Online Media Watchdogs in India

Dr Surbhi Dahiya*
Deepak Kumar**

Abstract

Independent media watchdog websites are mushrooming and making their presence felt across the globe. This is an outcome of the growing blogging community providing an independent voice. These independent, rather alternate, media websites give the consumer an opportunity to widen their perceptions of many issues bringing plurality of views. This paper aims to explore and study the emerging alternate media watchdog websites, their ownership pattern, organizational structure, content and popularity.

Introduction

With the rise of the internet, many websites have come up with different objectives. Some of them check the media version of events against credible facts and opinions provided by journalists while others describe how mainstream newspapers and broadcasters operate as a propaganda tool for the elite interests that dominate modern society. Some of the known international media criticism websites include Media Channel, Project Censored, The Quill, Fair.org, Media Lens, Cursor, News Hounds, Transparency, Columbia Journalism Review, Daily Howler, etc. These websites invite readers to deliver their verdicts with comments. Other websites advocate greater diversity in the media by scrutinizing media practices that marginalize public interests and dissenting with their view points. Some other websites expose the neglected news stories and defend the working journalists when their voices are muzzled, providing constructive critique when called for and applauding exceptional hard hitting journalism. These websites also encourage the public to contact media with their concerns and to become media activists rather than passive consumers of news.

In an exclusive interview to the researcher, Vichitra Sharma, a veteran journalist, commented, “The alternate media websites are doing a great job. Somebody is required to be a watchdog on mainstream media because mainstream media is not a holy cow. The moment the mainstream media start thinking that they are ultimate in their opinion their downfall starts. Media gets its strength from the society and empowers the society.”

K.A. Badarinath, Policy Editor, Financial Chronicle, in an interview with the researcher opined, “Those websites that fashion themselves as online media watchdogs will gain credence by having their own stock-holding diversified so that they do not cater to interests of one group or the other. Having requisite expertise to oversee online media is very important given the diverse subjects dealt with by these news portals. Ideally, media professionals, academics and people with credible background need to be part of these websites that oversee the online media that are mushrooming by the day.”

Aniruddha Bahal in an interview to Wall Street Journal about mushrooming of these websites stated, “It is not as robust as some of us would like it to be. It is for this reason that I am toying with the idea of converting Cobrapost to a non-profit investigative media organization. The U.S. and Europe and even the Philippines have a healthy tradition in this area. Mainstream media has too many backroom ghosts they don’t want to touch. They have commercial interests which are paramount. There is the ever present bogey of loss of advertisement and sponsorship from doing investigative reports. I would like Cobrapost to be in a space where it doesn’t have to bother about these things.

Objectives

This paper aims to explore the online Indian watchdog, critical and alternate websites and do a descriptive case study of these websites. It also tries to analyse their ownership patterns and affiliations, organisational structure and content along with their popularity on social networking sites.

Indian Case Studies

The Hoot: Research and commentary website

“The Hoot” website was created under the auspices of the Media Foundation in 2001 and is based in New Delhi. The Foundation is a society of like-minded individuals set up with a view to enhancing and strengthening research pertaining to media.

In an e-mail interview, Sevanti Ninan, the editor of The Hoot, told the researcher, “It is a research and commentary website. It sticks to writing on a single subject.” Ninan further said, “It runs on donations and grants and has no office, hardly any staff.” The Media Foundation runs on grants from both organizations and individuals. Crowd sourced funding started in 2013 to support The Hoot.org has come from individuals giving small amounts, amounting to Rs 3.8 lakh so far. The Media Foundation received two grants of Rs 4.5 lakh each from the Vikram Sarabhai Foundation in April and July 2014 respectively.

According to its official website: “This portal is the outcome of the concern felt by a group of practising journalists and some recent trends in journalism in this part of the world. It is an attempt to revive a concern for media ethics, restore focus on development in the subcontinent, and preserve press freedom. It will attempt to hold a mirror to the way journalists practise their craft in this region. It will be devoted to examining issues of accuracy, fairness, right to information, censorship, and the responsibility of the media. It is aimed at journalists, users of the media including lay readers and viewers, and students and teachers of journalism and communications. Particularly for the last group, as for media professionals, it attempts to bring together several relevant links and readings. It also attempts to provide tools for communities and individuals to interact with the media.”  The official page of The Hoot has 30,780 no of likes on Facebook and 20.2 K followers on Twitter, where they post their stories and updates regularly.

Beyond Headlines (BH): Voice of the voiceless

Beyond Headlines, an alternative news portal, updates the readers about that information and analysis that is ignored by the mainstream media. Afroz Alam Sahil, Editor (Investigation) of BH who is better known as RTI Express in the Indian media circles, said in an exclusive interview to the researcher that the aim of establishing this website is to cover news that don’t get coverage in the corporate,/politically motivated, media houses. The major issues that this website writes on are human rights including Dalits, tribald, minority and youth centered problems. He added that the need to speak the language of the oppressed/depressed sections of our societies led to the start of BH.

A real crusader by nature, Sahil has 5000 RTIs to his credit and believes in transparency and accountability for a democratic government.  Afroz said during the interview, “We collect information through RTI, ground field work and writings of academicians, activists and research scholars from various leading institutions throughout India and abroad.” We generally don’t focus on creating ‘hit news’ but ‘sensitized news’. In short, we raise voice of the voiceless.

As claimed in their official website, it has stood among others for inclusive growth, social and financial inclusion, capacity building, human rights, communal harmony, democracy in belief and practice, freedom of press, transparency and accountability in government and sustainable development. It is associated with INSAAN International Foundation which is an emerging platform for community service, policy research and advocacy.

Speaking on the user ship he said, “In the era of globalization, social media does speak the language of the youth. You can find that most of India’s leading news firms are on social media; that means it has user ship.” The main target audience of the website as told to the researcher are the commonman, concerned government authorities, researchers and activists. Speaking about the old and the new media, Sahil said, “I believe online media platform is far better than billion dollar news agencies.”

He further said: “We are having voluntary editors, correspondents, investigators and fieldworkers across academia, journalism, activists and students. At present, we have some 35 persons in our team. They are not paid and working voluntarily. We also invite people to do freelancing but it depends on news story and critical cases. The official page of Beyond Headlines has 25,219 no. of likes on Facebook.

Cobrapost: The guardian of knowledge

Cobrapost is an Indian news website and television production house, known for its investigative journalism which has involved sting operations. It is an investigative news portal. Aniruddha Bahal, an Indian journalist and author, founded the online magazine Cobrapost.com. in 2003. At that time BahaI had just exited Tehelka and wanted to create an independent media presence. Cobrapost transferred the ownership of its website to a society, Forum for Media and Literature (FML), which is registered under the Societies Registration Act XXI of 1860, a British era provision under which most of the NGOs in the country are registered. Till this transition, Cobrapost.com was owned by a company called Sri Bharadwaaj Media Private Ltd (SBMPL) in which Bahal held 97% shares through another company Red Tiger Productions in which he has 99% shares. A foreign investor holds a small stake in Sri Bharadwaaj Media.

In an interview to Wall Street Journal, Cobrapost founder Aniruddha Bahal emphasised why he thinks India needs more investigative journalism. Commenting on the name “Cobrapost”, he stated, “At that time the logic was to have a high recall name for the Web. But in Hindu mythology snakes are also guardians of knowledge.”

Some major stories of the website that established the name of the website in the media industry include Operation Duryodhana that exposed eleven Members of Parliament (MPs) accepting money for tabling questions in Parliament. This investigation led to expulsion of the eleven MPs from Parliament, the largest expulsion of MPs in the country’s history. In March 2013, its Operation Red Spider charged that some banks in India were involved in money laundering, using false accounts to convert black money into white. Bahal commented in his interview that the so-called bluest of blue chip companies are the top of the heap banks which claim to have reams of code of conduct rules.

As claimed in their official website, Bahal says Cobrapost has received about Rs 21.86 lakh in donations so far. Lawyers Fali Nariman and Prashant Bhushan, broadcast media editor Ashutosh and polling agency C-Voter are among those who have donated money. Bahal stated in his interview, “We are a television production house which has had commercial relationships with India’s leading news channels including Star News, Aaj Tak, Network 18 and Star One. We also do independent reporting.”About a dozen people work at Cobrapost today. It posts on Twitter and Facebook at in interval of 2-3 hours. No. of likes on Facebook-(2458) and No. of followers on Twitter (9279) speak about the popularity of the website.

News Laundry: Srutinizing the mainstream

With its brand of satire, interviews and general irreverence Newslaundry, a media watchdog website, has created quite a buzz in the online community. It was founded by a veteran journalist Madhu Trehan, in 2012. Newslaundry.com features video and text that critiques the media, anchors on television, and questions the source of stories. Madhu Trehan, Prashant Sareen, Abhinandan Sekhri and Roopak Kapoor have an equal share in the website.

Madhu Trehan, a well known journalist and the founding Editor of India Today in an interview with Mumbai Boss shared the story that led to the foundation of the Newslaundry. “What happened was that two young men Abhinandan Sekhri and Prashant Sareen who used to work for me at Newstrack had a successful film production business called Small Screen. They were producing programmes like Highway on My Plate for NDTV and other travel programmes for National Geographic and Fox Traveller. They approached me saying ‘Why don’t we do a programme that critiques the press – just one programme which we’ll package and sell to one of the channels’. We were still discussing things with the channels, when the Radia tapes broke. Then, we got this very strong reaction that you can criticise everybody else except the press. So we realised that we won’t get the kind of freedom required for a programme like this and all of us came to the conclusion that we need to be on the net. We thought the need of the hour was to critique the press considering the state of journalism in India today and from a programme it became a website.”

When asked about the revenue model of the website in the above mentioned interview, Madhu Trehan answered, “The revenue model is that we really hope it will go the subscription way which is more a brick-and-mortar style. I’m not quite sure of the valuation game; I think that’s asking for trouble. Get a huge valuation and get a huge amount of money. We’re more in the game of playing it smaller, not taking $20 million but taking smaller investment and, hopefully doing it through crowd sourcing. If crowd sourcing doesn’t work, the next step will be advertising.”

TwoCircles.net : Voice for the marginalized sections of India

TwoCircles.net (TCN) said to be a non-profit voice for the marginalized sections of India was founded by Kashif-ul-Huda in 2006. Registered in the state of Massachusetts, USA, its primary emphasis is on covering stories related to the marginalized and the unprivileged sections of the society, epecially Dalits, tribals and women, by covering more stories about issues related to them with a major focus on Indian Muslim population and issues related to them.

In an exclusive interview with the researcher, Mohammad Reyaz, Assistant Editor (India) of the website stated, “It is the mainstream news portal of the unprivileged.” According to Reyaz, “The lack of positive stories about the unprivileged, the problem of misinterpretation of fatwa and the lack of knowledge and information in the mainstream media about the various unprivileged sections created a demand for a website that can carry issues and news related to the unprivileged and this is when TwoCircles comes into the picture.”

In another interview with Zine, Kashif-ul-Huda talks about the mainstream media and the depictions of the Muslim community. He stated, “As far as the so-called ‘mainstream’ media is concerned, there are indeed biases against Muslims and other marginalized communities, but I believe it has also to do with the nature of the corporate media. They are set up to maximize profits, so if they think a story is interesting or sensational and will sell well, they will broadcast or publish it without thinking too much about consequences or even checking facts. I don’t think they are driven by hate against Muslims, but, yes, some journalists need to be educated about Islam and Muslims. Some of them may personally be prejudiced against Muslims under the influence of the Hindutva-Sangh ideology, but I believe that the majority of Indians are free of this prejudice.” The website has about 17,754 likes on Facebook and 659 followers on Youtube.

Gulail.com: Investigative watchdog

Founded in 2003, Gulail is a news portal devoted to investigative journalism in India. As claimed in their official website, it is currently owned by a company called Roving Media Private Ltd, but Ashish Khetan is reportedly in the process of setting up a non-profit Section 25 company, a trust or a society to manage and run the operations of Gulail.com. Khetan, in an interview published in the Economic Times, also said he tried speaking with various investors without any headway and even approached Google Ads to see if they could get some revenues through that route. “But since we failed to come up with a viable business model we are in the process of winding it (company) up. Till date we have not earned a penny in revenues nor is there any hope of any earnings,” he says. The idea is to now fund our journalism through charity”.

The website is actively working on investigative journalism stories of public interest. The website claims to stay on a story and report on it until there is a logical conclusion or a change in the story. Illegal Mining syndicate in Goa , a snoopgate scandal case in Gujarat, focussed attention on the website among the Indian media scenario. The website has 5299 likes on Facebook and 793 followers on Twitter.

Scroll.in: Classical critical approach

Offering newsfeed of the most important political and cultural stories of India, Scroll.in, founded in 2012 by Samir Patil, is an independent news, information, and entertainment venture. The website follows the classic critical approach to stories with rigorous reporting, objective analyses, and expert commentary. The website works on a digital daily format, giving news analysis, reports and commentary of important Indian events and matters. The website is run by US-based publishing company Scroll Media Inc.

Before founding Scroll.in, Samir Patil, an alumnus of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, founded ACK Media, an entertainment and education company for the youth which was later sold to the Future Group. He also co-founded Smaash Entertainment Pvt Ltd, a sports based entertainment centre, and fashion portal for women, Styloot. The website has a Facebook page with 24,780 likes and has 6,822 followers on Twitter.

The website is funded by Omiyar Network, the philanthropic VC firm set up by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, along with participation from Media Development Investment Fund (MDIF), a New York based organization that provides affordable financing and technical assistance to media organizations along the world.

MediaNama: Digital world reporter

MediaNama is a website that covers the news of the digital world, including product launches, mergers and acquisitions of digital companies, venture capital funding, industry research, joint ventures and other business developments related to the world of the internet and mobile communities, and content like music, gaming, videos, etc.

Along with covering the commercial enterprises, MediaNama also reports on the media trends and the government policies related to the digital world. With the growing dependence on the digital world, great opportunity awaits digital journalism.

The website was founded by Nikhil Pahwa in 2008. In an interview with blogadda.com about his website Media Nama he said, “At MediaNama we write about business developments related to the telecom and digital media industry in India, particularly sharing our perspective on government policy, business practices and giving feedback to companies about their new products. My personal blog was something of a mixed bag – politics, economics, finance, business models, short stories, and sometimes completely random posts. I haven’t had time to update the personal blog for a while now, but the temptation is always there. I do update on Twitter quite frequently.”

The website has a Facebook page with 8,925 likes and 10K followers on Twitter. MediaNama is owned by MixedBag Media Pvt Ltd. The website has sponsors Spice Digital, Antfarm, India.com, Getit, Google and E2E. During the above-mentioned interview when asked about the revenue generation of the website, he relied, “So far our primary revenue stream has been research. Classifieds have also earned us some revenue. Advertising hasn’t quite kicked in because we’re still gauging the market. We’re a specialized niche site which targets investors, entrepreneurs, top and middle management – decision makers who want more from their news and want independent analysis. We target a specific niche – telecom and digital media companies. Unfortunately, the advertising market today appears to be operating at a bulk level and the advertisers, agencies and networks appear to treat niche publications the same way as mass media sites. Ours is not an audience that will fill out a form for lead generation or maybe even click on an ad. For us it isn’t about how many are reading but who is reading and how an association with us impacts brand perception and recall at the time of decision making. It’s about reaching out to that one guy who matters.”

The portal reported a story on Times Private Treaties, which was cited in the Press Council of India’s report on “paid news”. They also made submissions to the Standing Committee on Information Technology in 2013 regarding the issue of paid news. The story occupied a great place in the mainstream media and was taken up by many mainstream media channels and newspapers.

MediaHive: Media jobs and opportunities

MediaHive is a journalism website that provides an insight on the jobs and opportunities available in the field of journalism in print, electronic and online world. It acts like a powerhouse of journalism and mass communication and provides information to the budding and professional journalists to know anything about the media industry. MediaHive also has a special section for freelancers, where they can upload their profiles, and thus can enhance their chance of getting more freelance assignments and permanent jobs in the industry.

Conclusion

With the IT revolution in the usage of social platforms, alternate media websites as discussed above have become a tool in the hands of working journalists to work independently without any organizational pressure, providing a platform for investigative reporting as well as reporting for the unprivileged, as the mainstream media has always been under pressure because of one thing or another

The voice raised though the news stories of these media websites are catering to the sections ignored by the mainstream media and often come up with stories and news that attract huge coverage by the mainstream media later. These sites attract a diverse readership, but they believe that the mainstream media is failing to tell people the truth about how bankers, corporate oligarchs and governments are working hand in glove to deceive people and strip them of their rights. Not only it has democratised the news dissemination system but hasalso provided a way out to get deep into news without using the mainstream media.

These websites are still emerging on a very small scale and are mostly run by trust and funding agencies and do lack a proper revenue generation system. These website need to have a proper revenue generation system to ensure that the space for real journalism practices survives and develops with time. The cutting of the cost in news production and news dissemination using online medium has revolutionised the world of news. The decreasing dependability on mainstream media and increasing alternate voices on every topic related to national or international importance provide a healthy platform for journalism practices.

References

  1. http://blogs.wsj.com/indiarealtime/2013/03/21/qa-what-is-cobrapost/
  2. http://www.thehoot.org/web/home/aboutUs.php?cid=18&bg=1 – accessed on 3rd September 2014
  3. http://www.thehoot.org/web/home/aboutUs.php?cid=26&bg=1http://www.thehoot.org/web/home/aboutUs.php?cid=26&bg=1 – accessed on 3rd September 2014
  4. https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Hoot/103902802984287 – accessed on 3rd September 2014 and https://twitter.com/The_Hoot
  5. http://beyondheadlines.in/about/ – accessed on 3rd September 2014
  6. https://www.facebook.com/BeyondHeadlinesnews accessed on 3rd September 2014
  7. http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2013-12-07/news/44909503_1_aniruddha-bahal-cobrapost-com-investigative-journalism accessed on 3rd September 2014
  8. http://blogs.wsj.com/indiarealtime/2013/03/21/qa-what-is-cobrapost/
  9. http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2013-12-07/news/44909503_1_aniruddha-bahal-cobrapost-com-investigative-journalism accessed on 3rd September 2014
  10. http://www.newslaundry.com/about-us/ accessed on 4th September 2014
  11. http://mumbaiboss.com/2014/03/18/editors-notes-madhu-trehan-of-newslaundry/ accessed on 4th September 2014
  12. http://mumbaiboss.com/2014/03/18/editors-notes-madhu-trehan-of-newslaundry/ accessed on 4th September 2014
  13. http://twocircles.net/about.html#.VAgu8ajohSl accessed on 4th September 2014
  14. http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/2009/sikand070209.html accessed on 4th September 2014
  15. http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2013-12-07/news/44909503_1_aniruddha-bahal-cobrapost-com-investigative-journalism/2 accessed on 4th September 2014
  16. http://gulail.com/vedanta-a-major-player-in-goas-illegal-mining-syndicate/ accessed on 5th September 2014
  17. http://gulail.com/snoopgate-new-tapes-nail-bjp-lies/ accessed on 5th September 2014
  18. http://blog.scroll.in/about/ accessed on 5th September 2014
  19. http://www.mdif.org/ accessed on 5th September 2014
  20. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MediaNama accessed on 5th September 2014
  21. http://blog.blogadda.com/2009/04/16/interview-with-nikhil-pahwa-of-medianama accessed on 5th September 2014
  22. http://www.medianama.com/2014/07/223-thank-you-sponsors-spice-digital-antfarm-india-com-fortumo-e2e/ accessed on 5th September 2014
  23. http://www.medianama.com/?s=times+private+treaties accessed on 5th September 2014
  24. http://www.mediahive.co.in/about_us.html accessed on 5th September 2014

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