What’s Wrong with the Stringer System in Rural Areas?

    by Jessica Mayberry
    February 11, 2010

    One area that has recently started occupying our attention at VV is the business of newspaper stringers in rural areas in the developing world. Another one is the way that news stories get out, and the difference between a journalism system where stories get “pushed out” and one where they need to be “pulled out.” It seems to me that only when stories get pushed out – ie, when someone attracts media attention to some local event the news media wouldn’t know about otherwise – is journalism increasing the quantity of events that are known.

    Below are some interesting things we’ve learned about how journalism happens in remote areas of India. We’ve recently started to explore this as we think about revenue models in community media. One of the things we had promised in our Knight-funded Community Video Unit program is that there would be ways to make the Community Video Units sustainable. Now, these projects do earn revenue, but not enough to qualify as sustainable. So this has pushed us to explore other ways to train and organize people at the “base of the pyramid” in media/journalism production, that could earn more revenue and be more scalable, and we hope to develop these ideas into other programs.

    About the stringer system in rural India:
    • There are probably less than 600 in the entire country, according to one of our advisors, a journalist at NewsX, who is one of the leading TV news producers in the country. That’s about 1 stringer per 2 million people, which is the equivalent of the US only having 175 people out of the major cities whom news agencies can call upon for stories.
    • The majority of those are in Bombay or Delhi, so the numbers for rural areas is even less
    • None of them are professionally trained or schooled in journalism. They can shoot raw video footage upon request, they can conduct and transcribe an interview, they can do some basic reporting and give it back to the journalist they are working for over the phone.
    • Their main job is selling newspaper subscriptions, so there is a serious conflict of interest with the bigwigs in their area, who would be the ones to buy bulk subscriptions. This prevents them from gathering stories that look negatively on the local power dynamics
    • They are nearly all male
    • They are nearly all Bhrahmins, members of the “highest” caste – the local newspapers have shown a preference for working with Brahmins because they think they may have greater access. But this is surely one of the reasons stories of untouchability and gender descrimination don’t come out


    Looked at from the point of view of the newspapers and TV stations, what does one see? Like in many parts of the world, the news bureaus are shutting down, and travel budgets are slashed, so news journalists based in the “center” have less ability to travel to tell stories they would like to tell. The head of CNN IBN Rajdeep Sardesai spoke to the Editors Guild recently about why news is becoming more focused on cities and the issues of the wealthy, and he blamed “the tyranny of distance.” (and crucially, NOT the issue of lack of interest on the part of the audience.) As we build relationships with TV stations and newspapers to use our community-produced content, we hear the same thing in a lot of places. Someone at the Asia Desk in London of the BBC told me how difficult it is for them to get even simple stories covered. The BBC had lowered the rates they would pay freelancers, causing many of the usual journalists in the big cities to refuse to work with them. This BBC Producer talked about how difficult if not impossible it is to find a lower cost alternative, and how she wishes one existed. For us, this sounds like an opportunity for a community journalist.

    With a system like this, there is very little chance that, say, a story from a remote area of a dowry burning, or of an interesting rural technology innovation, or a dramatic story of local corruption, is going to make its way to a TV station. Because content is not getting “pushed” out of rural areas. It is only getting “pulled,” i.e., the reporter in the city calls up all the local people and says, “can you go cover the bombing that’s just happened… or the political rally.” These Delhi reporters never get a call saying, “something really interesting has just happened in my area. I think your readers will be interested. Here’s the story – shall I report it for you?” And stations want this content. A few news editors have told us about how the most watched content online is often the more exclusive, unusual human interest stories, and not the usual political or national news that is the same in most stations. From our discussions with TV stations it seems the problem is that they don’t have the budgets to find these stories on their own, and there is no good system for getting the stories out from these areas.

    It seems a really sad state of affairs to have such a breakdown in journalism in rural and urban areas. It means that what happens in rural areas is literally unknown to people outside of those areas, and even to those within those areas who aren’t directly affected. It is always the poor and disadvantaged who will suffer in such a situation, because they will never know how to access the national press and so have a real need for a vibrant local press. Stories of gender discrimination, caste, religious tension, corruption will rarely come out, and so the public get a warped sense that these issues don’t exist.


    The idea that we want to explore further in VV is, can community journalists fill this gap? We have looked at the financials of this, and they are very interesting. It seems that a rural stringer generally makes around Rs. 6,000-10,000 a month which would be a very large sum to someone whom Video Volunteers would train – i.e., someone from the lowest economic strata, who also represents an “unheard” community, meaning in the Indian context a Dalit, Muslim, Tribal or woman. So a community journalist could even compete just on the basis of being able to undercut the market. All of this makes me wonder – could the poor be the winners in all the changes happening in journalism?

    I would love to hear people’s ideas and criticisms and suggestions on the idea that the poor can be the winners. Where is my thinking wrong? What am I missing out? This is an idea VV is committed to developing, because our organization’s purpose is to figure out ways that the creative and thoughtful expression of the poorest communities can make its way to wider audiences.

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