What Happened to Good ol’ Journalism?

BY EDWIN KOO
Apr 15, 2010
*Special to asia!

Who says bigger is always better? Coming from an urban newsroom, this scribe learns a humbling lesson from Khabar Lahariya’s neo-literate, small-town journalists.

Size matters.

In the business of print media, this is often the mantra. After all, there is often a pecking order that dictates how press passes are handed out at red-carpet events. And successful careers in print journalism have usually been defined as moving from small papers to big papers, big papers to international publications.

From small fry in a pond, to big fish in the ocean, if you will.

Similarly, a publication’s importance is, more often than not, measured by the “weight” of the stories it carries. The more people your stories are perceived to affect, the more important your stories are, and hence, the more likely you are to be taken seriously.

Such is the lesson the world has taught us.

Until I arrived in the town of Banda, somewhere in the southern part of Uttar Pradesh, which is India’s most populous state, swelling with 190 million people. Banda district alone has more than 1.5 million people.

Banda is the one of the two bases for Khabar Lahariya, or “News Waves”, a rural newspaper run by marginalized women from the Dalit caste, the Kol tribe, and the Muslim faith. Another edition is produced from Karwi, Chitrakoot district, about 70 km east.

Every week, a group of about 10 women would meet in the office to decide which stories go into the paper’s eight pages.

There are no grand meeting tables or posh swivel chairs that promise to be kind to your back. Instead, you will find worn nylon mats strewn across the floor. For the entire day, the women sit cross-legged in a circle, and discuss their ideas and stories.

Children are a common sight at these meetings. A baby would cry, or the meeting would go on while a mother breastfeeds. Some evenings, the meeting continues in gas-light, as power outage hits town.

From this dinghy office space in the heartland of Indian poverty, these simple and gutsy women, some only semi-literate, run the rural newspaper that would expose the darkness they live in.

 

335 Sunita, 25, carries her 4-month-old baby to a production meeting at Khabar Lahariya office in Banda, Uttar Pradesh, India. Photo credit: Edwin Koo

 

In the week that I spent in Banda, these women showed me what it was like to practise journalism against all odds.

Everyday, the women of Khabar Lahariya would travel to far-flung, hard-to-reach villages to do two things: report on stories, and sell the newspaper they author. They would spend hours walking, going door-to-door in the scorching sun, to bring the only Bundeli-language newspaper to their readers.

In one run, a reporter sells about 60-100 copies. In the process, some of their readers would invite them to sit for a cup of chyai (sweet milk tea), and share their grouses and hearsays. After the distribution run, the reporters would venture to neighbouring villages to check out tip-offs and follow-up on leads.

This unique arrangement, combining daily distribution with daily reporting, is a laborious one – but the formula has sustained this model of village journalism for more than seven years.

They have no marketing, circulation, or ad sales departments to do the “dirty work”.

But I haven’t heard a word of complaint from these hardy folk.

 

336 Prema, 25, takes a tempo to Khurhand, about 20km from Banda to distribute newspapers. In about 3 hours, she sells 80 copies. She then takes a horsecart and changes to a tempo to go the village of Badokhr where she gathers news. Photo credit: Edwin Koo

 

I recall my five years of working in a media conglomerate, and see the stark difference in attitudes. At a national broadsheet that has a circulation of 400,000, journalists would grumble that it was yet another boring press conference, or that this so-and-so newsmaker has not been picking up calls for the last hour.

I recall how shoddy journalism can become, because reporters had an avalanche of “press release stories” to fill the pages that day. So an army of “armchair reporters”, rooted firmly in their office cubicles, would be making one phone call after another to “plug in the quotes”, instead of going to the field to talk to people, to observe what’s really going on.

I recall the editor-in-chief making a Powerpoint presentation to lecture us on how readership has once again been shrinking, that circulation is down, and that profits are taking a hit – without ever stepping out to meet a single reader.

The women of Khabar Lahariya, who only have print run of 5,000 and a readership of 35,000, know little about how we urban – or urbane media - conduct our “business”.

At two rupees, or US four cents a copy, the rural newspaper is priced for the poor, because the people who operate the newspaper believe information shouldn’t be an exclusive right of the privileged.

There are no bylines, which doesn’t matter to the reporters. In fact, bylines would have endangered them, they who often write against the rich and powerful to expose their misdeeds.

Quite ashamedly, I recall myself lashing out at sub-editors who had either misspelled my byline or forgotten to include it. For us urban journalists, bylines are an affirmation of our work, our personal ticket to an ego trip.

When I look at these women and their struggles, I can’t help but wonder aloud: whatever has become of our first-world journalism? The rigorous pursuit of truth, the humility to admit our ignorance, and the dedication to public service… Where have these tenets gone to?

It is ironic that these values have found refuge in an unassuming newspaper, unheard of until it recently bagged the UNESCO King Sejong Literacy Prize.

“The award is a kind of recognition for the women’s efforts. There was a time when the women were not taken seriously, and international awards like these help establish their credentials as journalists and confirm their identity,” said Nirantar’s Shalini Joshi, 35.

Still, at Khabar Lahariya, there is no hint of the international prestige that these women have gained through their hard work. Life goes on; stories continue to be told, in the same down-to-earth way they have always been told.

In their own quiet way, the women at Khabar Lahariya seem to be telling the complex journalistic world out there: forget the frills and distractions; just go back to the basics of good journalism.

edwin kooEdwin Koo is a Singaporean photojournalist , who has been based in Nepal since September 2008. It is a labour of love to record down his experiences and fleeting thoughts , as he goes about photographing and documenting the fledgling Himalayan republic. You can also see pictures of everyday Nepal at his photoblog by the same name.