A big question that we deal with when thinking about the future of locally produced media is how will it ever become financially sustainable?
As of right now, Video Volunteers has been supporting local media units in India and Brazil whose basic job is to make video stories about their local issues and then screen them locally — so locally that most videos are seen in between 25 and 50 neighboring villages. As is obvious by that sentence, geography has played an important part in the manner in which we have built these programs. We believe that national (and to some extent regional) media cannot possibly touch upon various local issues that need addressing. Therefore, keeping in mind the scope (and limitations) of such a program, we have worked hard to devise ways in which these local media units — called Community Video Units (CVU) — can turn a profit.
Some have been able to sell their videos to the mainstream media, while others have produced some other local media, such as wedding videos; but, ultimately, there is no system in place that can guarantee sustainability. In a sense, that suits the program because we’d rather have the CVUs focus solely on producing media that will encourage positive social change, instead of turning into production houses. But, that is still a step away from one of our ultimate aims, which is to have these marginalized community voices represented in mainstream media.
Platforms and Partners
Fortunately for us, the term “mainstream media” is fluid. New information outlets are established everyday — who could have predicted Twitter? — and for an organization like ours that produces short video clips, both television and the Internet provide ample opportunities to showcase our work. The main challenge, therefore, is to identify these platforms and to join hands with like-minded partners to undertake these projects. Therefore, platforms and partners are the two most important facets.
To work with campaign partners across different platforms, Video Volunteers had to expand the CVU program to create a more focused, commercially viable entity. Thus was born the idea of a “community journalists network” where we plan to train Indians who come from disadvantaged backgrounds and turn them into videographers/journalists. At its most basic level, we will be training people (“Fellows”) to shine a light on stories that would otherwise remain hidden in slums, tribal areas, villages and the rural pockets of the country.
Leaving aside the challenges of training such a diverse set of people, and the logistical challenge it will be to run this program (more on that later), we must, at first, forge partnerships with people who can provide platforms for this work. An obvious choice has been to approach TV channels to ask them to air stories from us that they consider interesting and of decent quality. We also now understood that we face an additional challenge: To try and differentiate a community journalist from a stringer — and then to make people care about that difference.
A channel would rather call us and ask “Do you have a man in ‘x’ village? If so, please take footage of a flood” than have us send an email saying “our community journalist in ‘x’ has shot a beautiful story about the caste bias that exists within the government school mechanism.” It will be our challenge then, to “push” stories from slums/tribal/rural areas to the mainstream media. As things stand today, largely, the stringers are told what to shoot while correspondents (employees) pitch stories. This is because of the relationship between the channel and stringer is one sided, and mostly because the stringer is not really a trained journalist.
We are going to dramatically change this paradigm because our CJs will be looking at their surroundings with a journalistic mind. Video Volunteers will act as a filter and pitch these stories to the channels. Over time, we hope to establish this system as a formal and indeed more productive stringer system in the country.
A little sidenote as to why it is important that our CJs “push” stories: While TV channels have reporters in big cities and growing towns across India, the geography of the country makes it difficult for any channel to have a presence all over. This is why they employ stringers.
As a result, the bulk of the “news” comes from the places their staff are stationed in, and “incidents” from the rest of the country — such as floods, rapes, and fires — get short mention. With this new CJ program, we are essentially planting reporters in oft-neglected pockets of the country. When they produce and we push these stories, then the mainstream media will be able to accurately represent what happens in the entire country, as opposed to a limited section of it.
We have certainly made headway in this regard, and have been very fortunate to meet kindred spirits, but have “miles to go before we sleep.” If we can get a series, or branded programming (which makes it obvious that the particular clip is by a VV CJ), it will result in giant strides for the community media movement.
By comparison, we feel that it is easier to find campaign partners at NGOs, companies and government bodies because we can work together to produce material for a particular campaign, and so on. There is no dearth of issues that need to be spotlighted, and we must tap into the development community that works on these issues.
In the months to come, we hope that we can find even more creative ways of attracting traffic to our cause. A big initiative we plan to take is to create a website that showcases these videos by region, topic and “Fellow” (or community journalist). With a highly interactive and frequently updated website, we hope, people will become attracted to both our content and our CJs, and keep coming back.