Gangadhar is triggering the network effect in media, by building a technology platform that connects rural reporters to national and international news publishers.
The New Idea
At a time when media is increasingly relying on citizen journalism to bring stories from remote areas, Gangadhar is drawing attention to the urgent need of investing in grassroot freelance reporters. He believes their specialized skills as journalists, ability to pursue investigative stories and decentralized precense is central to address the two big issues facing Indian media today- its independence and city centric coverage.
Gangadhar is buidling an ecosystem for freelance and independent journalism to thrive. His platform connects grassroots reporters directly to publishers, for the first time. On the supply side, he is building a dense network of grassroots / freelance reporters based in semi-urban or rural areas share untold stories. He is also building their capacities by enhacing their journalistic skills and ability to use investigative tools like the Right to Information Act (RTI). On the demand side, he has built partnerships with leading national and international publishers who purchase these stories. This process creates a win-win for all. The grassroots journalists get upskilled, earn more and gain unprecendented visibility. More importantly, they get to prusue stories that are not restrained by corporate or ideological interests. Simultaneously, publishers get quality, credible stories from remote parts of the country at lower costs without having to invest in building their own network of reporters.
Gangadhar is democratizing access to national platforms and also enabling publishers to access stories of a nature and at scale that would have been impossible under traditional operating models. By creating a many-to-many platform and underwriting stories that are not purchased, he is setting the foundation to build the world’s biggest independent media agency.
Indian national media – online and offline-- continues to be plagued by two key challenges.
First, it has consistently failed to cover stories from smaller towns or rural areas. Only 2 percent of the coverage by national coverage is of rural issues (a study published in September 2011 by the Economic and Political Weekly). This is due to several reasons. Many national media companies make an assumption that no one wants to read news or stories from smaller towns or rural areas. As a result, most have their reporters concentrated in major cities. With limited travel budgets and networks to connect and collaborate with rural reporters, these reporters remain focused on city centric stories.
Second, media lacks a revenue model that ensures its independence and objectivity. Reliance on advertising revenues and large investments has compromised the independence of media and issues they choose to cover. “Paid news” by both political parities and companies has become pervasive, structured and highly organized in mainstream media. As a result, journalists with integrity do not find the space to publish stories they write. Competition, monthly targets and vested interests also force journalists to churn quick stories out instead of pursing longer / investigative stories.
So far, all efforts to gain stories out of rural India have only focused on promoting citizen journalism. While this has democratized the media space and has offered a cheaper and quicker alternative to media houses to draw out stories from rural India, citizen journalism does not substitute the work of trained journalists. They cannot be relied upon to investigate leads/ stories that sometimes take months or be held accountable to research adequately or tell stories objectively.
Unfortunately, no effort has been made to invest in existing journalists- especially those in the smaller towns and rural areas. No training is provided to help them build and narrate better stories or report objectively. They have limited infrastructure, resources and networks to shape and share their stories in national context. Living off a meager sum barely enough to run a household, most grassroot reporters depend on other sources of income whilst pursuing journalism. There are also instances when grassroot reporters are not given their due for stories from the ground. Often the biggest ‘national stories’ originate through their sources or reporting. . But unfortunately, when a rural story becomes big, mainstream media reporters appropriate it without giving credit to grassroot journalists who broke it in the first place. As a result of all these factors, although most grassroot journalists and reporters are drawn to the sector out of a commitment to write public interest stories, they are unable to effectively contribute due to the lack of a supportive and nurturing eco-system.
Gangadhar believes that investing in rural reporters and building a supportive environment for them is key to drawing out credible stories from rural India in the long term. Further, he also sees great opportunity in building this in a manner that fosters an eco-system for freelance journalists.
Gangadhar founded 101 Reporters in October 2015 to create an independent platform that facilitates connections and relationships between independent grassroot reporters and publishers. By creating such a social and technological foundation, Gangadhar is building the first platform that empowers grassroot reporters while reducing transaction costs for publishers to source stories from rural areas.
On the supply side, he is building a decentralized network of grassroot reporters first at the district level and later at the taluk level. Although he has database of over 40,000 grassroot reporters (built through an application under the RTI), he has started by working closely with 50 reporters across several small towns and villages. These reporters are spread across remote parts of India, including the states of Kashmir, Andaman & Nicobar Island, Chattisgarh, Rajasthan and Assam. Many of them are employed by small local media and are seeking to do bigger stories, some are former journalists and some of them are freelance journalists. With the belief that all reporters can write / report better given the right environment, 101 Reporters selects the journalists based on their commitment to reporting stories of public interest and less on their skills. 101 Reporters then invests time and effort to act as a thought partner to the reporters to build their story ideas and also better contextualize their story in national media. It works with them from the stage of ideation to submission of final stories. It also trains them to use tools like the RTI to gather critical data for their stories.
To ensure credibility of the stories, 101 Reporters only accepts stories with a byline. They also ask for backup data where available such as photos, videos and numbers. Gangadhar and his team also continuously sensitize the reporters on the responsibility of reporting.
On the demand side, 101 Reporters is partnering with progressive national and international digital media companies such as Scroll, IndiaSpend, Qz, Newslaundry, Arre.co.in, India Together, Nikkei (Business stories) that are seeking stories from rural areas. These media companies see value in partnering with 101 Reporters to source stories as it not only reduces their costs of sourcing stories, but also ensures credibility and quality of stories. Over 45 stories have been purchased by publishers in the last five months. Of these, 90 percent were written independently by grassroots reporters and 10 percent were commissioned by publishers.
101 Reporters has upskilled the reporters, enhanced their incomes and enabled them to publish on national and international platforms for the first time. More importantly, it has enabled reporters to operate outside pressures of working in one media house and instead pursue stories they think are important such as analyzing how media is reporting communal events or sexual abuse by a priest. Many of the reproters are also using RTI to investigate corruption and violence by the government.
To ensure financial independence, Gangadhar is building 101 Reporters in a way that every story funds itself. 101 Reporters negotiates a rate of atleast Rs.3-5 per word (in contrast to the current rate of Re. 1-2 that reporters currently get) for each story purchased. After committing to a flat sum of Rs. 5000 per story to its reporters, 101 Reporters retains any surplus paid by the publisher to run the platform and purchase any unsold stories. In this context, Gangadhar sees partnerships with international publishers as even more valuable. Apart from offering global readership, they pay significantly higher per story that can help generate more surplus. To encourage reporters to pursue stories without the fear of whether it will be purchased or not, 101 Reporters underwriters the cost of all story’s submitted by reporters.
If every story has to fund itself, Gangadhar also believes is it critical for overheads to be minimal. He sees technology as playing a central role in achieving this. The technology platform will bring efficiencies by creating a network space for the actors to directly interact. It will allow grassroot reporters to make their profiles, pitch, edit and publish their stories. It will also allow publishers to raise a ticket for stories they want to commission. 101 Reporters will use the platform to create forum for reporters and publishers to connect with each other. Gangadhar also intends to leverage the platform to make resources (public records, RTI tools, experts) easily available to reporters and make timely payments to reporters.
Once the technology platform is in place, Gangadhar intends to aggressively expand the network of reporters and publishers. He also intends to expand the network to also include Hindi reporters and publishers. To support the scale of the network, Gangadhar is committed to building a credible team of experienced editors who can support reporters. He also intends to build a separate team that can hand-hold the reports and also fact check the credibility of their stories. With one reporter in each of the 664 districts of India and later at the taluk level, Gangadhar sees the need to also have local representatives in each state who can scan local news and identify angle/ stories that can be seeded with reporters. Gangadhar believes in the quality of the stories to speak for themselves and generate the demand from mainstream media. Their readership of these rural stories will prove that citizens are keen to follow issues even outside of their urban circles, and will more publishers to come on to the platform.
Gangadhar’s worldview is deeply shaped by his life experiences in very small towns across India. His experiences in a harsh school environment taught him that an individual’s performance had little to do with fundamental capability, but more to do with the environment. He is conscious that while he was lucky to have one or two instances that helped him overcome his lack of confidence and perform better, many of his peers did not have the same fortune. The lack of exposure or social, environmental psychological support, has left many of his peers behind.
The influence of popular television shows and niche media houses had instilled in Gangadhar an interest to become an investigator. So alongside pursuing his graduation in Bangalore, he started preparing for the civil services exams to join the Indian Police Services. He did not give up when he did not make it the first time. He attempted the exam two more time.
During this period, he began to realize that the government posts or role with the armed forces was too rigid for him. He realized what he was really committed to was advancing social justice. He happened to meet a RTI activist and started seeing its power to drive change. His personal tryst with the RTI began with an enquiring into why his college had no facility for sports. Later, when he moved to Belgaum with his family, he engaged deeper with civic issues. He filed an RTI to look into the functioning of the local public library and learnt that significant funds had been sanctioned for upgradation, but had remained unutilized. So he and his friends took initiative to push for its implementation and made sure the library had the latest books, journals and computers. Inspired by its success he formed Pragati Belgavi (“lets develop our town’) that was committed inform citizens how to use RTI to improve their conditions.
As a result of this effort, citizens filed several RTIs to inquire into the public food distribution system, roads, electricity and other issues affecting the town and successfully managed to ban alcohol consumption is the town. Gangadhar even stood for local panchayat elections, but unfortunately lost as they did not have sufficient funds. But none of this set him back. He began volunteering in the local public school teaching children in Class 7-10 how to file RTIs. All these experiences showed him the power of a tool like RTI in the hands of common citizens and his own passion to spur agents of change.
To financially support himself, Gangadhar had started working with a local news channel in Belgaum. He saw that he was given ‘gifts’ by local politicians or influencers to cover stories. While he felt like he was less a journalist but more a person running an advertising agency, he started seeing the opportunity in using RTI as a tool to get information and expose stories. Convinced that journalism offered an opportunity to pursue both his passion’s- to be an investigator and drive social change, he enrolled at the Indian Institute of Journalism and New Media. Here he did several stories to uncover corruption and this helped him get a position with the Indian Express- a leading print daily. At the Indian Express, he successfully built the RTI Cell to train reporters to use RTI to tell powerful stories. Later he moved with his Editor to DNA- another leading newspaper and again constituted the RTI cell here. He continued to use RTI to break many critical stories.
While his stints at large media companies offered him many opportunities, he felt constrained to pursue the stories he wanted and felt the internal systems did not nurture a reporter. He also became more cognizant that the sources of many powerful stories lay in the hands of local reporters. They knew the stories well before it was broken in national media. Unfortunately they didn’t have access to national platforms to share the story.
Reflecting on his experiences working as a journalist in Belgaum and in big media companies, he began to connect the dots. He also became convinced of the need to set up an independent platform that could showcase an alternative business model and further objective / investigative journalism.
Initially he started the India center for Investigative Journalism, but it did not take off as he could not find someone to invest in it. So he refined the idea to start 101 Reporters in 2015.