This story was first published on IJNet, an ICFJ project that provides the latest tips, trends and training opportunities in seven languages. We’re committed to providing resources to help journalists in our network produce quality reporting on COVID-19 and other pressing topics.
The people of Hardauli village in Madhya Pradesh, India, were frightened. On March 30, one week after the Indian government announced a three-week nationwide lockdown, six families returned from the city of Pune, a COVID-19 hotspot. Some migrants were coughing, and despite government orders that returning migrants exhibiting symptoms should be tested, the returnees refused to go to health authorities.
Frightened and with nowhere else to turn, a citizen journalist from the village reported this incident on a toll-free number operated by CGNet Swara, a journalism outlet working to amplify the voices of tribal and rural citizens in central India, many of whom cannot read or write. Health authorities soon paid a visit to the migrants, and their COVID-19 tests came back negative. The same citizen journalist reported that the fear in the village had been lifted.
At CGNet Swara, our focus is on bringing tangible change to our community. We do so by using a citizen journalism model where anyone with a basic non-smartphone can call a toll-free number and press one to report a story and two to hear the stories reported by others. Every day about 80 callers report stories, and 500 callers listen to the fact-checked and verified stories. About half the stories reported are cultural songs and other folklore that our rural, indigenous communities wish to share, while the other half are problems they are experiencing for which they need assistance.
Measuring the success of a publication is critical to encourage the support of funders, subscribers and readers. Many organizations measure their success by focusing on analytics such as pageviews. At CGNet Swara we take a different approach, focusing entirely on impact reports — the number of times our reporting led to a problem being resolved.
One organization that has led the way on the use of concrete metrics to measure impact is the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), which advertises a 56,000% return on investment. This means that for every US$1 donated to them, US$560 is returned to the public as a result of their investigations.
An impact-driven model becomes ever-more critical in the context of the present pandemic when journalists need to be able to innovate the tools and technologies that can help them better serve their communities.
In the time that CGNet Swara has been using a citizen journalism model to crowdsource problems reported in rural communities, we have helped to solve everything from broken hand pumps to the non-payment of government wages. Each time our reporting results in community change, our staff files an impact report to quantify our success.
In the last 10 years since we started this model, we have received more than 700 impact reports, but we see a huge possibility for growth. One of the key metrics we track at CGNet Swara is the total operating budget divided by the number of impact reports for that year. In 2018-19, this came to about US$450 per problem solved for our rural communities. However, in normal circumstances, only 10% of the problems reported by rural communities get solved. Our team saw the opportunity to reduce the cost of each impact to as little as US$45 by facilitating solutions to more issues that were being reported.
To increase the number of solutions — and impact reports — we embarked on an experiment to develop a technological solution to increase the participation of urban volunteers, and ultimately grow the number of solutions.
We started with a workshop in Mumbai in September 2017 consisting of urban working professionals, students and professors. Each attendee received a list of problems and the phone number of the government officer responsible for solving that particular issue. We made two observations from the workshop: rural government officers often got flustered receiving calls from big cities like Mumbai, and the workshop participants left with a real sense of accomplishment.
“You think you are being productive in your day job, but calling someone up and solving a remote problem is just incredible. It’s one of the few activities that are a win-win for everyone,” said Rishabh Kathotia, an equities who participated in the workshop. “I would absolutely do it again.”
However, we couldn’t rely on in-person events, and wanted to find a technological solution. During another workshop at a technology institute in Bangalore, again with students, professors and working professionals, participants spent time calling rural officers and trying to solve the problems reported by villagers. Afterwards, they presented their idea for a technological solution that could scale up the activities they undertook earlier. Armed with these insights, our team at CGNet Swara started developing an app that could scale the process of individual volunteers adopting and solving problems reported by villagers.
We tested the first version of the app with help from undergraduate journalism students from St. Xaviers Mumbai. At the end of their assignment, over 15 students had made an online petition on the problem they had adopted. One villager even reported an impact: the large piles of garbage lying in his area were cleared by the government. We reported on the work of these students and broadcast it to the rural communities to demonstrate the power of both groups working together.
The application launched just in time, as soon after, the Indian government announced a lockdown to tackle the novel coronavirus. CGNet Swara has gotten a deluge of reports from rural communities. These reports have included fears of local residents flouting social distancing norms and migrant laborers unable to pay their rent or having to eat food with insects in it. We knew many people were at home and eager to contribute in any capacity, so we engaged them as volunteers to help solve the many COVID-19 related issues reported on our platform.
One of our volunteers in Raipur, Snehil Saraf, discovered a case of 90 migrant laborers that were unable to return to their village, and whose employer was not giving them enough food during the lockdown. The migrants reported this story on CGNet Swara, and Saraf immediately tweeted to the government authorities.
The district collector paid a visit, and ensured that the owner would provide the migrant laborers enough food for the duration of the lockdown.
In the last month, there have been over 90 stories reported by citizen journalists seeking a solution to a predicament they are facing. By working with the government and well-meaning volunteers, about 60% of these concerns have resulted in impact reports.
The pandemic has laid bare the weakness of the metrics prioritized by media organizations. Despite rising pageviews and user engagement, media revenue is in a freefall, with layoffs and pay cuts at almost all major media outlets. With traditional metrics failing, it is an opportune time to consider metrics for a new journalism model, one that prioritizes impact in the communities they claim to serve.
Main image at the workshop at St. Xavier’s Mumbai, courtesy of CGNet Swara.
Devansh Mehta is the the director of research activities at CGNet Swara Foundation. Former ICFJ Knight Fellow Shubhranshu Choudhary started CGnet Swara and currently serves as its president.
CGNet Swara thanks the Independent and Public Spirited Media Foundation (IPSMF), Tata Trusts, NMDC, SECL and Internews for their support for this project.