How is Multilingual Freelance Journalism Transforming the Media Landscape in India?

Changes in the technological landscape and the political economy of news media have opened up new spaces for freelance journalism, particularly in multilingual spaces. Freelance journalists occupy a precarious position due to their place within neo-liberal logics, but at the same time, are less beholden to many of the political, social, and commercial pressures constraining reporting and editing in big media houses. Biographical sketches of three Chennai-based freelancers demonstrate different possibilities of engaging as a freelancer across languages.

In an analysis of media and politics, Arvind Rajagopal (2001) compellingly argued that the world of newspaper production and readership in North India could be understood as being composed of “split publics.” He said that while the English language press took a more distanced perspective to news events, especially in events such as the Ram Janmabhoomi campaign, Hindi newspapers focussed on the narrative aspect, whether critical or sympathetic.  The difference in reporting styles was said to have resulted from a degree of proximity to the centres of power in the Indian state. The same could probably be said for journalism in Tamil Nadu, especially regarding issues of regional importance such as the plight of Tamils in the Sri Lankan war. Reporting in the English language was more dispassionate as compared to the emotional texture of reporting in Tamil; the latter also showed more graphic photographs of wartime violence. Rajagopal, of course, takes note of some exceptions in the Hindi and English press. Similar exceptions can be seen in the world of Tamil journalism as well. 

 

As heuristically useful as the concept of split publics has been, a great deal has changed in the intervening years, especially in the political economy of journalism. Too strict a separation between English and vernacular journalism might obscure the fact that some of the best reporting happening today inhabits a multilingual space, in between these worlds, and increasingly online. Let us, then, look at some exceptions to this rule of difference by focusing on an emergent genre of freelance journalism that requires fluency across languages. There were always talented scribes who navigated multiple languages and registers in a city like Chennai. Both B Kolappan and A S Panneerselvan from the Hindu come to mind as contemporary examples. 

 

The profound churning in the world of news production that has occurred in the wake of liberalisation and the proliferation of new media in recent years, however, might have opened up spaces for freelance journalists to develop new business models, new modes of investigation, and new genres of writing across linguistic thresholds.[1] New freelance journalism invites readers to inhabit social worlds that might otherwise have been unreachable largely because freelancers now have relative freedom in choosing their publication venues and they constantly breach barriers between languages. Freelance journalists occupy a precarious position due to their place within the neo-liberal economic logic and are not always accredited by the state. They are, at the same time, less beholden to many of the political, social, and commercial pressures that constrain reporting and editing in big media houses.

 

There has been a shift in the ecology of journalism in the age of deep digitalisation. Caste and class barriers to entry remain as foundational as ever—Brahmins, for example, maintain inordinate dominance in the upper echelons of the English press and there is a relative paucity of Dalit journalists (Jeffrey 2001; Balasubramaniam 2011). There is, however, a certain fluidity among languages and newly flexible markets in journalist expertise have been brought about by digitalisation. Newspapers are now more likely than before to pay for articles written by freelancers, rather than relying solely on salaried employees for big stories. This is a space that has only opened up in the past few years at a time when journalists are under renewed threat from those in power. Many mainstream media organisations, both print and televisual, have become more docile than they previously have been (Scroll 2017).

 

Contradictions in the News Media Give Rise to the New Freelancer

 

We have become familiar with the ways in which neo-liberal ideology, economic restructuring, and media-savvy right wing have produced news media that are bound, more than ever, to the interests of both capital- and state-sponsored nationalism. Consider Arnab Goswami’s self-appointed role as the guardian of the nation and how his style of journalism has shaped the quest for television rating points (TRPs) across a swathe of news shows in a number of languages besides English. Indeed, the rise of new corporate monopolies on media and a corresponding degradation of news coverage at a time when the distinction between telecommunications and broadcasting is falling apart has been criticised by scholars (Guha-Thakurta and Chaturvedi 2012; Guha-Thakurta 2014). In an interview with Rajagopal (2017), Paranjoy Guha-Thakurta also noted that with the proliferation of new technologies around the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, 

“one section had become corrupt and venal and another section of the media had become more active … These two things may appear paradoxical to some but they were happening simultaneously.” 

 

As examples of activist media, Guha notes the rise of “sting” reporting and lists journalists associated with Tehelka, such as Aniruddha Bahal, Ashish Khetan, and Rana Ayyub.[2] 

 

The rise of digital media has changed the possibilities for reporting, but the contradictory forces underpinning the democratisation of media forms have never been starker. On the one hand, the instruments of news media production have become more widely available and accessible as a result of digitalisation. On the other, corporate power is playing an ever-larger role in shaping the content of mainstream news. Internet and social media access has increased since 2014 through web-enabled phone technology and a commitment to net neutrality, even as Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries Limited entered the media world by acquiring Network 18 Media & Investments Ltd, and its subsidiary TV18 Broadcast Ltd. A new split has thus emerged with the rise of exclusively online journals like Scroll.in, Wire, News Minute, and Quint that have given depth to critical investigative journalism and analysis at a time of lucrative hyper-nationalism and fear in much of the mainstream media, reminding one of the Emergency.  

 

This is not just a story of scrappy independent media (much of it is, in fact, funded by philanthropy, corporate and otherwise); it is a commentary about those who provide critical content for an emboldened press that is perhaps less divided along linguistic lines now than it was in the past. The new freelancer is able to survive by writing for multiple venues in a manner that was not possible few years ago. The rise of online journals has opened new venues for publication and also appears to have put pressure on older journals to pay for individual pieces by freelancers. The new online news sites as well as some older players are also becoming more reliant on freelance journalism to establish relevance in a news world saturated with sensation but lacking in investigation. The journalists who have forged this new domain of news come from different backgrounds but share a critical perspective on the limits that come with salaried work, even as the future of their chosen path of precarious freedom remains unclear. In order to get a sense of the people behind the production of this domain, it will be helpful to turn to a few biographical sketches of Chennai-based freelancers that are representative of a phenomenon that is happening across India, although each of their stories demonstrates a different way of engaging as a freelancer across languages.

Three Portraits of New Freelancers from Chennai

I

Many journalists who now write for the new online journals and other publications on a freelance basis began their careers in print or even television. Kavitha Muralidharan, for example, is a journalist from Chennai who began by working in a number of English print publications immediately after college, before she landed a job at the Tamil edition of India Today in 2000. There, she was able to pursue the kind of investigative journalism that she had hoped to do in her earlier jobs. Notably, Muralidharan exposed the institutionalised casteism of a college run by the Shankara Mutt, where Brahmin and non-Brahmin students where taught different curricula. Although she had pursued the investigation for this story along with a colleague from a prominent English language newspaper, her colleague felt that his paper would not want to run the story and that she should go ahead because of the support offered by the Tamil India Today. After working at the Week, where she reported on the war in Sri Lanka, and won the Press Institute of India–International Committee of the Red Cross Award, Muralidharan was eventually asked to take the helm as head of the news department at the newly launched Tamil edition of the Hindu. She hoped to recreate some of the supportive work environment she appreciated at India Today, where she eventually returned before the Tamil edition of the India Today was closed in early 2015. 

 

In an interview,[3] Muralidharan explained, “There is always a gap between English and Tamil and I am one of the few who can bridge it.” It was only in recent years that Muralidharan decided that freelancing was the best way to pursue this path. She now writes regularly about Tamil politics, and issues of gender and caste for Hindustan Times and is a frequent contributor on Scroll.in, Wire, and India Today, in addition to writing for popular Tamil journals like Ananda Vikatan and making regular appearances on television. When asked about hopes for the future, Muralidharan says that she would like to write more about cinema, but that she has fewer connections to the film world than to the world of Tamil politics. 

 

“In the past, a senior politician would answer my questions after asking which news organisation I belonged to. Now they accept me if I simply tell them where the article will be published.”  

 

Her reputation as a formidable journalist clearly preceeds her, despite the fact that the state does not issue press cards to freelancers in Tamil Nadu yet. Muralidharan has also become an important translator of important journalism and essays originally produced in Tamil for English language readers.

 

II

Another Chennai-based journalist who works across media and languages, R Ramasubramanian, known as R Mani in his Tamil publications, has the distinction of being among the first journalists to be slapped with a criminal defamation case by Jayalalithaa’s government for a story he wrote online (Subramani 2015). In 2015, on rediff.com, Ramasubramanian wrote that Jayalalithaa was clearly unwell, but no one was willing to write or talk about it at the time for fear of reprisal.[4] Apparently, people’s fears were warranted. Now a regular author for the Wire, India Today, and a number of other English publications, Ramasubramanian also contributes to online Tamil publications such as Oneindia Tamil, and is a regular political commentator on Puthiya Thalaimurai and other Tamil television channels. 

 

Having worked in nearly a dozen different newspapers and channels since 1989, Ramasubramanian says that he owes his success as a multilingual freelancer to two experiences.  First, working as legal reporter in the Madras High Court for Maalai Cutar and News Today at the height of Jayalalithaa’s attack on journalism in the mid-1990s enabled him to become an “all-arounder,” equipped to report on everything from politics to social issues and culture. He continues to write for India Legal online, including a recent criticism of the Madras High Court’s 2016 directive to YouTube and Google to provide the IP address and details of users uploading defamatory content.  The second formative period in his career was when he worked for the Tamil edition of India Today from 2011 until they were shut down in 2015. It was there, he said that he learned how to “ideate” a news story. While Ramasubramanian’s proudest moments as a journalist are the defamation cases that have been framed against his work, among the more remarkable ways in which he has transcended linguistic barriers was an article he wrote analysing the landmark judgment supporting freedom of expression and Perumal Murugan’s right to publish the controversial Madhorubhagan (One Part Woman) (Ramasubramanian 2016). Murugan was so taken by Ramasubramanian’s analysis (one of the few, if any, to be written in Tamil) that he arranged a meeting with the journalist.

 

III

The third portrait of a freelancer is of someone who does not write in Tamil, but crosses linguistic worlds in other ways. Chennai-based Sandhya Ravishankar has recently made news herself as a target of attacks by the sand mining mafia in southern Tamil Nadu. Ravishankar first reported on the mafia for Times Now, and then investigated the issue in depth in a series published by the Wire. Unlike the first two freelancers, Sandhya has had formal training, having completed a BA in journalism at Monash University, Australia and studying broadcast journalism at the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai. Having worked at CNBC, CNN-IBN, ET Now, Times Now, and the Tamil-language, Puthiya Thalaimurai, Ravishankar eventually started to freelance as a writer after being frustrated with the political compromises demanded of reporters on the major news channels. While she had considered starting her own news website with some colleagues, after talking to those in the business it quickly became apparent that she would be better off freelancing. As a freelancer, Ravishankar wrote articles on Tamil politics and some of the major players in the Tamil elections and on the murder of a young IT (information technology) professional in Chennai for Scroll.in.

 

In 2016, Sandhya assembled a new group of journalists to form the Lede,[5] a consortium for freelancers working in the southern states of India. Sandhya explained[6] that “the idea was to support quality journalism” in an environment that would give the journalists freedom from political pressures that they would otherwise feel. Under this arrangement, journalists from Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, and Tamil Nadu would sell stories at fixed rates to media outlets such as the Hindu, Firstpost, Economic Times, the Wire, and Hindustan Times. The Lede would take 2% of the fees to help cover travel costs and other overheads, while also ensuring that participating journalists were paid on time. Delay or lack of payment is a perennial problem for freelancers in journalism. At the same time, Sandhya helps journalists who work in Tamil or Telugu (and have less experience publishing written pieces for major media houses) with translation and writing stories. The multilingualism of freelancing works here in the process of translation leading to a final published result in English. 

 

Digitalisation and Heterolingual Address

 

A handful of reporters in Chennai have moved beyond the position of acting as simple arbiters between language communities, and have, instead, developed what literary theorist Naoki Sakai (1997) would call an ethic of “heterolingual address.” This is a mode of writing that presumes a variety of differently situated readers and many languages, and which explicitly exposes the writer to the forms of misrecognition that follow from this. This essentially refers to writing with the knowledge that communication demands a fragile give-and-take across differences. By the same token, this form of address also opens up a space of discourse where the community of readers that is produced no longer assumes neat boundaries around language communities. Consider, for example, the variegated global readership of online journals like Ananda Vikatan or Scroll.in, where these journalists publish; if the Tamil edition of India Today (now-closed) helped some of the profiled journalists cultivate an independent ethos, and news sites like Peer Mohamed’s ippodhu.com pioneered online Tamil journalism with original content, it is organisations like the Lede, or Bengaluru-based GRIST Media that have played a role in bringing regional journalists to English-language readers. 

 

There is a give and take between languages here. However, this is a reciprocity that does not presume equal social power. The ethic of the heterolingual address is aimed at questioning the distribution of social power associated with different languages. Regional language journalists are often better-informed about events on the ground than their English-language counterparts, but have fewer resources to pursue critical investigative journalism.[7] Multilingual exchange here is, therefore, not just a matter of bringing standards of “quality” commonly associated with the English language press into the Tamil language. The wager of heterolingual address is that drawing from different linguistic and social worlds might help produce new communities of news readers in a context where some groups have vested interests in maintaining the practices of split publicity. Indeed, split publicity and the associated representation of different languages marking exclusive and different communities are products of commercial journalism itself, as Sahana Udupa (2015) has shown with regard to the relationship between Kannada and English print media in Bengaluru. The a priori assumption that languages represent two separate communities—English standing for cosmopolitanism and Tamil for vernacular authenticity—is precisely what is being questioned by the new freelancers’ ethic of address. This is a rather complicated position to negotiate in Tamil Nadu which has a history of regional politics focused on ethnolinguistic identity and has a schooling system that does not tend to produce equal proficiency in Tamil and in English (Cody 2013). Relatively few can write effectively in both English and regional languages.

 

The freelance revolution has certainly impacted English more than Tamil so far, and the world of journalism remains radically unequal when it comes to languages and other forms of cultural capital. At the level of basic political economy, for example, English writing commands a higher price than Tamil and there is only so much re-distribution that can be accomplished by the sorts of small consortiums of freelancers that have recently come up.  However, while many important articles written by the freelancers of Chennai might be peripheral in terms of total readership compared to major Tamil dailies, they have nevertheless attained a level of political relevance having precisely to do with the innovative path they have forged. Consider, for example, the reactions provoked by Sandhya’s exposé of the sand mafia, a work of journalism that has rippled through the media-sphere across languages. This is all happening precisely at a time when many sense that the proliferation of small media outlets and growing importance of social media have coincided with a contraction of serious reporting in the mainstream media. The heterolingual ethic is therefore also about more than discreet languages; it is about a broader set of metamorphoses in the public sphere that have raised new questions about the nature of how communities are mediated in a digitalising world.  

The author would like to thank his freelancer friends and colleagues in Chennai for their time and comments on this project, as well as the anonymous referee from EPW for helping to sharpen the arguments presented here. This research was generously funded by a Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada Insight Grant.

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