‘Technology changes you whether you’re ready for it or not’: How Barkha Dutt pioneered mobile journalism in India

The Indian journalist and author talks about why independent journalism could be the way forward for news in the age of social media

by

Somya Mehta

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Published: Thu 16 Feb 2023, 9:02 PM

Last updated: Thu 16 Feb 2023, 9:03 PM

As somebody who has reimagined what modern-day journalism looks like in India, Barkha Dutt is not only an award-winning journalist and author, but has also pioneered independent journalism through the launch of her own digital news channel called MoJo Story. The digital platform currently stands at almost 900,000 subscribers on YouTube and “without any venture capital funding,” mentions Dutt, 51, who was recently in Dubai for the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature.

As someone who’s had an early exposure to life and death situations, albeit through the frontline war reporting on the Kargil conflict or spending over two decades covering conflict from all over the world, including within India, what keeps Dutt going even today is her relentless pursuit of uncovering human stories underneath the ‘news’.

“I am, in that sense, battle-hardened. I have seen dead bodies, despair, tragedy, riots, conflict and calamity,” says Dutt, reflecting on her journey so far, in a conversation with Khaleej Times. The senior journalist and author of This Unquiet Land: Stories from India’s Fault Lines (2016) and To Hell and Back: Humans of Covid (2022) talks about how independent journalism can help regain people’s trust in news media in the age of fake news and hate speech.

With your robust body of work, you’ve pioneered independent journalism in India. What has been your biggest takeaway in setting up your own digital news channel MoJo Story?

It’s been a lot of learning and unlearning. I moved to being an entrepreneur after more than 20 years in television as an employee. We launched MoJo Story three months before the pandemic hit, it was just coincidence. But what it allowed us to do was to reclaim the commitment to people that journalism and storytelling should ideally do. I travelled across India during Covid-19, covering 30,000 kilometres from Delhi to Kerala by road, for over 125 days continuously in the first wave. Once the airports opened, I flew all across India, reporting from inside ICUs, to back of trucks and inside trains. MoJo Story was built on the back of this ‘boots on the ground’ reporting, which had disappeared from television. What we discovered was that people were really hungry for that old-fashioned reporting and all they saw on TV were the same old debates. But as a person migrating from TV to digital, I had to get used to a lot of things. On television, you would need 15 people for a project but technology allows you to do the same with three people. We’re doing an interview here right now and you’re two people on a camera shoot. In television, the same shoot would have taken eight people. But the fact is that there’s no difference in production or the quality. And most people are consuming content on the phone or digitally. Digital isn’t the future, it’s the present.

The flipside to that is also that today, not just authoritative voices like yourself but anyone with a social media account can become a publisher. There’s an increasing influx of opinion from all corners, in many cases, the opinions are devoid of reasoning based on complexity, history and context. What are the dangers of that?

No, look, we live in an age. There is a democratisation of the content space, the barriers for entry now are very low, literally anybody with a phone and a good Internet connection can be a publisher and a very popular one. We see that happening. But on the other side, I think there is a danger for a fake news epidemic and hate speech getting mixed up with opinion. But we can’t hide from change just because there are some pitfalls. Now, we have ChatGPT and people are saying students will use it to do their homeworks or it will be used to write assignments. You can’t fight technology and you can’t fight change. Technology changes you whether you’re ready for it or not. So, the best thing you can do is to embrace that technology, create something meaningful out of it, and hope that people will follow you for what you have to offer. As a result, I think viewers and readers will increasingly follow individuals rather than platforms. It’s now up to the individual to build a credible and a loyal audience.

A recent opinion column in the Washington Post argues that “truth-seeking news media must move beyond ‘objectivity’ to produce trustworthy news.” Do you think objectivity can be at odds with truth-seeking?

Not always. I think it really depends on the issue. This is a very complex debate. Today, people are either being sycophantic or being activists. And I don’t think either of them is the role of a journalist. But equally, there are certain stories that don’t have another side. For example, if a young woman has been raped, and she is fighting for justice, and we know the facts, what’s the other side? If a young woman is being blamed for the clothes she wears or for her ambition, or she’s being judged in an obviously misogynistic way, there’s no other side. And I can think of a few issues like these, where you’re not obliged to give equal space. That’s not objectivity. Objectivity means you have the stomach to give a platform to the views of those who you don’t agree with. And while you’re listening to them, you don’t betray the fact that you don’t agree with them but you create a space where you listen and not just block their opinion out. I don’t believe in ‘cancel culture’ in the name of truth-seeking and equally, I don’t believe in objectivity when there is no other side.

In the age of misinformation and disinformation, how can we instill trust in news media?

People are very disenchanted with mainstream, legacy media these days. Wherever you go, people crib about it. You’re absolutely right, there’s a kind of breakdown of trust. And the way forward is to go back to the basics. You use your new innovations and technology, but in the end, your storytelling has to go back to basics. We have put too much emphasis on political news in terms of party politics and the kind of issues we pick up. I’m not saying that politics or business and economy don’t have their own space, but people care about a lot of other things. If we go back to basics and start talking about issues that people care about and start covering issues with people who don’t have a voice, the focus will shift entirely.

How do you see the future of independent journalism not just in India but around the world?

Digital media is still finding its feet when it comes to revenue models. In India, at least, content is now consumed much more on the mobile phone than it is in front of a television set. So, we have the advantage of having low costs to enter the market. I believe that eventually sponsorships and subscriptions will move to a digital space. Just like people pay for a cable connection, they will start paying for individuals they like. But finally, I think the lesson for media houses all over the world is to think of growing in a lateral way instead of a vertical way, and get into spaces that are not only about news. For example, I curate a women’s community and festival called ‘We The Women’. We sometimes design social media campaigns or corporate films for clients and we’re thinking of getting into the OTT space and doing long-form features or documentaries. We have to think in a creative way because the fact is that between artificial intelligence, a broken revenue model and polarised opinions, the media cannot go by the old rules. We have to keep up with the change.

somya@khaleejtimes.com


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