Tuesday, April 1, 2008

‘Citizen journalism is waiting to break the cocoon’

VIPUL KANT Upadhyay, CEO and Editor-in-Chief of merinews.com, began his keynote address, on the second day (Thursday, March 27) of AMIC Conference, at Brisbane, Australia, sharing his experience about Citizen Journalism. He said that his was almost a baptism by fire. Widespread corruption and nepotism in India had stirred him from his student days. His student activism days became the fountainhead of his deep commitment for participatory journalism.

He realised to empower democracy the voice of the people must be heard, loud and clear. The challenge was to free news from the chains and manacles of newsroom control. Though print journalism had come of age, TV channels made a dent with a youthful vigour, in India. Online media, on the other hand, was still in its cradle.

He explained that initially, his staff strongly favoured the print media. It was quite clear that competition in print media was fierce. Further, it had little or no place for development of a new news source. The choice, therefore, was for online media, as Internet was relatively an untapped source. It suited the twin purpose: the need of a new news source and a place for a new player (like his group) to make a name.

Upadhyay explained that 70 per cent of the national and regional market was ‘dominated by six major business groups’. There are 7000 regular publications from amongst 60,000 registered titles in the country. India has more TV channels than the US. There are 100 national TV channels and several hundred local channels. Similarly, there are numerous radio channels, especially in major cities of the country.

He added that in sharp contrast, the new media, Internet and mobile, is largely emerging and nebulous. Though conventional players have entered this arena, its rules and conventions are yet to defined tangibly. “Citizen journalism is waiting to break the cocoon and emerge like a pretty butterfly,” he smiled and said.

Talking about the media scenario, he stated, “Media outperformed the overall economy in the country. It is expected to cross US$18.6 billion by 2010. There are some 216 million readers for print news; some 600 million book readers; some 100 million television households; some 60 million Internet users; and some 185 million mobile phone subscribers (expected to swell to 462 million by 2011).”

The country has about 67 per cent literacy. There is a gradual shift in government policy to extend literacy beyond the domain of print. Furthermore, technology adaptation and adoption within the educated classes is taking place rather fast. Broadband Internet and mobile access would play a key role in the coming days. Even conventional media are increasingly using blogs, news portals and news aggregators like Google News. The precise role of citizen journalism in this backdrop remains uncertain.

Strangely, conventional media seems to be loosing touch with people’s pulse. Some decades ago the media indicated and predicted the nation’s pulse fairly accurately but in the recent times it failed to forecast political and other trends accurately, be it the 2004 general elections or the recent state (assembly) elections in Gujarat. Many a times, the political and commercial affiliations of the mainstream media are reflected in their inferences.

Upadhyay further explained how ‘style’ overshadowed ‘substance’. Often stories are improperly and insufficiently contesxtualised. Serving advertisers and other business connections take precedence over professional news practice. The self-righteous ‘Fourth Estate’ (media) has this know-all-what’s-best-for-the-people attitude has created disconnect between them and the people (their target audiences).

In sharp contrast, there is a growing disenchantment amongst citizens about the ‘quality’ of Indian news media. The obsession of the news media with political circus and horse-trading, with crises and violence, on the one hand, and with 15-minute celebrities, on the other hand has taken its toll. A lack of intellectual vigour and insight and serving political and business interests has eroded its image further. He asked, “Overall, is the effort of some 100,000 media staff producing stories about some 10,000 public figures, which are read or watched by some 1100 million citizens, justified by its outcomes?”

Major media players remain in two minds about their response towards citizen journalism. It varies from ‘news source’ to ‘letters to the editor’, while some others feel it’s ‘the new buzzword’ to be exploited in marketing their own products. A few others feel that ‘citizens’ cannot function as ‘journalists’, while they also realise that citizen journalism is emerging as an alternative to their own products. There is also an undercurrent of apprehension about the possible choice that citizens might exercise between these options.

The way conventional media have tried their hands in citizen journalism make an interesting study. Times of India offers ‘online letters to the editor pages’. CNNIBN reports on internal editorial processes, contrasting these with citizen journalism outputs. Some have introduced citizen journalism sections, as add-ons, in their products. There are some community newspapers, which have emerged with citizen journalism incorporated in their products. Merinews is a leader in the new media segment. A few startups either exist or have failed. Instablogs.com sources materials from AP newswire, Purdaphash.com that is still small and largely unknown, are some examples in the new media. Community radio is also emerging with support from the government, UNESCO and NGOs. This boom has resulted in increased sales of radios in many states on India.

He stated that India’s first participatory journalism news portal, Merinews, is a product with a mission. It’s this aspect of Merinews, which differentiates it from the competition. Mission is the USP of the grassroots journalism news portal. Many publications had lofty mission, particularly during India’s freedom struggle. Now, most of these publications have no such mission, which explains the reason of their disconnect from their audiences.

Merinews is the people’s new platform to empower democracy. In the year 2007, the site won the prestigious Webby Award, which is likened to the Oscars of the web. Merinews thus shared the platform with sites like AOL.com, Bloomberg.com and CNN.com.

Upadhyay informed that to augment citizen’s participation in the political process, Merinews has launched a campaign, Citizen’s Manifesto – 2067, for next 60 years. The objective is to create a roadmap for the nation’s future. The said document would draw more people, actively in the political process. It’s rather sad that a minority decides the future of the nation. Studies have shown that just 35 per cent of the registered voters exercise their mandate. Politicians and bureaucrats, amongst others, have significantly contributed for the said project.

He stated that citizen journalism is still finding its foothold in India. More sites like Merinews need to come forward to make this revolutionary new media truly meaningful.

By Aniruddha Roy

Source: http://www.merinews.com/catFull.jsp?articleID=131589

Forget yourself for others, and others will never forget you.

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