Home >Opinion >Reinventing the news for Bharat

News is broken. Our most popular news show is a three-hour-long “debate" where, according to a fantastic time-series analysis, total speech time adds up to 150% of the show’s duration. This happens because on this show, more than one person speaks at the same time for 60% of the show. Its cornerstones are shouting, ad hominem attacks, cross-talk and opinions advertised as facts. And that’s just TV.

The widespread adoption of smartphones and streaming video has led to a world where fake news, sensationalism and partisanship have overwhelmed on-ground, fact-based journalism. In India, our English and Hindi news channels are disproportionately focused on the goings on in Delhi and are woefully out of touch with even large cities like Chennai or Bengaluru. Smaller towns and villages are reduced to puff pieces and poverty tourism.

A quick analysis of the prime-time slot (7pm-midnight) shows that the top three English news channels—Republic, Times Now and NDTV 24x7—spend nearly two-thirds of this time on “talking heads" debate shows where a topic of questionable national importance is analysed minutely.

Hindi, Tamil and other regional news channels fare better, with about 25% of prime time spent on debates. However, they’re still plagued by the same challenges of urban concentration, and often compete for airtime with other general entertainment channels. As a result, most of Bharat is starved of local and relevant “news they can use".

This has happened for a wide variety of reasons, not the least of which is the cost structure of a news network.

Licensing, broadcasting fees, studio and equipment costs typically work out to roughly Rs100 crore per channel per year. This, along with a studio-driven approach, basically means channels typically stick to covering major events in a limited number of cities to keep the overheads low.

But news doesn’t work that way. It can happen anytime, anywhere and it needs to be relayed to the people who need it the most as it happens.

Until now, achieving that objective was both impractical and absurdly expensive. But not in the age of the smartphone.

Today we have the opportunity to rethink news for Bharat from the ground-up. Every element of the news funnel is ripe for disruption—from the language of reporting to the equipment used for broadcasting, to the software tools used for cutting/editing/ad splicing—the rise of smartphones and the internet has made it possible to tailor a news offering for every corner of Bharat.

Some pioneers have already shown us the way. I read a fabulous report on FactorDaily on how in the district of Pilibhit in Uttar Pradesh, 250 kilometres from the nearest major city of Lucknow, local journalist Shivendra Gaur has reinvented local journalism. His creation—Rocket Post—is a full stack video news broadcast service that uses WhatsApp to reach its audience. Rocket Post’s 10,000 subscribers pay Rs100 a year for a few daily updates, and one 3- to 5-minute video bulletin posted at 8pm everyday.

That’s Rs10 lakh in annual revenues from just a fraction of a district. Thirty per cent of this revenue is paid as sales commission to the agents who enrol subscribers, and the rest is split between Gaur and his five-member team, which mostly works part-time. And all this without any ads whatsoever. Just pure user-sponsored journalism. To me this is the ultimate evidence that the unit model is working. There is really nothing stopping a strong team with a mix of journalism and tech experience from scaling this approach to every single district in India.

In order to build a full-stack mobile-first hyperlocal news network, we’ll need five key ingredients, or the journalistic equivalent of panchamrita (the offering at Hindu temples made of milk, yoghurt, honey, sugar and ghee).

The first of course, is the content creation engine. In the broadcast journalism world this meant a journalist, a camera person, a sound engineer, an outdoor broadcasting van and a driver. Along with some very expensive equipment. In the mobile version, we just need a person with a high-end smartphone. This is an order of magnitude cost reduction. This network could conceivably place a tag team of two reporters/stringers in every single one of India’s 700 districts, report in every major language spoken in the country and still be running a cheaper operation than a broadcast television channel.

The second is the editing and curation engine. What used to be done by custom software and heavy-duty workstations that together cost crores of rupees can now be done by a host of free apps like iMovie or Adobe Premiere Pro clipped right on the phone itself.

Thirdly, we need a sales engine to both acquire customers and advertisers. Rocket Post has shown us one viable model for customer acquisition by using local “agents" that sell subscription codes on scraps of paper. The same model could be applied for advertisers that could include local businesses. A small central team could run sales for larger brands with the massive value proposition of extreme targeting.

Fourth comes distribution. Here we’d go from the era of TV licences, broadcast bandwidth and all those messy licence raj era constructs to just one app. That one app could be WhatsApp like in the case of Rocket Post, or it could be a custom one. This is both a design and platform ownership call.

Finally, we’d need that one thing without which every news organization becomes a hollow advertising and propaganda machine — editorial integrity. A central team of experienced editors will have to work closely with their reporters to create programming that is not just relevant and current, but also unbiased and honest. This is a task easier said than done when faced with commercial and political pressures.

If we somehow manage to bring these ingredients together, it could prove to be a heady cocktail that turns Indian journalism on its head.

Seven-hundred different channels in 70 different languages delivered straight into the palm of the viewer’s hands. And if done right, such a network would speak truth to power while being heard by the powerless in their language. And that is a business worth building.

Sahil Kini is a principal with Aspada Investment Advisors. The Bharat Rough Book is a weekly column on building businesses for the middle of India’s income pyramid. His Twitter handle is @sahilkini

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