New Delhi: Four months ago, in the middle of the night, a land mafia demolished Santo Joseph’s house. It had stood unoccupied on a little plot in Dodda Nagamangala, a village close to Bangalore’s glittering Electronic City and yet vulnerable to the mafia’s extortion.
“When I first heard of the mafia, I’d begun going to the village every weekend, to stand there and talk to site owners and residents,” says Joseph, a human relations manager at a Bangalore company. But after he took an initiative to form a residents’ association, the land mafia responded by tearing down his house. “That was when I wrote the article.”
Showing the way: Subramaniam Vincent and Meera K., founders of Citizen Matters which was launched in March. The website publishes around 10 pieces a week, with at least three submitted voluntarily by citizens. Hemant Mishra / Mint
His article appeared in August, with only minor editing for language, on Citizen Matters, an online interactive news magazine that exhorts Bangalore residents to contribute articles with the battle cry: “Speak up! It’s your city.”
On the ground in Dodda Nagamangala, Joseph has seen no improvement as yet. “But I’ve been getting plenty of calls from people in similar situations—even now, two a week,” he says. “And if people have taken note of the article, the next time we approach authorities, they will be forced to hear us.”
Since its discreet beta launch in March, Citizen Matters has democratically covered local news and civic issues, regularly beating mainstream newspapers to important stories and forcing them to follow suit.
“We felt there was so much happening at the local community level that the major papers were simply not covering well enough, and we wanted to address that lacuna,” says Subramaniam Vincent, a founder of Citizen Matters.
Perhaps the most flattering proof of how effectively Citizen Matters has been able to do that lies in one of Vincent’s claims: “We know of at least three newspapers watching us, including one or two that even have a staffer specifically maintaining a watch on our stories.”
The website operates on a so-called hybrid model. Citizens voluntarily submit three out of every 10 published stories, although Vincent notes that the proportion is increasing; the remaining seven are commissioned articles from freelancers.
The website publishes roughly 10 pieces a week for a base of readers that has grown more than fourfold in eight months, according to Vincent, who refused to divulge the numbers. True to its spirit of community journalism, these articles spring primarily out of civic woes.
On 23 September, a Citizen Matters journalist wrote about the city corporation’s violation of due process in appointing consultants for a road works project—a story that The Times of India then pursued and published on 31 October.
Other journalists have written about hospital wards infested with an antibiotic-resistant bacterium, about the displacement of small shops by the ongoing Metro rail project, and about waste segregation.
These quotidian topics have not traditionally been the preserve of Indian citizen journalism ventures.
Websites such as Merinews and Cplash function largely as forums for reader-written opinions on bigger news stories that have already been reported elsewhere.
Citizen Matters differs from these in its civic focus and its fresh reportage, just as it differs from other city portals that are content to carry business listings and event information.
Apart from the impact of the individual stories themselves, though, Citizen Matters has also pioneered in India a model for community journalism that many see as the inevitable future.
“We’re seeing smaller models like this evolve, and I see scope for these models,” says Bindu Bhaskar, an associate professor at Chennai’s Asian College of Journalism. “It’s a trend I see as positive. It makes for an active citizenry that is responding to issues around them.”
Bhaskar senses that the mainstream media has also started to create serious platforms for citizen voices.
“The best example was when The New Indian Express had an initiative to incorporate citizen inputs into their online medium, even if in a limited fashion,” she says. “Something like a community newspaper is strategically poised to capitalize on the Web.”
The Internet has already begun to loom over the agendas of community journalism projects. In Chennai, Vincent D’Souza is the godfather of neighbourhood publications, having steered a raft of newspapers such as the Mylapore Times and the Adyar Times into prosperity over the past 15 years.
Both of these newspapers—named after and circulating in specific Chennai localities—will go online within the next few weeks, although their print runs will still continue.
The key to the success of any of these ventures, of course, is still the almighty rupee.
“In the West, classified advertising moved online very quickly, and city portals could be sustained solely by classifieds,” Bhaskar says. “Here classified advertising is still with the mainstream print media. So that transition is going to be difficult. I don’t know if in India we can replicate the model.”
D’Souza’s newspapers, for instance, have relied on small, local businesses for their advertising revenues. “What we have to do is go back to the same guys and say that for only a slightly higher rate, we can give them the world by advertising online,” D’Souza says. “But you have to first understand the market, and show them how things work. You have to invest that kind of time.”
Even then, it may not be as easy as D’Souza would like. “People who are on the Internet more tend to advertise online more, so to that extent I think it will only be a certain kind of small enterprise that will take the lead,” says Santosh Desai, managing director and chief executive of Future Brands. “Not everyone who can potentially gain from it will have the inclination to do so.”
Starting off as he did online, Vincent has experienced some of that advertiser inertia at Citizen Matters.
“The local advertiser has to think that online is not a marginal medium,” says Vincent. “So they’re receptive, but when they have a budget and they have to spend so much for a coupon promotion or an inventory push, they will pay more for a print. It’s evolving, but it will take time. They don’t have too many options other than expensive dailies and freesheeters.”
For his part, D’Souza has doubts about how a community-driven website can be driven entirely by the community.
“You look at a lot of online participation in India, and it’s still at the level of ‘Yeah, man!’ and ‘Great, man!’ Many people still don’t even reply to emails,” he says. “When a community doesn’t engage, how will I grow this content?”
Vincent, however, allows himself to feel more optimistic. “We think we’ve created a space where people feel that a little bit of idealism in the public realm is cool,” he says. “And this is despite the widespread cynicism out there about how much is broken, and how hard it is for working people to get involved to fix it.”