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Smaller media, bigger picture

Much before the National Advisory Council gave India’s civil society an entry into the closed world of policy making, much before a feisty Anna Hazare and a nervous UPA government imprinted the term ‘civil society’ in our minds with a permanent marker, there was Civil Society (CS).

delhi Updated: Sep 18, 2011 00:45 IST
KumKum Dasgupta
KumKum Dasgupta
Hindustan Times

Much before the National Advisory Council gave India’s civil society an entry into the closed world of policy making, much before a feisty Anna Hazare and a nervous UPA government imprinted the term ‘civil society’ in our minds with a permanent marker, there was Civil Society (CS).

An A3-sized monthly magazine, priced at Rs50 per issue, CS was set up in September 2003 by veteran journalist Umesh Anand and his wife, a teacher-turned-development journalist, Rita. Together they document the socio-economic changes in post-reforms India and report on unknown grassroots innovators. Their motto: Everyone is someone. Their mission: To build a small, independent and sustainable media enterprise.

This month, the magazine celebrates its eighth anniversary with a bumper, 54-page ‘Hall of Fame’ issue that honours six locally relevant initiatives that have national value. Umesh and Rita believe that by creating such pan-India linkages, a “bigger picture” and the challenges we live with can emerge. Unlike other awards, the CS ‘Hall of Fame’ does not accept nominations or applications. Instead, the winners were chosen from names thrown up by its network of journalists and associates.

Among the winners are three ‘angels’ who fought corruption in their village in Meghalaya; a weaver who revolutionised the weaving of Pochampalli saris in Andhra Pradesh; a Sahariya woman who freed many of her fellow tribesmen from bonded labour in Rajasthan; a man in Kerala who has taken upon himself to promote the cultivation of jackfruit; the team of Urja Ghar that works to build trust between different communities in Gujarat; and a healer who encourages reconciliation through faith in Kashmir.

While Umesh is the publisher, Rita is the editor of CS. Like all small outfits, they run a tight ship and are proficient multi-taskers. Their son Lakshman, a photographer, also chips in once in a while. Other than the three, there are five full-time journalists and a dedicated network of six to eight freelancers working on the magazine.

Though CS, unlike the big boys in the media, extensively covers rural issues, Umesh and Rita insist that it is not a ‘jholawala publication’. Umesh says they want CS to redefine mainstream news. A just-released report of the New Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies says that the top English and Hindi dailies only devote 2% of their coverage of issues to rural India’s crises and anxieties.

“Big media have to work within a matrix mandated by their advertisers,” says Rita, who specialises in forest rights, water and community issues. “We are free from such pressures.”

So what prompted them to launch CS? “We could have covered travel or, say, fashion. But we chose this space because it is under-served by professionals and is under-reported,” says Umesh, who was the resident editor of the Delhi edition of Times of India before he became an entrepreneur. He adds, “It was also my belief that the media needs to reinvent itself to remain relevant. Garage operations raise the threshold of information that is available in a society. We try to give to the reader something to take away.”

To stay fresh and offer a new perspective to their readers, CS has not signed any content-sharing arrangement with bigger partners.

“CS is one of the very few magazines that have been able to consistently strike a balance between rural-urban issues, private sector initiatives, civil society actions, and individual efforts cutting across issues,” says Eklavya Prasad, a water specialist, and an avid reader of CS for years. Umesh and Rita did a lot of brainstorming to strike that ‘balance’. They even had to tweak their strategy. Initially, they wanted to keep industry out of CS because “big money can curb independence.” But later they realised that industry is a big stakeholder and should not be ignored.

To their credit, CS has often managed to stay ahead of mainstream media in identifying new trends (both rural and urban) and build a bridge between the proverbial ‘two Indias’. Take the inaugural issue in 2003 on the Right to Information Act that featured Arvind Kejriwal on the cover when no one knew about him. Later, CS also set the agenda on the lokpal issue.

During its journey, CS has covered the changing face of civil society activism, policy challenges (Special Economic Zones, land acquisition), green lifestyles (organic lifestyle, green builders), New-Age businesses, gay rights and new cinema with in-depth analyses and fresh perspectives.

While small media outfits like CS have the freedom to innovate and pursue diverse stories (“Which newspaper would have us do a story on donkeys and their importance in India's booming construction industry?” asks Rita teasingly), life is not easy. Today, the real challenge for CS is how to scale up. “We could do 50,000 copies but that would mean additional costs for printing, paper, marketing, data base management, real estate to seat people,” says Umesh. “The cost of acquiring each new subscriber is Rs1,000. We would need a few crores of investment to finance this growth.” So instead of big money, CS has chosen to grow organically: subscribers get them subscribers.

Despite their cash crunch, CS has never shied away from spending on news gathering and photographs. This, Umesh and Rita say, is an important investment for a distinct identity.

Occasional Civil Society reader Sudhirendar Sharma, who writes the development blog ‘Jalebi Uncoiled’, says publications like CS should try to look beyond their pet audience. “They should keep trying to get new readers because these issues are relevant to all,” he adds.

Umesh puts CS’s efforts in perspective: “Civil Society is like a gourmet restaurant, not a mass food chain. We are teaching people how to eat.''