Bengaluru : It was the years 2005-07, when Bengaluru was witnessing a spurt in urban growth and the city’s infrastructure was crumbling that Meera K. realized that the local pages of mainstream newspapers were not providing the answers on why things were in such a mess.
In an office on the outskirts of Koramangala, Meera, one of the founders of Citizen Matters, a website that offers news from around Bengaluru city, spoke about how she co-founded the website that offers content from its own journalists and from citizens around the city.
“I was a news junkie, and my father used to work with The Indian Express,” Meera said by way of explanation on why she chose this method of empowering citizens. She was trying to understand “what is the plan, when are they going to finish the flyovers, how much have they spent, who are the contractors…. None of that was available. Not just in (newspaper) reporting but also the lack of data. And for everything you can’t be running around, doing RTI (right to information, a law which allows people to ask questions to the government) and all that”.
And that is how Citizen Matters began, first as an online provider of information on the city, and later as a fortnightly. It is a not-for-profit, foundation-run website whose main source of revenue is reader contributions, while a spin-off business of Bengaluru guidebooks is selling briskly. The Living in Bengaluru guidebook has sold 18,000 copies since 2012.
You cannot blame the mainstream media for this lack of local reporting, said Meera K. “Obviously, they had their constraints. They can’t sit and do a story for two weeks. There was a need for a media that went out and explored what’s happening and when and how.”
The founders spoke to a lot of resident welfare associations and citizen groups. “And everybody kind of agreed that this is a problem: For the average citizen to understand there is a lack of information.”
Citizen Matters uses a mix of journalist-generated content (they have three staff journalists, including an intern) along with citizen-generated content.
The initial investors were Meera, co-founder Subramaniam Vincent and Ashwin Mahesh who went on to found a company called Mapunity and a clutch of angel investors. They tried running it on advertising revenues but realized, Meera says, that local advertising cannot support good journalism. And so, the journalism part of their operations was separated and a not-for-profit, Oorvani Foundation, was set up to fund it. The name, roughly means Voice of the City.
Vincent was then editing India Together (a sister concern that he started) while employed at Cisco Systems after getting a graduate degree from the University of Southern California.
The combination of editorial-generated content and citizen reporting was that it helped the editorial team understand what really happens when property titles are transferred, birth and death certificates are issued, etc., Vincent said.
Meera says up to 30% of the content is generated by readers. “In fact, one of the first stories that was written about road widening in any media was a citizen piece written on our site, which said ‘How wide is wide enough?’ by a resident of Vijaya Bank colony in Bengaluru,” she said.
The FAQ format, where the team at Citizen Matters would compile frequently asked questions about what they needed to do to get a driver’s licence, etc., was introduced in 2008. Some FAQs were contributed by the authorities, while readers contributed some others.
“The guide articles became very popular. So that was a side effect of this kind of different approach,” says Vincent. The guides were useful for “the new generation of citizenry that we have targeted, people who want to know information about the process before they go to an office”.
Vincent’s brush with journalism started in 1998, when he was in the US. There were a lot of people who wanted to contribute to social justice causes in India and they could not find robust information. “Otherwise, you are just giving money to some NGO and you don’t know what the grassroots flow of work is (over) there.
And we found that news media was covering news and depth was not there.” The magazine started as a website in response to that. It was later, in 2003, converted to a journal.
The Oorvani Foundation has had some 74 donors, donating Rs.500-5,000 since the start of the foundation in August 2013. Meera says that they would like to expand their reach to similar websites in other cities. Meanwhile, Meera says there is a “need to scale up here (Bengaluru), also” because there is “so much more happening”