In recent years, the greatest challenge for the news industry has been to find a business model for the internet age as lucrative as the one that sustained it during the print era. If the internet is forcing reluctant evolution from legacy publishers, it is encouraging enthusiastic innovation for scrappy publishers like Khabar Lahariya.
Khabar Lahariya is a female-run publisher that serves news in parts of rural India that have historically existed in media dark zones. Since its founding in 2002, Khabar Lahariya, which translates to “news waves,” fulfills a dire need for information that is relevant, and often vital, to its communities — from regional politics and developmental programs to crime and women’s rights.
Until last year, Khabar Lahariya published a print newspaper in five rural districts in India’s Bundelkhand region. In these areas, literacy is low and sources of hyperlocal news were practically nonexistent. Given the constraints that come with a print format, it served only a fraction of people in these communities who could read. Khabar Lahariya estimates that with a circulation of 4,000, it served 40,000 people, with each paper being shared and read aloud to family members. Only 1 percent of these readers and listeners were women.
Khabar Lahariya could not last. According to Disha Mullick, director of strategy at the company, “It became clear that Khabar Lahariya would not break into profitability, [even] if it continued to expand its print run.”
Then, in 2016, noticing an exponential growth in smartphone use in even the most remote villages it covered, Khabar Lahariya ditched its print publication altogether and went fully digital. “The world of the internet is growing,” says Kavita, the company’s founder and head of digital, giving Khabar Lahariya the opportunity to “reach more people than just the educated men who live in well-connected villages by the highways.”
Rather than focusing on breaking news, Khabar Lahariya specializes in investigative and in-depth reporting. Reporters are armed with smartphones, which they use to script, film, and produce entire news segments in video format from even the remotest villages. They report in the local languages to eliminate the prerequisite of literacy that had once excluded the majority of these communities from participating in news.
Each video segment that Khabar Lahariya produces features several interviews with villagers and officials connected to the story, adding a certain credibility to the coverage. “We can show people the truth and reality of villages with video,” Kavita says.
Like the majority of Khabar Lahariya’s staff, Kavita, who goes only by her first name, hails from the districts she now covers. In this way, the intimacy that reporters have with the communities they cover and serve is unique. While it’s hugely advantageous to be able to judge the information needs and behaviors of their viewers, their video format gives greater visibility to these reporters than might be safe. “Journalism here is a man’s game,” says Kavita. “Girls and women don’t often get to study here, let alone do such tough work.” Kavita herself fought against a claustrophobic culture for the right to study after having been married at the age of 12. She studied through to her graduate degree before founding Khabar Lahariya. Several reporters on the Khabar Lahariya staff are newly literate and trained on the job in journalism and the skills that go along with it, like the use of tech.
The challenge for Khabar Lahariya then became finding ways to use technology to transform both the production and delivery of journalism. Besides training reporters to produce news segments entirely on smartphones, Khabar Lahariya distributes news through social media platforms that its viewers already frequent: WhatsApp groups are these communities’ new town centers, and Facebook and YouTube are often replacements for television sets.
The result is that more people in Bundelkhand’s villages have access to news than ever before.
Rural India is in dire need of hyperlocal news. In Bundelkhand, the language changes every 30 miles. There is no source in these languages for hyperlocal or district-level news, with only state or national news making its way onto the airwaves.
Last year, Khabar Lahariya stumbled onto an outbreak of tuberculosis in the tiny village of Gopara. With a population of just 900, Gopara is a farming community where information on government-sanctioned financial and welfare programs is hard to come by and verify. “It was only by accident that we found an undocumented spread of tuberculosis in Gopara. Even the district magistrate didn’t know what was happening in his village,” Kavita says.
Tuberculosis is curable if it is promptly diagnosed and treated, but it’s life-threatening if not. With more than 2 million reported cases each year, India accounts for almost a quarter of the world’s tuberculosis incidences and deaths. To combat against the disease rising to epidemic levels, the Indian government offers comprehensive diagnostic programs and free treatment to patients across the country.
Even so, an estimated 40 to 60 percent of India’s tuberculosis cases go unreported, according to a study published in the Lancet.
After Khabar Lahariya published its story, the government set up a diagnostic camp in Gopara and found that 14 out of 100 people in just one hamlet of the village had tuberculosis—10 times the country’s incidence rate. Even after diagnosis, free treatment remained out of reach for patients due to ineffective implementation of the government program.
Journalism connects people with the information they need to know about their communities so they can make better decisions. Apathy and corruption in the government are perennial topics of public debate in India, and their effects in rural India are rarely included in the discussion. To do this, Kavita finds that reporting using video, rather than print, is far more effective: “If we show a situation for what it is, rather than telling people, it becomes hard to deny.”
Transitioning to a digital, video-driven platform and emphasizing a video format may seem like an obvious choice, but, Disha explains, “Until last year, we weren’t sure if the rural audience was online.”
Perhaps the hardest challenge for a hyperlocal paper in rural India is to access a new readership. In the 15 years that Khabar Lahariya published a solely print newspaper, its primary subscribers were educated middle- or upper-class men. Disha estimates that in the time it would take to convince just one rural woman that a newspaper subscription could be valuable to her, you could convince 50 urban men of the same. A newspaper-reading habit simply didn’t exist in these parts.
In the past few years, people from rural India have been joining the internet in droves. Early generation Android smartphones cost as little as 2,000 rupees, or around US$30, and data packs are rapidly becoming cheaper in a competitive landscape. In its yearly survey and qualitative research study, Khabar Lahariya found that while only 40 percent of people in Bundelkhand owned personal devices, every household had a smartphone.
The surprising thing is that even though the majority of women did not have their own devices and social media accounts, they could, as Kavita says, “sit at home and still be connected to the world.” Indeed, only about 12 percent of rural India’s current internet users are women, but some use this new tech to bring financial and health services and so on to villages that haven’t had them for generations.
The greatest learning tool of the century — the internet — is becoming accessible to a whole new user base. This drastic change means that new habits around information are being formed. Google and voice search are the gateways to the internet. Communication apps, particularly Facebook and the peer-to-peer messaging app WhatsApp, are wildly popular. So is YouTube for educational tutorials and government websites for information on developmental programs and welfare schemes. But interestingly, even large digital brands such as Wikipedia aren’t recognized as distinct and trustworthy by new internet users.
In this environment, for a new brand like Khabar Lahariya, it simply isn’t worthwhile to shepherd viewers to its own website or app — that would require viewers to develop an entirely new habit. Instead, Khabar Lahariya spreads its net wider by meeting viewers where they already are: on YouTube, Facebook, and WhatsApp groups of influencers that are curated by region.
The past two months saw exponential growth in viewership on YouTube, with Khabar Lahariya’s news reports receiving just over 1 million hits from Bundelkhand’s villages. Perhaps more exciting is that 15 to 20 percent of 300,000 viewers of its reports on Facebook alone are girls and women.
“A reporter will always have an influence on their story. We try our best to be objective and remove bias, but it is impossible to ask a reporter to be distant from their stories when they are covering their own communities,” Disha says.
Politics and women’s rights are the most popular topics that Khabar Lahariya covers. Its reporters are all women, and most are either Dalit, a historically suppressed caste, or followers of the minority Muslim faith. Consequently, Khabar Lahariya’s political reporting is often from the perspective of those who would be the farthest beneficiaries of any development in the region. Their reporting on women’s rights comes from those who know firsthand the trauma that can come from both abuse and an apathetic attitude toward abuse.
Tech has changed the way Khabar Lahariya does its journalism: News is being told from the perspective of rural women for the benefit of their entire communities. But tech is no savior.
Like Kavita, several Khabar Lahariya reporters go by their first names. Surnames are indicators of a person’s caste and racial background and can immediately subject these reporters to discrimination as they go about their job. In the now-defunct print edition, Khabar Lahariya, like the Economist, did not use bylines to identify its reporters. Now that its news is conveyed entirely via digital video, reporters no longer have the security that comes with anonymity.
On returning home from work one night, a Khabar Lahariya reporter was attacked with an ax. Leaving unharmed, she reached the nearest police station but was turned away — both her attacker and the police cited her unusual career choice and the freedom it brought her. It was her colleagues who supported her immediately through WhatsApp, offering to intervene on her behalf.
Traveling across districts, questioning people in positions of authority, brandishing smartphones — these are signs of independence, and women aren’t always encouraged to seek them. Such incidents have happened “countless times,” according to Disha, who adds, “The smartphone is just a new tool that breeds suspicion and necessitates control. There are positives and negatives to tech. There is quicker support from the team and more visibility with a digital format, but the risks never end because we’re constantly pushing against cultural boundaries.”
The patriarchal norms that suppress women won’t die with tech—they’ll evolve.
In the meanwhile, Khabar Lahariya continues to find simple, innovative ways to serve hyperlocal news to rural communities that never had access to it previously. Technology is changing the way Khabar Lahariya does its journalism, and at the heart of the operation are its tenacious reporters.
“News Is Breaking” is a series on the news industry’s most pressing problems and how they might be addressed. Part One is on dwindling reader trust in a time of hyperpartisanship. Part Two is on user research and its role designing tomorrow’s news experiences.