media companies on advertising revenue, seldom is reporting or editorial free from bias. As a result of these restrictions, issues that citizens want to express and discuss with a larger audience do not have a space in the mainstream discourse.
In order to leverage this historical youth dividend in India, it is now imperative for non-partisan and non-judgemental spaces to develop, where citizens are free to speak up on issues of both national and personal relevance, and connect their voices to a mainstream debate. Given the restrictions of the current mediascape, there is a need for an independent media channel that can reach out to a mass audience, which focuses on providing a platform for citizen voice, response and targeted action – and which can draw in responses in numbers big enough to constitute a genuine audience and sustained conversation.
Anshul has paved the way for large scale, citizen-led, collaborative journalism in India. Written by over 25,000 people from around the world and over 2000 active writers, YKA is positioned as the go-to space for young people and citizens to share their ideas and opinions with a large, online audience. Populated with content written by its readers, YKA has rapidly become a platform that mirrors the views of activated citizens, and highlights issues that they want to speak about.
While both reportage and personal narratives are accepted, YKA clearly demarcates its space for social issues of critical and topical relevance, owing to the fact that the internet is strife with other portals where stories on entertainment, technology and leisure can be addressed.
YKA currently has a readership of over 2 million readers every month, between ages of 15 and 28, and over 150 new writers submitting articles every month, on issues ranging from the environment to sexual identity and freedom of speech.
The YKA platform is designed to spark conversation, and generate action around issues raised. Recognising that the act of speaking up against unilateral views on sexual abuse, homophobia, religious bigotry and political mismanagement is a daunting and isolating one, Anshul is bucking the trend to invite unheard citizen voices to comment and facilitate online conversations between them through their writing. Not just poised for promoting alternate views, the content on YKA engages its audience to take collective action by using storytelling as a tool for social advocacy. YKA targets three types of issues: a) topical stories that impacts its readers’ lives and had short-lived coverage value; b) long term campaigns on issues that mainstream society and media are uncomfortable or uninterested in covering; and c) issues brought up by readers themselves in the form of personal narrations.
A recent example of a successful campaign was when a girl from an engineering college stood up against the gender-bias on her campus was suspended. She then surveyed 800 girls to understand if they faced the same issue. While 96 percent agreed and put up a petition on Change.org, the issue did not receive as much traction. As a reader of YKA, she co-created an editorial piece to expose this bias, whose call to action was to call the dean to take steps towards a more gender-neutral campus. This issue went viral online and was picked up by the mainstream media, which in turn forced the college authorities to take notice. A series of well-timed articles and a 1000 calls later, the suspension charges against the student were dropped, and the campus authorities took concrete steps to make it a more gender-neutral environment. This incident helped garner readership for YKA on several college campuses across India, thus tying in citizen response with action on the ground. Anshul’s careful nurturing of this platform is increasingly leading young people to discover their own potential to speak up for, initiate and respond to a call for action for a diverse range of difficult issues.
In order to engage so many writers, as well as spark representative campaigns, Anshul has hand-picked an experienced and progressive editorial team, who are experts at determining how this content moves online. They are constituted to act more as facilitators of this citizen-led, user-generated content, rather than creators. Generating only five percent of the content on the website, allows them to actively build the ability of citizens to articulate their ideas and set standards for the kind of content that is published on YKA. For instance, unlike other opinion driven platforms like Reddit which let non-curated, unedited content go up, YKA’s emphasis lies in ensuring, through its editorial team, that the views that go up on the website are well-researched, well-argued and socially relevant.
Because of these editorial standards, 90 percent of the content is returned to the writers. However, the editorial team ensures they are still add value to the writer and enhance his/ her skills by working with writers to refine their language and articulation skills, and also provide factual data to substantiate their point of view. Through constant engagement with the readership, YKA now receives 10 new contributions a day from first-time users, highlighting the relevance of YKA as a neutral and safe zone for them to share their views.
In order to create a pool of user-generated content, Anshul has institutionalised an online journalism internship programme to both encourage young people to write on issues of social and political importance, as well as improve their articulation of such issues. Anshul helps improve the craft of these young writers over a series of stories, personal narrative and reports filed by them every week. In the recent years, the demand for this certificate training programme has multiplied, and from 600 applications every year, the team choses 15 to train. The thoroughness of the feedback, not only for grammar and language, but also for nuance, length, purpose and factual accuracy, helps young writers articulate their views with more power for an online audience..
In order to open the YKA space to diverse voices, Anshul also partners with NGOs like Save The Children and Oxfam to run highly-impactful, content-driven social advocacy campaigns around their causes. This gives NGOs the ability to reach out to an unfamiliar but socially activated and influential audience, instead of limiting themselves to their own network. Anshul has leveraged these engagements to build a strong revenue stream by charging these NGOs to run sponsored campaigns for them. These sponsored campaigns, between Rs 2-3 Lakhs (~$3000), are created by the editorial team focusing on the central issues, data and emotional appeal of the cause. Structured loosely as a series of personalised voices from the ground, these campaigns not only generate operational revenue for YKA, but also give its young readers a chance to connect with these causes within their own spaces.
Keen to change mainstream discourse to be more public-driven, Anshul has created both online and offline spaces of discussion between young people, decision makers and other stakeholders. By building a series of online and offline media products to champion the principles of “speaking up” and challenging status quo, Anshul is creating a market for and accessibility to youth opinion. For instance, through a TED-like ideas festival called Converge, YKA creates a platform for young people (below 35) to express and share their opinions, as well as build a community of support around them. In the online space, YKA has recently launched a campaign called “Raise Your Voice” to streamline all their campaign content and opinion pieces under one brand that celebrates the power of youth in bringing about social change. Launching this platform helps Anshul market YKA as a space for young people who want to advocate and engage with various social causes. To generate more traction around this platform, YKA plans to host online debates and discussions on Twitter and Facebook fourms to promote the idea of speaking up to a mass audience.
Over the last seven years, YKA’s readership has increased rapidly from 2000 readers to 2 million readers, volunteer-interns, feature writers and recently senior journalists and decision makers. The online internship module has been replicated by two other organisations as well as influenced a mainstream channel BuzzFeed to do so recently. Actively moving towards a non-English, semi-urban audience, Anshul is launching a Hindi version of the website, and plans to replicate the effort in other regional languages so as to invite youth opinion from diverse backgrounds.
Observing that more and more youth, especially in rural centres, are now consuming news and opinion on mobile phones and tablets, rather than websites, Anshul is creating a YKA app which will cater to a mobile audience with shorter, sharper pieces on social advocacy, as well as provide a space for quicker engagement by facilitating discussions on hyper-local issues that affect the youth in region.
Anshul was born into and grew up in the internet generation. He developed a keen, early liking for the freedom and democracy that the online space provided to citizens like him to express their views. On the other hand, an ardent follower of mainstream news and opinion, Anshul grew increasingly distant from it, realising that it didn’t reflect his own views and opinions as a citizen.
Furthermore, he wanted to challenge the notion that young people’s views were not nuanced and well-informed and could not be included in mainstream discourse.
In resposne, Anshul started YKA as a blog in 2008, to write about mainstream topics from his point of view. At 17, even as he graduated school, he created a small group of like-minded contributors for the blog. As the readership grew steadily, Anshul wanted to open up YKA to new circles, and began a modest pilot with an online internship course for new writers to hone their skills and articulation, even as he worked on his own through journalism school.
In college, Anshul’s spirit of inquiry was further charged by the atmosphere in journalism school, and he recruited members of his batch to expand and diversify the content on YKA. However, on account of personal differences, these classmates left and and mounted a severe critique of Anshul and YKA within the college. This proved to be an extremely challenging phase in Anshul’s life as he came face-to-face with severe bullying and emotional abuse from his former colleagues. Finding no support within the faculty, Anshul instead channeled his energies towards building YKA into a full-fledged website. This phase also taught him the importance of speaking up against injustice and became a cornerstone for YKA’s own philosophy to give a voice to those who didn’t have the power to do so.
Bootstrapping his enterprise from the very beginning, Anshul’s early life experience pushed him towards being fiercely independent, which is reflected in his choice to not depend on corporate or political patronage to grow YKA. Anshul envisions that through building more products and platforms within YKA, he will champion a new form of citizen - led social advocacy which will reach out a large audience, and impact real change on the ground.