Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The State of Citizen Journalism in India: Three takeways

A summary of this three part series has also been posted on Journalism.co.uk site, where they have been graciously allowed to blog as a guest. The summary article is titled Online Journalism India: Moblogging is citizen journalism in India.

Some notes:

1. Citizen Journalism does not need destination platforms: tools are everywhere and are free.
2. Citizen Journalists in India, and everywhere else, can be instruments of social and systemic change through a proactive usage of web 2.0 tools, complimented with Television and Radio.
3. Mobile and Microblogging is big and easy.

The three articles in the series on "The State of Citizen Journalism in India" are:
1. The State of Citizen Journalism in India Part 1 - blogs, photos and videos
2. The State of Citizen Journalism in India Part 2 - Television and Radio
3. The State of Citizen Journalism in India Part 3 - Microblogging and Mobile Blogging

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The State of Citizen Journalism in India Part 3 – Microblogging and Mobile Blogging

This is the last of my 3-part series on Citizen Journalism in India. In Part 1, I wrote about Blogs and photos and in Part 2, I wrote about Citizen Journalism on the Television and Radio. In this last part, I am going to write about the phenomenon of Micro Blogging/Mobile Blogging that is sweeping across India.

As of January 2008, there were 241.6 million cellphones in India and every month 7.8 million new cellphones are bought. In contrast, the total number on internet connections in India hovers around the 10 million mark.

There is no wonder why Indians have taken to microblogging in a big way.

The fact that you can only send up to 160 characters using SMS has apparently hasn’t deterred users. Services such as Smsgupshup.com and Vakow.com allow users to send common SMS messages to all members of their groups.

People are using these SMS-based services as news broadcasting tools. Users continuously update their groups on these SMS sites with the latest news from far off places.

For example, a journalist in North East India is offering breaking news from his small town on Smsgupshup.com. A news site in the eastern State of Orissa is offering breaking news via the same site.

This is similar to the rage for Twitter in the United States. When Twitter came out, I was one of those who complained about the distractive and inane aspects of the service ( here and here). But after having seen Citizen Journalists using SMS-based services in innovative ways, and news people covering the Primaries in the United States using Twitter, I am glad few listened to me back then.

In this interesting article, a user of a sms-based microblogging service in India writes about the time when he flashed a message about a two boys having fallen into a river in a village in Manipur (North East India) and soon, people got the message on their phones and reached the spot and were able to save the boys in time.

Where users see utility, business sees money. Not surprisingly, bigger players have jumped in, offering a wide variety of mobile blogging services.

Apart from smsgupshup and vakow, other notable players are Chitr (Twitter clone), ActivMobs, and MyToday MOBS. Reliance Mobile, the second largest mobile service provider offers mobile blogging as well.

I read somewhere and I am sure you would have too, that in 2007, five out of ten best-selling novels in Japan were originally written on cellphones.

Indians are big texters.

Will the average Indian reader opt for Mobile Novels?

Hemingway wrote a 6 word story:
“For Sale. Baby Shoes. Never worn.”

I wonder whether the mobile novel will ever be half as good.

Previous stories in the Series
The State of Citizen Journalism in India Part 1 - blogs, photos & videos

The State of Citizen Journalism in India Part 2 - Television & Radio

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The State of Citizen Journalism in India Part 2 – TV and Radio

This is part 2 of my 3-part series on Citizen Journalism in India. In Part 1, I wrote about Blogs and photos and in the last part, I will write about the phenomenon of Micro Blogging/Mobile Blogging that is sweeping across India.

India is unique in the sense that it has more national TV news channels than any country, including the United States. The bitter competition that has ensued means that the channels go to lengths to stand out, sometimes to sad lengths, it must be said. However, all TV channels encourage Citizen Journalists to send in their stories.

There are economic reasons working behind these 'noble' actions.

Every 24x7 channel needs content to stay in business. After all, how many times can you show clips borrowed from anyone between National Geographic and Video Zonkers?

As a result, TV News Citizen Journalists are having a good run in India. We saw their importance during the Train Bomb Blasts in Mumbai in 2006.

Two news channels which have adopted Citizen Journalism in an especially big way are CNN-IBN and IBN 7, two sister channels from the same parent company, IBN, CNN-IBN is in English and IBN7 is in Hindi.

In 2007, we also saw BBC launch an initiative to find citizen journalist editors for its bbcurdu.com, which offers news in Urdu language.

Another TV channel, Amrita TV in South India has launched a 90-episode reality show focused on nurturing Citizen Journalists.

So far, so good.
But, something is amiss.

As a country on its way up, boosted by a young population, with a growth rate of 9%, India needs better governance, the lack of which, many say, results in widespread corruption.

We have laws for everything but somehow, we haven’t figured to put our politicians and government servants accountable.

News Magazines and News Channels ‘indulge’ in the occasional sting operations, catching important (and obviously stupid) persons in the Act of accepting bribes and kickbacks.

I said ‘indulgent’ because often easy targets are picked up and done in way that later, you can’t justify in the courts (yes, you will be taken to the courts) that it was done for the cause of public benefit.

One finds it odd that these news TV channels do not encourage Citizen Journalists to undertake Sting Operations, capturing lawmakers and officials ‘in the Act’. Perhaps, a comprehensive program to ‘promote and protect’ Citizen Journalists is needed.

Thus, for aspiring Citizen Journalists, who have noble ideals in mind, Youtube.com is always there.

Meanwhile, TV news channels are happy plucking the low-hanging fruit and you are left wondering whether these channels only consider Citizen Journalism as branding cum source of low-cost content.

Citizen Journalism and Radio
I feel Radio and Citizen Journalism are made for each other – radio is more immediate and available on tap for free. Imagine yourself stuck in a traffic jam and someone is ranting about some way-off-the-chart political idea on the Car FM radio. Give me an example of a more captive audience.

But, since the Indian Government does not allow private FM Radio stations ( a list of FM Stations in India is here) to offer news-based programming, I shall have to remain content with the traffic reports from Citizen Journalists. Which is a pity, since in January 2008 alone 31 new private FM stations opened up with business.
We need a meaningful break from all that incessant and inane Radio Jockey chatter.

2002 was a good year for radio in India. First, the government allowed local communities to start Community Radio services. Then, Raghav Mahato, a poor and illiterate man, only 20 years old, conjured up his own Radio station , Radio Raghav from spare parts and some, running it successfully until the government ordered it shut down in 2006 because it had no license to operate.

Radio Raghav was so popular that on Diwali one year, more than 400 radio sets were bought by people in the catchment area of Radio Raghav, which was easily available in a 10-16 kilometers of radius around the Mansoorpur village, near Hajipur in Bihar and a couple of hours of drive from the state capital, Patna.

If you are interested, you can read more about Radio Raghav here.

The much-heralded Community Radio initiative has not extended much beyond some elite college campuses.

(Note: It does not help that I live in a metropolitan city. But, I can vouch that till December 2007, there was no sign of Community Radio in a 100 kilometer radius of my native place in bihar).

The fact remains that despite the advent of Cable TV, Radio is still the most potent tool of Social Change in India, covering a rich plethora of lauguages, dialects, communities and sub-cultures.

You see, in electricity-starved villages, not every one can afford lead batteries (or, have ample electricity to charge batteries) to power TV sets but poor people do have Radios.

Incidentally, it does not take much moolah to establish a working radio station.

Radiophony, which is lobbying for Community Radio in Rural India, claims that "villagers can set up a low-powered, do-it-yourself radio station—with a half-watt transmitter, a microphone, antenna and a cassette player—for approximately $25. " Such a Community Radio Station can easily reach about a third of a mile (1.6 km), easily covering a small village of 1000 people.

We sure can do with more Radio Raghavs in India.

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The State of Citizen Journalism in India Part 1 – blogs, photos and videos

Everyone is a reporter now. This is fast turning out to be a cliche and thus, it does not surprise me to find that Citizen Journalism in India is thriving across different platforms and Indians are happy to use any tool they can get their hands on – blogs, blog networks, photo sites, video sites, mobiles...what else you got?

Task oriented by nature, Indians are delightfully platform-agnostic and have taken to reporting for Television news and Mobile reporting in a big way. In this article, the first of a three-part series on the State of Citizen Journalism in India, I will cover blog, photos and videos.

Freeing Citizen Journalism from platforms
It is best to see Citizen Journalism free from the constraints imposed by most so-called platforms. Citizen Journalism is not just limited to sites such as Ohmynews.com, Nowpublic.com, Newassignment.net and ‘destination’ sites. Having said that, I am not implying that there is anything wrong with these bold, fine services.

Where does the Indian Citizen Journalist choose to speak out, giving all of us engaging alternatives to the mainstream news here in India, which some have charitably coined as '95% drivel & 5 % news'.

Citizen Journalism Destination Sites
Two big sites come to mind. Merinews.com, backed by IT entrepreneurs is very active with citizen journalism, although it is jarring to see Citizen Journalism as just another link on the navigation bar.

Instablogs.com, which has been around since October 2005, has better design and publishes stories from Citizen Reporters from November 2006. Instablogs is different in the sense that it pays for the stories it accepts to publish. Disclosure: I was the founding Managing Editor at Instablogs till October 2006.

Blogging platforms
The big three Indian portals Sulekha, Rediff and Indiatimes provide blogging tools to their readers and the activity is quite high.

Blogging Collectives
They are groups of bloggers who post interesting links on a common site. Started by US-based Indian students, Desipundit.com is a pioneering site in the field. Blogbharti.com was launched in 2007 and is doing quite well.

Blogging collectives are important and in my opinion can play a greater role if they have a Digg-like news submission and ratings section. Groups have proven to be the reason for success of social news sites such as Digg and Reddit (although, they can be abd thing as well, if they start taking themselves too seriously, blocking out all opposing points of views)

Teaching Villagers to be Citizen Journalists
Sweta Singh, who comes from the state of Bihar, one of the poorest places in India (I come from the same state) but now works in New Delhi has started on a noble mission of training citizen journalism to women panchayat (local village council) leaders in Bihar. The ‘MYOWN’ initiative is an experiment and Sweta is funding the initiative herself.

Student Bloggers
They are very active on blogger.com and wordpress.com and most are active participants on social networking sites including Orkut.com and I include social networking sites because Indians are very passionate about their heroes and issues and controversies centered around groups supporting this & that person/issue often spill out onto blogs and so on…

Recently News TV channel CNN-IBN launched the CNN-IBN Forum for Students. Purporting to be a platform for students to speak out, it appears to be a branding exercise as there are just a limited number of student bloggers and one is not sure how to sigh up, which is a pity.

So far, no news channel or newspaper has opened up a platform for Citizen Journalists in India, something along the lines of CNN’s recently launched iReport initiative. It seems like I will have to be content with seeing every big newspaper flashing mobile numbers and email addresses where everyone can send in stories.

Doc Holliday has reportedly said,
“My hypocrisy will only take me so far.”
Using blogging to bring change
There are some deep systemic problems with India. In the two-way avatar of the internet, citizens have a platform for their voice. They are no more dependent upon mainstream media, many of whom may dither to publish (and annoy) the powers to be.

In a recent report on e-democracy, the Economist newspaper wrote, “Citizens are not only the state's customers; they are also its owners.”

I look forward to the next level of Citizen Journalism in India:
Using web 2.0 tools to monitor government offices, government officials, voting records/attendance records of elected officials, allocation and usage of funds, who is in cahoots with whom,… it is a big list of things that must be monitored collectively by the public.

I look forward to mobile pictures and videos of Government Servants demanding or accepting bribes. Online video is an expensive proposition, I suggest using Youtube.

Moving on.

Like I said before, Citizen Journalists of India, and elsewhere in the world, do not need big platforms to speak out. The tools to speak out are plenty and are free.

Some places where you can find the Indian Citizen Journalist on a daily basis:

India on Nowpublic.com
India on digg.com
India on del.icio.us
India on Flickr
India blogs
India on Youtube
India on Technorati
15,957 blogs about india

Related article
Who are the top Indian Bloggers?

1. I think I must mention how Indian bloggers took up the IIPM scandal in earnest. More here. [disclosure repeat: I was the Managing Editor at Instablogs at the time.]

2. Governments will try to muzzle the Citizen's voice on the slightest of pretexts. For example, in the aftermath ofkx the 7/11 Mumbai train blasts, the Government of India decided to ban some blogs but the ISPs inadvertently blocked all blogs hosted on Blogspot. I am positive that this is not the last time we have seen a heavyhanded government at work.

Coming next: Part 2 of the State of Citizen Journalism in India, where I take up TV and Radio. In Part 3, I have covered the exciting phenomenon of Mobile and Micro Blogging.

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