Group Think

How WhatsApp has changed news in small-town India

01 December 2017

ANWAR RAZA CAN TALK animatedly for hours about his reporting adventures, local gossip, and the corrupt state of politics and the media in Uttar Pradesh. Even as he holds forth, his phone is likely to beep every few minutes and he is likely to interrupt himself regularly to field or make calls. His job demands it. Raza is a 27-year-old journalist based in the district of Banda, a place where the pace of life might be slow but news certainly breaks fast. He cannot afford to switch off his phone or keep it aside for too long, because Raza is part of a growing breed of journalists who conduct much of their trade on their phones. WhatsApp serves as a vital medium for exchanging text and visuals, keeping tabs on the local pulse through direct communication with a range of people and creating distinct communities for curated news stories.

Raza is a stringer, and, like most stringers, is not affiliated to a single media house or publication. He works for more than ten news channels, pitching, reporting and filing stories for them. He is often the conduit between local informants and editors in these news channels. Having been in the trade for over five years, he has built up a large network of sources, ranging from ordinary residents in different villages to top bureaucrats, local police and administrative officials. He has also cultivated his own team of informers and photographers, whom he contacts to get most things done.

Work on a typical story begins when Raza gets a tip from one of his informers, which he forwards to potential editors. Once he gets a nod of interest, he returns to the informer to gather more context and information. If needed, he may send one of his informers to get a quick bite from a source such as a local government official. For a video story, all these elements are sent to the news agency, which then stitches together all the components. When the news is published or released on channels, Raza sends a screen grab, and a link, if available, to his various WhatsApp groups. Occasionally, when he is asked to do a “phono”—a report from the ground delivered on the phone, during a news broadcast—his name appears on screen. He is meant to be paid per story, but more often than not, the remuneration comes late, and sometimes it doesn’t come at all. Like many local journalists in small-town India, Raza, too, makes a large part of his income by soliciting advertisements for various channels. Stringers are under as much pressure to bring in paid content as they are to bring news.

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    Disha Mullick is the director of strategy at Khabar Lahariya, and reports and writes when she can.

    Meera Devi is the chief reporter at Khabar Lahariya, focussing on training and special investigations. She has worked as a reporter in Bundelkhand for over 12 years.

    Keywords: gender technology journalism small-town India Yogi Adityanath Hindu Yuva Vahini