How to do better local journalism
A chat with four senior journalists from Chennai
Welcome back to The Chennai Emailer — a local journalism project that brings out original human-interest features & news compilation from Chennai. It’s run by me —Mohammed Rayaan😊
This newsletter is my passion project to highlight the best local journalism in Chennai after participating in this year's Entrepreneurial Journalism Creators Program at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism (City University of New York).
Today, I want to talk about local journalism. Although some may assume this article is aimed at journalists or those hoping to become one, I believe that everyone should know what happens inside a newsroom. Transparency about our work can go a long way to earning the trust of our audience/community. Happy reading!
During the Journalism Creators Program, I surveyed 123 people via Instagram. I found that most of the respondents wanted to read profiles of Chennai residents or entrepreneurs who were making a positive impact through their social activities or businesses.
So from June, I have done my best to bring out one original human-interest feature every Sunday. As the program progressed, so did my understanding of how I can offer different content to my readers. I went back to my survey and found that there were people who also wanted to read multiple topics.
Eventually, I split the weekly news curation and the feature from one long email into two. The reason behind this move was that I found from my survey most people spent just around five to ten minutes reading the news. Now, my newsletter comes out Saturdays and Sundays, and it’s short and sweet.
🧠Learning from the experts
While I believe I have done my best (perhaps) to consistently bring out my editions here, there is certainly room to improve. I believe readers should know what it takes to produce good quality journalism.
I always have this habit of connecting with journalists whose work I admire and asking them how they do what they do. There’s so much to learn and people are generally kind to talk about their work.
Therefore, after I joined the program, I thought it would be a great chance to speak with senior journalists who have written about Chennai for decades. I thought, “Why not ask the experts themselves how can one offer better local journalism for this city?”
👥Know your audience
I first connected with Vincent D’Souza, the founder and editor of Mylapore Times, the city’s most popular local newspaper. I remember reading an amazing piece about his weekly on Newslaundry and how it has played a crucial role to inform residents during the pandemic.
He has given some extremely valuable feedback right from the first edition of this newsletter. He advised me to keep my writing ‘short and snappy’ and stressed figuring out who am I serving.
“Always keep the reader in mind,” Vincent said. “If you are a local newspaper from Pondicherry, then just focus on that place rather than aiming to cover a broader audience by also including news, say for example, whatever that is happening in Sri Lanka.”
He also said that if someone wants to become a better journalist, then they should spend more time in the field.
“There is this recent phenomenon of armchair journalism,” Vincent said. “You can't do proper reporting until and unless you step out. Without knowing about the city and its history or politics, your reporting will be poor. The perspective is lost and you won't understand issues or the broader context.”
💗Be in favour of the reader
I asked why should readers support local journalism? “Curation and instilling a sense of order is at the centre of our craft. That is what sets us apart from the noise in many media, including social media,” he said. “We can distil the essence of a matter and make it intelligible to the person who cannot devote the time or resources to do that.”
To make a report much better, he said, “Giving practical information such as the officials who must be contacted to get help and to register complaints on a given problem will go a long way in connecting with the reader.”
But during our conversation, this is what stood apart. Anathakrishnan said:
“There is no such thing as ‘total neutrality’ in journalism. We have to have a bias in favour of the reader who has no power. We represent that citizen. Thus, we stick to facts but choose to amplify them in a way that those in authority are forced to act.”
📰Local journalism and democracy
Another journalist whose work I have admired is K Balakumar, the former editor of News Today, an English evening daily — the place where I first worked (I joined a few years after Balakumar left the organisation). During my school days, I used to read his hilarious humour column ‘Crank’s Corner’ for the Talk Weekly Tabloid.
I asked him where do newsrooms go wrong when they cover local journalism? “The problem starts with one of the connotations that the word 'local' has in everyday parlance. 'Local' is made to mean inferior, something infra-dig,” Balakumar said.
“Unfortunately, in the newsrooms, too, local journalism occupies a lowly slot. As it is not deemed a fancy beat, reporters don't want it. There are no decent editorial budgets to speak of for this. Of course, management will turn around and say local journalism is tough to monetise, hence can't allot many resources for it,” he said.
I asked again why should readers support us.
“If journalism is a pillar of democracy, then local journalism is the foundation stone of that pillar. It is from here that everything stems. A vibrant media and an involved public can make grassroots politics accountable,” Balakumar said.
“People can't afford to be blase about it. Supporting local journalism, I'd think, is part of every person's civic responsibility. (Of course, the journalism should be good enough to earn this respect).”
🕊️For better journalism, do this…
My mentor from the CUNY Program, John Samuel Raja of howindialives.com has also been an incredible motivator. He consistently gives me ideas on how I can grow this newsletter and also my writing style.
A recent feedback he gave was for the piece How Fruit Shop on Greams Road. “I still feel you could have added more information,” he said. “If someone reads it, they should know what it takes to run their own fruit shop. When you work on a story, focus on bringing solutions to a problem.”
And speaking of solutions, a couple of days ago, John shared an opinion piece “I stopped reading the news. Is the problem me — or the product?” written by Amanda Ripley for the Washington Post. (Do read it!) She says she avoids the news despite being a journalist and writes how the news cycle gives anxiety, making us more distrustful.
Urging journalists to adopt a different approach to their reporting, she offers three solutions — first, how hope can play a key role when it's included in a story. Then she writes:
“Second, humans need a sense of agency. “Agency” is not something most reporters think about, probably because, in their jobs, they have it. But feeling like you and your fellow humans can do something — even something small — is how we convert anger into action, frustration into invention. That self-efficacy is essential to any functioning democracy.”
Finally, we need dignity in our reporting, Amanda says.
"A better theory of change, David Bornstein, co-founder of the nonprofit Solutions Journalism Network suggests, might be something like: “The world will get better when people understand problems, threats and challenges, and what their best options are to make progress.”
Local journalism sure has the power to forge connections within a community. It works well when newsrooms and people listen to one another. Therefore, I am always open to ideas and suggestions on how I can improve The Chennai Emailer. Here’s to more exciting editions… See you next week!
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Did you like reading this edition? Should I do better? Please don’t hesitate to offer me your feedback. I am open to ideas. Feel free to reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can simply reply to this email or comment below. See you tomorrow! Do forward this newsletter to your family and friends. 😊❤️