The last days of December are a good time to look back and wonder if there was any point in spending another year in an outlet like The News Minute. What’s the point of working for a small, boot-strapped and embattled news outlet full of obstinate people who are always fighting fights they cannot win? Fighting religious fanaticism, caste oppression, patriarchy, gender stereotypes, human rights violations, oppressive governments, corrupt officials and feckless politicians.
Every reporter and every editor at TNM seems to be fighting some sort of David-Goliath battle at a time when the influence of serious political journalism is weakening. The country is in the grip of rightwing TV anchors and fake news outlets. We live in a post-truth world. Governments are becoming stronger, people are becoming weaker, democracy is crumbling. We are told we are negative, everybody wants to be happy and nobody has time for ground reportage showing how crappy things really are.
On some days it feels like we are riding into battle on a donkey with a wooden sword and straw helmets.
Remember our investigative story last year where we exposed how an infrastructure company paid for the wedding of a top Telangana official’s daughter’s wedding? We are still fighting off three cases that they have filed against us. It's just one of the cases we are fighting in an era where courts are more than happy to ban our stories without giving us a chance to respond. It’s called an ex-parte injunction. And no, this is not an exaggeration, this story will tell you why.
Why do we do what we do? I sometimes find it reassuring to tell myself that we are merely timekeepers. Journalism doesn’t change the world, it only captures change in the world. Head down. Be humble. Stop fighting the machine, just record its movements.
Yet, against all odds, we had a lot to be grateful for in 2023. Looking back on the year for this piece, I found my cynicism receding against the spectacular victories posted by my colleagues at TNM and the larger fraternity of truth seeking journalists in the country.
Keeping time, shaping the times
At the beginning of this year, we were still coming to terms with the success of one of our biggest investigative projects. Six TNM journalists in collaboration with the Kannada news portal Prathidhvani spent over three months to blow the lid off a massive data theft operation. Our expose sent the Election Commission and the entire state government into damage control mode as more evidence emerged of linkages between Chilume and senior leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which was in power at the time.
Police teams spread out across the city to put a halt to the illegal operation. The NGO’s executives were arrested even though the senior IAS officer and BJP leader who allegedly masterminded the scam escaped scrutiny.
It’s still something that a story by a small news outlet managed to stop the army of around 14,000 volunteers Chilume had raised for the illegal data collection.
It was the kind of year where we were repeatedly reminded that our journalism actually matters.
In March, through his reportage, our Tamil Nadu Bureau Chief Shabbir Ahmed helped bring to light the story of juvenile victims of police torture. The two young men had gone into hiding for fear of further harassment when Shabbir found them. Their testimonies to TNM not only ensured their safety but also provided clinching evidence against errant IPS officer Balveer Singh.
During Chennai floods in December, Shabbir was on the field, but unlike many other journalists and news outlets, he kept his focus on north Chennai. The part of Chennai that has a Scheduled Caste, Christian, and Muslim majority, and the part that remained the most ignored.
When ethnic clashes broke out in Manipur, we sent three reporters to the state. There were many doubts about the decision. Could we afford it? We are an outlet focused on creating a conversation around south India, what were we trying to achieve by paratrooping into Manipur? Was this a tourist expedition? What would a team of south Indians, without any prior experience of reporting in the northeast, achieve in the middle of a civil war?
The tickets were booked by the time we realised that we wouldn't be able to afford to buy bulletproof jackets for the team. Somebody in Imphal was kind enough to lend them two bulletproof jackets which they shared.
The reportage of TNM’s Haritha John, Prajwal Bhat and Bhuvan Malik was followed globally. It was received by audiences and human right groups as an important fact finding exercise at a time when the credibility of the local media outlets in Manipur had been seriously compromised and big national media outlets had restricted their coverage to headlines.
The Hindutva project
This year, we also embarked on an ambitious project to map the Sangh's attempts to grow Hindutva across states. While I looked at the Hosur, Dharmapuri belt, Shabbir traced the Kanyakumari model and how the RSS wants to replicate it. Lakshmi Priya looked at how the Hindu god Ganesha has become a political tool in Kerala too, something we have already observed in other states. We will continue this project this year too.
The Karnataka assembly elections this year also witnessed the beginnings of a historic shift in the country’s media landscape. A coalition of five independent news organisations – Newslaundry, Scroll, The Wire, Caravan and TNM – came together for a joint broadcast and analysis of the election results. We always knew that we had overlapping audiences but we didn’t expect the excitement it generated. They called it our ‘Avengers Assemble’ moment.
When we did it again for the elections in Telangana, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan. Madhya Pradesh and Mizoram, it sparked rumours that the five outlets are planning to start a new news channel.
For the maverick founders of these outlets to even consider such a thing, somebody would have to walk in with about five hundred crore to start the channel and put up another five hundred to fight the cases that would be slapped on us. Even that would not be enough to keep it afloat if a billionaire businessman suddenly decided to make a hostile takeover bid. Somebody in power could just as easily pull the plug.
For now all these outlets are focussed on increasing subscribers and micro-donors to keep journalism outside the influence of governments, advertisers and big business lobbies. What we know is that the coming years will see increasing collaborations between members of DIGIPUB, the national-level industry standards body for digital journalism outlets.
Digital journalists are not eligible for government accreditation. We can't access high-security zones and don’t get invited to major political events. The visiting card of a legacy media outlet opens doors and people’s mouths. And yet, journalists from India’s digital outlets continue to churn out a steady stream of world class investigative reports.
The importance of our micro-newsrooms can be gauged from our ability to rile-up the regime. We might be small and cash-strapped but our combined strength is greater than the parts added up. We are able to generate national conversations at a fraction of the establishment cost of big media outlets that have bureaus in every state headquarter.
Ours is a guerilla operation. It’s not important to win the fight as long as we stay in the fight. They can’t win if we refuse to surrender or die.
Awards and affirmations
Our Editor in Chief and founder Dhanya Rajendran was conferred with the Chameli Jain Award for Outstanding Woman Mediaperson of the year as well as the National Red Ink Award for Journalist of the Year.
Lawyer and journalist Sukanya Shaji who is now a part of TNM, was given a fellowship by Report For The World to cover gender and law. Prajwal Bhat was also selected as an RTW fellow who looked at civil liberties, while Bhavani Etikala focused on caste as an RTW fellow.
Jahanvi Reddy received a fellowship from Data Journalism Accelerator by How India Lives with support from Google News Initiative. Her story on jobs in Telangana was widely quoted during the elections. The unemployment problem in Telangana: What jobs data tells us
Azeefa Fathima did a three-part series called ‘Access Denied’ which looked at sections of society that are confined to the margins under the Health Systems Transformation Platform (HSTP), as part of its Health Journalism Fellowship.
Anna Isaac completed 100 episodes of Let Me Explain, a program that is widely appreciated by our readers.
The News Minute in collaboration with Queer Chronicles, supported by the Google News Initiative, brought out a comprehensive LGBTQIA+ Media Reference Guide in English, Tamil, Kannada, Hindi, and Marathi. Read about Inqlusive Newsrooms.
Not all the recognition for good work came in the form of bouquets and awards. Most of our affirmation and self-worth were derived from the viciousness with which our journalists were attacked by trolls of various political formations.
Some of TNM’s most ferocious trolls happen to be Hindutva extremists, men’s rights activists, and pro-caste savarnas. These were the earliest groups to organise online when this outlet started a decade ago. In the last few years, other cadre and personality based political parties – have also raised ruthless troll armies of their own.
Though their strength cannot be compared to the BJP, our journalists faced the full fury of these trolls this year as we made a push to examine the secular credentials, governance models and democratic values of all parties. It reassured us that the hornets’ nests are stirring up because our stories are stinging. Here’s a curated list of our stories that caught the attention of our readers, critics and trolls in 2023: Looking back at TNM’s 2023
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People behind the scenes
Here’s a selection of the stories that caught the attention of our readers, critics and trolls in 2023: