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Civil Society was a family affair. Umesh published, Rita was the editorial board and their son served as photo editor. Their resources amounted to a single computer, a small car and decades of cumulative experience in mainline media.
“The civil society space was emerging 8 ½ years ago in India in the sense we know it today,” Umesh recalls. “I said ‘this space needs to be served by professional journalists. It doesn’t need to be served by activists, it doesn’t need to be served by academics, it needs to be served by communicators.’ ”
Until the magazine’s launch in 2003, Umesh worked with some of the biggest players in Indian media, helping to establish the Telegraph in his native Kolkata, and most recently serving as the Resident Delhi Editor for the Times of India.
Rita began her career in education in Kolkata, and in Delhi worked with organisations like the Center for Science and the Environment as a researcher and reporter. Her worked focused on issues in the social sector, issues otherwise under-covered in the Indian media at the time. Nevertheless, Rita says, “My stories always sold. I sensed there was a market.”
Umesh and Rita saw in this fresh market space an opportunity to create a new narrative within the media sphere. “There’s a market to tell the stories of things that work in India,” Umesh says, rather than repeating the all-too-familiar stories of mismanagement and corruption.
Initially, they targeted the NGO world, but found the audience for their reporting to be far wider than they expected. “As we went along we found that people were interested in these ideas,” Rita recalls, “and these people were doctors, they were lawyers, people in education, people in the corporate sector, the bureaucracy was interested, the political class was interested. Development is an issue that cuts across all sectors of society.”
The magazine became a bridge between disparate communities, keeping the corporate sector informed of good programs in the social sphere, and helping the social sector to track corporate interests in development projects.
The ability to report honestly across such a broad spectrum of interests and communities is contingent upon editorial freedom too often lost in mainline media to the interests of sponsors and advertisers.
“A democracy is as good as the information it has,” Umesh asserts. “If that information gets screwed up because of the kind of money that drives media, then we have a crisis, we have a problem. […] So what is the answer? The answer is to find new ways of funding media.”
New ways of funding media also requires new metrics for success. Traditionally, demography and circulation have been the all-important gauges within the media world, which, in turn, determine funding.
Small media, Umesh insists, needs to think about these numbers differently. “Independent media will always be small,” Umesh says. “The question is, can you make it sustainable, and can you make it influential.”
Though for now Civil Society publishes just 5,000 copies per issue, Umesh estimates a total readership of about 200,000 people, from corporate executives in the major metros, to aid workers in India’s most far-flung states, a network of readers connected to each other’s interests through media.
“Big media will say ‘I am influential because I have numbers. My response to that is, ‘I am influential because I have something to say,’” Umesh says.
In carving out a space for independent media in India, people like Umesh and Rita create an essential space for responsible, quality coverage of under-reported issues.
Small media, as Umesh puts it, “reaffirms the role of a journalist, the values of a journalist, the things you can do as a journalist.”
Michael Snyder graduated with a bachelors degree in English literature and comparative religion from Columbia University in 2010. Immediately after, he moved to Santiago, Chile, where he worked for This is Chile, the online publication for the government’s Fundación Imagen País. He now works primarily out of Mumbai. His work has appeared in publications like ArtSlant, Killing the Buddha, GQ, ELLE, Open and The Caravan.
The views expressed above are those of the author, and not necessarily representative of the views of the Mahindra Group.
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