Why hyperlocal newspapers like Anna Nagar Times matter to news ecology

From civic issues and community activities to supporting local business, neighbourhood newspapers are geographically focussed.
Senior citizen reading a newspaper
Senior citizen reading a newspaper
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‘Anna Nagar postal staff threaten to go on a strike’ — “This headline might have been of little to no consequence to residents across Chennai; but for the residents of Anna Nagar, their lives depended on it, as communication with loved ones in other countries happened via letters to a great extent in the ’90s. This was one of the first news articles we published when we started this neighbourhood newspaper in September 1992,” said KS Ramakrishnan, the editor and publisher of Anna Nagar Times, a newspaper focused on a major residential area in Tamil Nadu’s Chennai city. Over 28 years, the circulation of Anna Nagar Times has gone up from 8,000 to 60,000.

“Hyperlocal newspapers are like town criers, who make public announcements in a street or at a marketplace in a town,” said Ramakrishnan, who is the former Resident Editor of Indian Express. He also owns the hyperlocal newspaper, Mambalam Times.

Screenshot of e-paper version of Anna Nagar Times

There are scores of hyperlocal newspapers across the country that cater to a vast neighbourhood, a section of a neighbourhood, a gated community, a region or even a district.  Many are run by passionate journalists like Vincent D’Souza, the editor of Mylapore Times, and some by residents’ welfare associations (RWAs) like the Tarnaka Times, a monthly newsletter by the Standing Committee of Tarnaka Residents' Welfare Associations (SCOWTRA), a federation of 18 RWAs based in Telangana’s Hyderabad city.

Screenshot of an article on Tarnaka Times, run by a consortium of RWAs

How hyperlocal sector contributes to the news ecology

Ganga Sridhar, a resident of Mylapore, lists a string of reasons to subscribe to Mylapore Times: “Updates on summer camps and activities organised for children in the neighbourhood, information on health camps or workshops for adults, updates on certain roads being made one-way or blocked during festivities, and information on new eat-outs or recommended shops are useful.”

Such updates are the result of a confluence between journalists, residents and local non-governmental organisations and activists.

“Most of the issues come to the notice of the civic officials, who then resolve them, although in a slow-paced manner,” said Ramakrishnan. “But, when a civic issue is resolved by a local authority, we highlight that in the newspaper. It encourages them and helps us establish a good rapport with local-level officials rather than antagonising them.”

Residents also turn to hyperlocal newspapers to publish news about a school annual festival, small achievements by their children or a local contest. It gives them a sense of joy to see their celebratory photos published in the media. “Besides, if a minister is invited to inaugurate a campaign or initiative by RWAs, mainstream newspapers highlight the former rather than the residents who were behind it,” pointed out Rao Chelikani, Chief Editor of Tarnaka Times.

Neighbourhood newspapers also amplify the efforts of residents and organisations fighting for a cause. For instance, Kirthana, who runs Hope for Critters, an animal welfare NGO, out of her residence in RA Puram, asked residents to alert her if they find dogs in need of medical attention in the area through Mylapore Times.

They also highlight civic campaigns. Based on a meeting by the 'Ennikala Nigah Vedika' (Telangana Election Watch Wing) of SCOTRWA, which runs Tarnaka Times, the State Election Commissioner said it was mulling setting up e-voting facility for eligible senior voters during the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC) elections amidst the pandemic.

An article by Uthradesam helped this family in Kasaragod get fund to rebuild their roof

While newspapers covering a single or a block of the neighbourhood have a skeleton team of 10 to 15 reporters, photographers and marketing staff, newspapers covering a larger portion of a region or district have about 100 odd staff. Jessy (name changed), a Chennai journalist working for a leading newspaper in India, has covered news for the main edition as well as the hyperlocal supplement. “We usually cover one or two beats in the main paper and have many boundaries. With hyperlocal news, there is a flood of stories to spot if you are out on the field, and the connect you make with people is more satisfying,” she said.

Karavali Ale (Coastal Waves), a Kannada newspaper published in Mangaluru, has reporters in every taluk and neighbouring areas. Utharadesam, a Malayalam daily newspaper that covers local news across Kasaragod district, has full-time and part-time reporters as well as contributors as news sources. Karavali Ale and Utharadesam also run one or two pages of national and state news that are pertinent to the daily debates among residents.

By default, residents become the creators and consumers of hyperlocal news as they have their ears to the ground and are personally affected by the issues, pointed out a senior journalist in Chennai, who handles hyperlocal newspapers for a prominent news organisation. “But, the role of the editor is to check for facts, bias and exaggeration to ensure the element of objectivity,” said the senior journalist.

Many civic issues are often published as letters from readers. “Most of these letters have abusive language. So, we have to tone down the language and highlight only the issue,” added Ramakrishnan.

These news organisations rely on circulation revenue and advertisements to sustain. Local businesses like a hole-in-the-wall tea shop, textile store or a coaching centre advertise at low costs in these papers to target their audience. Hyperlocal newspapers also get a sizable amount of obituaries and other classified ads.

However, many have had to close shutters due to loss in both the revenue models. Seetaraman, who has worked for Indian Express and The Hindu, said local ads are just not enough to sustain hyperlocal journalism, adding that he once met former Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah and asked him to consider giving government ads in local newspapers. The senior journalist had to shut down his Canara Times, a local English daily in Dakshina Kannada, due to losses.

How COVID-19 changed the dynamics of hyperlocal news

The media industry took a hit when the COVID-19 lockdown was announced in March. Many hyperlocal newspapers had to stop printing.

“But during emergency situations, residents want to know whom they can turn to locally for help, food and medical support. So we went beyond journalism during the lockdown,” said Vincent, who used Facebook and turned Mylapore Times into a 24x7 local news and help centre.

Vincent and his team were busy attending to the barrage of queries from residents — where can I find a nurse for my ailing mother? Is it safe to bring domestic workers from other areas?  “We even received queries at midnight from abroad as many of their parents are living alone in these neighbourhoods. They wanted to know if it was safe for their parents to step out,” said Vincent. “Readers, too, would pitch in with useful information, including suggesting good doctors. While many were a newer audience to us, some started actively participating. As a result, we were able to drive traffic to our website.”

These newspapers told the ground stories, notably on what each community group was doing and managing during the lockdown. “Many of our reports on Tarnaka Times during the lockdown were on who helped in a humanitarian manner, to serve as an example. Residents’ groups in Hyderabad provided ventilators to hospitals, personal protective equipment (PPE) kits to municipal workers and sanitation workers and distributed food to migrant workers. Such news encouraged other residents to contribute too,” said Rao Chelikani.

Mujeeb of Utharadesam dedicatedly busted fake news spreading on WhatsApp as a social responsibility. “Residents in Kasaragod were relying on us to get clarity on the message they received. The district administration also supported us during the period,” he said.

Since bus services were suspended, Seetaraman said he hired private vehicles to deliver the Karavali Ale newspapers to far-flung villages in parts of coastal Karnataka following requests.

Screenshot of a page from the e-paper version of Karavali Ale newspaper  

When the lockdown was lifted, Mylapore Times started publishing stories on local businesses, including home-based businesses like a resident selling podis, in order to boost their morale. “Since July, we have been keeping our ad rates low, because hyperlocal news organisations depend on the local market, which, in turn, ride on us. We created small ad patches on the website, and many clients have been coming back to us slowly and steadily,” said Vincent.

While Vincent said the funds he had saved in the previous years came in handy, Mujeeb was greatly helped by the Journalism Emergency Relief Fund from Google News Initiative.

Future of hyperlocal news sector

The silver lining in the pandemic for neighbourhood newspapers is that it pushed them to enter the digital space. “Utharadesam’s online presence was just supplementary. Because we faced several constraints in printing the newspapers, including getting the printing plates and chemicals from neighbouring Mangaluru (borders were closed), we started focussing more on the website and Facebook page, including online ads. We now give live updates online, which has helped us increase our reach,” said Mujeeb.

Vincent, who used WhatsApp to broadcast local news in Tamil, is set to start a Tamil website — “the Tamil avatar of the Mylapore Times”. He also started a YouTube channel called MylaporeTV, which posts local news videos every week.

Avenues, a monthly newspaper just for Harrington Road in Chennai, was forced to shut its print edition during the lockdown due to shortage of ads and funds. But its editor Suhasini Frederick is starting Avenues Broadcast on WhatsApp. “Now I am enjoying the fact that I don’t need to pay for paper, printing and delivery. Ad tariff is also low and advertisers are finding it attractive,” she said.

Notably, the hyperlocal sector has seen new entrants on the digital front. For example, Lokal is a Bengaluru-based startup that offers hyperlocal news to the non-English speaking, mobile-using readers in Tamil Nadu, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh via app.

Though hyperlocal news organisations are making inroads into the digital medium, Vincent noted that readers still value print editions, especially senior citizens in neighbourhoods, who form a major proportion of the readers.

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