Why is it a big deal?
It is commonly said that one cannot understand India without knowing rural India. Indeed 72% of the Indian population lives in villages. But sadly or strangely there have been no professional ruled newspaper for rural India. A research by the journalist Vipul Mudgal on the news items in the six top-circulation dailies reveals that, on average, papers devote 2% editorial space for their flagship editions to the issues and concerns of rural India. As for the biggest portion (36%) of this meagre news coverage, it only deals with issues such as crime, general or political violence, accidents and disasters. As the Indian media blog Churumuri summarizes: “Everybody only just loves a good farmer suicide.”
In a very insightful article, Chandrahas Choudhur explains why it is such a big deal to address this population. He says that even though “economic growth trickles down to the villages, [and] consumption is now growing at a faster rate in rural India than in urban India […], the terrible thing, though, is that urban Indians don’t know enough about the advances made, or obstacles suffered, or technological and economic revolutions experienced in rural areas.” From his opinion, two main reasons are to blame. First, “because rural India is so fragmented by languages, so vast, and much of it so remote. But it is mostly because India’s newspapers are run mainly by members of its upper and middle classes, and cater overwhelmingly to urban readers”.
Tackling directly with those issues, two amazing initiatives that we were lucky enough to meet are trying to give a voice to those 830 millions lives in rural areas.
Khabar Lahariya: rural women empowering themselves and the whole community through information
Founded in 2002, Khabar Lahariya is an eight pages weekly newspaper published in seven districts of Uttar Pradesh, the most densely populated state in India. Nirantar, a centre for gender and education in New Delhi, started the newspaper, as a way to empower rural women and make them actresses of their information. Starting with ten women, Khabar Lahariya is now autonomously written, edited, produced, distributed and marketed by forty marginalized women. Although these women weren’t journalists or did not even come from strong literary background, they were fully trained by Nirantar and do ensure a highly qualitative content.
Those women also acquired a critical role in the community, encouraging public interactions and gathering inputs to cater to the specific needs of the women. Meanwhile, frequent workshops have also been conducted by these women in order to encourage more people to have an in-hand practical experience of how to run a newspaper.
Khabar Lahariya carries news that is primarily of interest to its rural readership, supplemented with some national and international news. In addition to the common content for every edition, each district has its own page in its own local dialect. To make it affordable to everyone, the newspaper only costs two rupees, and is reaching more than 80 000 people. They are planning to reach a lot more: as they are still raising some funds, they expect to expand in five more districts in the next few years.
Gaon Connection, reinventing journalism from and about rural India
Neelesh Misra is India’s most famous oral storyteller. He is also an award-winning journalist, author of five books, a Bollywood scriptwriter, noted lyricist, a poet and a photographer. But the story that inspired him the most was his father’s: raised in a village, he had to walk hours every morning to go to school. His dream was to build a school for his village and years later this is exactly what he did. In forty years, it has helped change close to forty thousands lives.
Convinced that rural India is the key to India’s development and future, Neelesh Misrah is now reinventing journalism from and about rural India. A few months ago, on the 2nd of December, he launched Gaon Connection, the first professionally-run rural newspaper in India. As it is stated on their (beautiful!) website, Gaon Connection “aims at bringing their [rural India people] world, the things that matter, the subjects that count closer to them”. While doing that, they strive to connect villages (gaon means village in hindi) and cities, by providing a view on the changing landscape of villages to urban India.
The ambition is very high, just as the benchmark for content. Although they had to start from scratch because nobody knew how a rural newspaper should look like, they created an incredibly qualitative newspaper for their customers. Indeed, out of respect for them, they have the best paper quality possible, the whole newspaper is in colours and with a very visual design. Although close to 90% of the staff weren’t journalists at first, great professionals trained them with the same techniques as for “normal” journalists and the team is now a creative mix of rural and urban journalists who are learning from each others daily. In addition to the regular staff, two of India’s most famous television journalists are regular columnists. A famous senior journalist from Chicago is also writing regular pieces and Neelesh Misrah himself actively participates to the content.
Using those networks along with his reputation – he tells stories on the radio to 32 million people every day in 35 cities – Neelesh Misrah is fully using social media to raise funds and awareness with online campaigns about the project. The results are impressive: the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh and every possible media correspondents attended the launch of the newspaper. They have already been approached by several spending agencies and investing companies, and a mainline newspaper offered to partner with them. But for Neelesh Misrah, the heart of Gaon Connection’s philosophy and innovation is first about having people participating, feeling that they have an ownership in the newspaper and that it is not owned by an industrial organization like others.
And the innovation goes even beyond a newspaper for rural India. As a storyteller, Neelesh Misrah is more than aware of the literacy gap that exists in India: if one out of two people is not able to read or write in rural India, this is one out of two people that might not access the content. Gaon Connection’s breaking innovation is to create an audio newspaper on which all the contents are read by the reporters with their accent, their grammatical errors… just the way they would talk to their friends about it.
Two of India’s major service providers have already agreed to carry their content, meaning they will be able to reach hundreds of millions of customers on their cellphones. The users just have to call one number to hear the newspaper and the audio experience is just really like flipping to the pages of the newspaper: at any point one can press a button to go to another section, or to repeat the sentence, etc.
After only a few months of existence, Gaon Connection is a twelve-pages weekly newspaper, produced in 10 thousand copies and distributed in 35 districts in Uttar Pradesh. And the ambition is no less than reaching the 32,000 villages of India. India’s newspaper industry is growing: the rising levels of literacy and income and rising aspirations make newspapers seen as a commodity of empowerment. But what will really enable them to reach their goal is the incredible innovative spirit of Gaon Connection and of his founder Neelesh Misrah. And at the end, the best story he will read in the future might be the one he is creating right now.