Khabar Lahariya is an all-women media house that focuses on rural journalism. The women who report the stories also edit, produce, distribute, and market the newspaper. Working out of 13 districts in Bundelkhand in the states of Uttar Pradesh & Madhya Pradesh, with an all-women team of reporters and editors from Dalit and other marginalized communities, Khabar Lahariya works for the socio-economic-cultural transformation of the mediascape through its core beliefs and investigative journalism. It has won many awards including the Chameli Devi Jain Award for Women in Journalism, The UNESCO King Sejong Literacy Prize, Global Media Forum Award and many others. In this interview, Ritika Bhatia from Khabar Lahariya talks to Adhishree Adulkar and discusses the motivation of starting Khabar Lahariya, the training procedure and experience of women reporters, and the future of rural news.
The idea of grassroots digital rural journalism that Khabar Lahariya stands for is a model that is unique to you. What was your motivation behind starting such an organisation?
Khabar Lahariya started as a broadsheet newspaper in 2002, and it has grown in leaps and bounds since! Our diversity has been binged into our DNA. Khabar Lahariya was always envisioned as an organisation that would bring women into the frontline, and even within women, we aimed to bring forth those from marginalised communities. Our rural journalism follows the everyday stories of everyday people in areas that are completely out of the spotlight of media attention. The fact that a handpump is not working 200 Km from the city centre, in a gaon somewhere, is just as important as any other piece of news, and we have always believed that it is something that needs to be brought to people’s attention. And with this, we have been called a powerful local watchdog, an instrument for enforcing robust grassroots governance and accountability.
When we are selecting out reporters, we do not go with the mainstream criteria. We believe that journalistic skills can be imparted. We look for women with basic literacy and a keen interest in the news. We do not always go for the most qualified candidate, but we choose the ones who fit with our vision and help us maintain our diversity, this kind of positive discrimination is not always seen in other organisations. We understand that qualifications also come from a class and caste capital. So, if one is hiring only on the basis of qualifications, it is inevitable that there will be a one-dimensional makeup. Since we train all our reporters in-house, we trust ourselves to be able to make a journalist out of a literate woman who has a passion for news! Our diversity is what makes us unique, and it is not something that we have ever compromised on.
By making women reporters in their local communities, you help many women find their voice and exercise agency. How does their perspective, their point of view, add value to their reportage and distinguish itself from the mainstream narrative?
Our motto is “Aap ki khabar, Aap ki bhasha” (your news, (in) your language), we believe that if the news is something that is consumed by upper-class people, it is about them, and is in their language, Hindi or English. We started from a vantage point of bringing on-board women who could be the voice of their communities, who could tell the story from its roots. Since the women were delivering news that concerned their villages, their castes, their voices, they were equal stakeholders in the process, and it was not a top-down approach, which is what is used by most media organisations. Rural journalism when it is conducted by mainstream, urban, national news, it ends up being like a postcard from rural India, instead of serious reportage. We actively wanted to change this narrative; this was weaved into our organisation’s vision. Some of our senior reporters and editors have been with us since the beginning of Khabar Lahariya, they have more than 16 years of experience with us, and so they have become experts in their own fields, and they have been working hard towards bridging the gap and bringing rural journalism to the frontlines.
How do you train the women to be reporters? What kind of challenges do you face while training them?
We publicize our hiring through word of mouth, in newspapers, on Facebook, and through NGO networks in a district where we are looking to hire. Applications are invited, and applicants are shortlisted on the basis of their basic qualifications (class 10 pass), woman, rural location and preferably from a marginalized background. Senior KL members travel to the districts to interview shortlisted candidates: a process that involves talking about their aspirations, family circumstances and testing their confidence, general knowledge and technical aptitude. If we think a woman has it in her (a factor we have come to know, after 15 years of training rural women, to be professional journalists in a region where there are none), then she is called for training and then an internship in Chitrakoot.
Finding women reporters from marginalized communities in rural parts of Uttar Pradesh, one of the most populous but economically underdeveloped states of India, is perhaps only slightly less of a challenge than retaining them.
Being a journalist is a very hands-on, dangerous job, and especially because rural India is still not used to seeing women journalists being the voice of the village and meeting and mingling with men and women from all castes and communities – these are the kind of barriers that our reporters face. We have to work with them and their families to help them confidently face such situations.
Credit: Khabar Lahariya
In nearly 2 decades of Khabar Lahariya, have you seen any change in the social structures of the villages concerning the acceptance of local female journalists? Are the women treated differently now than when you first started?
Journalism is still a very upper caste, male domain, so sometimes Khabar Lahariya journalists are the only women on the ground reporting a particular story. But over the years we have established ourselves and created our brand name in the villages. And we also have a long list of impacts that we have been able to bring about because of which also people’s perception towards our journalists and us has changed over time. This reputation that we have built over the years have helped us combat some of the social mores. However, despite all that, there are still challenges that we face, our reporters have and continue to face threats, they also face discrimination based on their gender and their caste. It has reduced over the years, and we have been able to build a loyal audience of 5 lakh subscribers and 10 million viewers on our website a month, we have become a trusted voice for many.
There has been an increase in the number of organisations reporting local news, as the mainstream Hindi and English news organisations tend to overlook regional issues. Do you think that this model of a local news ecosystem – where the reporters and consumers of the news are from the same region and are not associated with mainstream media houses is the way forward for the survival of local news?
Not just in India but all over the world there have been huge lay-offs across the board in the field of journalism, everyone is suffering in these difficult times. Media has been going through a tumultuous time over the last few years because of which journalists have started to compromise media ethics to a great degree. Our business model is constantly evolving to keep up with the changing times; we were a non-profit organisation till last year. Last year we became a media organisation since we decided that we have the necessary expertise in our field. We are now doing content, research, and outreach partnerships with national and mainstream media organisations, research institutes, universities, and non-profit organisations to fund our local reportage. However, we are fiercely independent and are not dependent on advertisements. While I can’t speak for the future, right now I think that we are in better shape than most media organisations, who are entirely based on an advertiser dependent model! I think that as long as we align with our principles and continue to report independently, people will continue to believe in our work and support us.
Just to give you a recent example with regard to Covid-19, in collaboration with the Breakthrough Organisation, we have been talking about how it is a gendered pandemic. We also did a series on the story of the migrants returning back home; Bundelkhand, where we are based, has the highest number of migrant workers. The region is parched and therefore there is no agriculture here, it also does not have a lot of industries, hence people are forced to go to other places for a livelihood. So, we had a huge influx of the returning migrants, and we reported on that in collaboration to FirstPost to ensure that their stories are also reaching the mainstream, English speaking, urban, national audience. We collaborate with other organisations like these who help us fund our work.
With regard to the sustenance of local news, I remember reading how there used to be a rural correspondent in most media organisations, who now no longer exists. There were investment and effort put into reporting rural news. This practice was also related to the then socio-political structures, where at that time it was a mixed public and socialist system where there was more importance given to rural India. However, that I think has changed over the last few years, where the focus has shifted from the villages and gone more and more towards the cities and the urban populations, that has impacted the sustenance of local news. And that makes our work all the more important since we know that nobody else is talking about these issues!
Is the prevalence of ‘fake news’ or ‘WhatsApp university forwards’ as high in rural India as it is in urban India? Why do you think that is?
Since everyone has access to the internet and WhatsApp, the prevalence, I would say, is just as much. WhatsApp has become everyone’s primary source information and communication, so the battle against fake news is just as much in rural India as it is in urban India, and we are constantly trying to combat it; our reporters act as local fact-checkers. The insurgence of fake news is a problem that the whole world is dealing with right now. And it has also lifted the façade separating some aspects of urban India from rural India, like the narrative of “dowry and all is a regressive thing that only happens in villages, it does not happen in cities because people in villages are illiterate and they do not know any better”, people are now able to see the truth behind these assumptions. We can now safely say that the whole country, whether urban or rural, whether literate or illiterate, whether upper-caste or lower-caste, is equally prone to this trap of misinformation and propaganda. On our level, we are working to eradicate it. Like with Covid-19, we did a lot of explainer videos to help people understand about the virus, their health and safety with regard to it, and also the lockdown and its economic implications. We also started a special Covid-19 video playlist busting misinformation and helping people by letting them know about the local resources that are available for them and teaching them how to quarantine. Despite there being a lockdown, we were very aggressively reporting on Covid-19 and were always on the front-lines. In our way, we are fighting this misinformation abyss.