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Merinews: Citizen Journalism in India

The second day of the AMIC conference has now started, and we begin with a keynote from Vipul Kant Upadhay, the CEO and Editor in Chief of in India. This site is now the largest Internet news portal in the country, and builds very significantly on citizen journalism. Vipul begins by noting that he is no journalist by profession, but instead came to this venture through student activism; his initial motivation was the widespread corruption and nepotism in India.

In starting the project, there was a choice between print and online media, and the initial tendency amongst staff was in favour of print; at the same time, there was a clear indication that the competition in print journalism was already fierce and would not have allowed the development of a new news source. The Internet still remained an untapped market, by contrast, and provided an opportunity for new players to make a name for themselves.

Indeed, at present there are some 60,000 titles registered as newspapers in India; some 7,000 of these are operating as regular publications. There are also some 100 national television channels, and hundreds more local channels (India has more channels than the U.S.), as well as many radio channels especially in the larger cities. Six major business groups dominate almost 70% of the national and regional market. Against this, in the new media environment (Internet and mobile services) trends are still emerging; many conventional players have by now begun to develop their own online and mobile offerings, but there remains a race to define new media rules and conventions. (In addition to Merinews, other interesting sites from outside the conventional journalism industry here are and

Indian media have outperformed the overall Indian economy; they are expected to over US$18.6 billion by 2010. There are some 216 million readers for print news, some 600 million book readers, some 100 million television households some 60 million Internet users, and some 185 million mobile phone subscribers (expected to grow to 462 million by 2011). Literacy in the country stands at around 67%, and government policy is shifting gradually towards further literacy education beyond basic print literacy itself - and already, technology adoption and adaptation is taking place very quickly amongst the educated classes. Internet (especially broadband) and mobile access is key here, or course, and blogs, news portals, and news aggregators (like Google News) are increasingly popular and even used by conventional media operators. What the role of citizen journalism is in this environment remains disputed.

There is a sense that conventional media have been left behind in these developments. Some decades ago, the media were an indicator and predictor of the nation's pulse; today, it has become clear that the conventional media have failed time and again to predict political and other trends accurately (this became clear especially in the 2004 general elections). The mainstream media's professed opinions are a reflection of their political or commercial affiliations, and many media groups are beholden to newly cashed-up business groups with dubious connections (Vipul also points to the recent Gujarat state elections as an example here). Additionally, style is overshadowing content; especially in some of the more recently introduced media outlets, stories are insufficiently contextualised, and the need to serve advertisers and other business connections is overwhelming professional news practice. Finally, there is certain self-righteousness: media operators style themselves as a Fourth Estate which knows what's best for the people, but they are increasingly disconnected from the people themselves.

Against this, many citizens have begun to express their disenchantment with the quality of Indian news media. There is a sense that news media are obsessed with covering the political horse-race and other standard topics (crises and violence), but that they do so with insufficient intellectual vigour and insight, and overall remain beholden to corporate or political interests. Overall, the question is: is the effort of some 100,000 media staff producing stories about some 10,000 public figures, which are read or watched by some 1100 million citizens, justified by its outcomes?

The response from major industry players to citizen journalists remains ambivalent. Some see citizen journalists as an additional news source, some liken their work simply to letters to the editor; some see citizen journalism simply as a new buzzword which can be exploited in marketing their own products. Others uphold the need for professional journalism and deny that untrained citizen journalists could do the work of professionals, but also acknowledge the rise of citizen journalism as an alternative to their own products, and the choice which citizens now exercise between these alternative options.

Conventional media players have variously dabbled in citizen journalism by offering online 'letters to the editor' pages (Times of India); by reporting on internal editorial processes and contrasting this with citizen journalism outputs (CNNIBN); or by introducing special citizen journalism sections into their products; some community newspapers sourced through citizen journalism have also emerged. In the new media space, Merinews is a leader (and has developed a minor presence in print form); some other startups also exist (or have failed by now) - for example,, which mainly sources content from the AP newswire, or, which remains very small and unknown so far. Finally, there is also a growing trend towards community radio, with some support from the government, UNESCO, and other NGOs, and this has led to a boom in radio sales in many Indian states. (I think my colleague Jo Tacchi is involved with some of this through her Finding a Voice project.)

Merinews itself is India's first citizen journalism news portal. It is a product with a mission (and Vipul suggests that this distinguishes it from its competitors, who have long lost sight of their journalistic missions): a people's news platform of the people, by the people, for the people, providing power to the people and empowering democracy. The site has already won a number of awards for its work, including the prestigious Webby award in 2007 (alongside sites such as,, and

Currently, it is running a campaign to create a citizens' manifesto for India's next 60 years - a blueprint for the future of the nation - which is also meant to reinvigorate citizens' participation in the political process (Vipul notes that only some 35% of registered voters now regularly excercise their right to vote, because they're generally "pissed off" with Indian politics at every level). Merinews has managed to generate a significant level of contributions for this project, also including participation from some politicians and senior bureaucrats.

Overall, Vipul suggests that citizen journalism will find its proper space in the Indian environment, and that many more citizen journalism spaces will emerge over the next few years.

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