Why you should care
Because you might not see it in the headlines, but the nation of a billion has a quiet liberal population.
Anshul Tewari, a 24-year-old bespectacled and bearded startupper, kicks off his days with a classically magazine-y editorial meeting at 10:30 a.m. His core staff of seven 20-something men and women sit around on beanbags in a rectangular 900-square-foot apartment, messing with pinboards, seated under a poster with lyrics from John Lennon’s “Imagine.” The vibe is chill, democratic. Pretty much what you’d expect from a bunch of budding journalists.
The stuff that comes out of these meetings: headlines like “What the Internet Gave the Kerala Man (Apart From Porn)” and “Stories of These 3 Young Men Highlight Why Violence Against Boys Is Underreported.” And then there’s “With a Right-Wing Dominated Censor Board, It’s Free Speech vs. the Thought Police.”
Call it India’s latest riff on BuzzFeed. With the distinctly unbuzzy name of Youth Ki Awaaz (YKA) — which translates to “Voice of the Youth” — it’s gained a following of young, mostly liberal Indians. The site busies itself with conversations about LGBT issues, violence against women, film and politics, and a few global issues that catch young people’s attention. It certainly doesn’t make up a comprehensive news diet, but for those seeking a daily dose of social impact conversation, it does the trick.
Since its inception in 2010, the site has worked its way to 3 million visitors between October and December, says Tewari, citing his Google Analytics figures. (Unique visitors are fewer, of course; comScore India says the website had only 127,000 per month for the past three months, though 85 percent are in the coveted 15- to 34-year-old age group.) Its bread and butter is unpaid contributions — more than 30,000 over its first four years, comprised of a mix of journalism, blog posts and assorted op-eds, all in English. YKA pays some commissioned writers for pieces that involve more reporting, but at its heart, the site appears far from a news magazine and more like an upvoting liberal blog.
It makes for a casual approach: Tewari gives his writers “creative freedom,” he says. “He lets me be,” says Akhil Kumar, a senior editor who previously worked at the major newspaper The Hindu. And though Tewari, a Delhi University graduate, studied more traditional journalism, he’s long been more of a cyberspace addict, spending his teens maintaining a personal blog of “embarrassing” poetry and fiction. You might call this an upgrade.
YKA is about instilling a “sense of civic purpose and occasionally even activism.”
It’s a sign of the times in India, where 65 percent of the subcontinent’s billion are 35 or younger; half are 25 or younger. India’s youth comprise a fifth of the world’s young people. They’ve lived through a recession, leaving them worried about job creation; a brutal gang rape has left them deeply concerned about sex and gender. And many of them became politically sentient just in time for the world’s biggest democratic election ever. Today they’re living in a country seeking to open its markets and experiencing an increase in conversations over its religious makeup.
Going through 40-odd pitches every day, Tewari and his team pick 10 to post. They choose stories they feel the mainstream won’t pick up on. Tewari references the story of Soni Sori, a tribal schoolteacher turned politician in the central state of Chhattisgarh, who was wrongfully arrested and tortured for supporting an armed insurgency against India. Her story isn’t going to be “talked about in the media, but it’s an important story that needs to be told again and again,” says Tewari.
But YKA is not really an objective rag; it is about instilling a “sense of civic purpose and occasionally even activism,” says Anika Gupta, a research student at MIT who, while working at the news channel CNN-IBN, collaborated with YKA. And in the end, despite its few twinges of reporting, YKA doesn’t yet hold the heft of India’s old media, which still prevail. “A lot of journalists, corporate executives and NGOs don’t take us seriously because, ever since 2008, blogging wasn’t taken seriously in India,” Tewari admits.
Of course, the activism isn’t all purehearted. YKA’s primary source of revenue comes from sponsored content written for NGOs like Save the Children, Oxfam India and UNICEF, often around issues like public financing of health care and women’s issues. Tewari smoothly calls it pushing an “issue rather than a [corporate] brand.” Those sponsorships are set to reap $100,000–$200,000 between April 2014 and March 2015. That’s enough to keep the site going, and YKA is likely to get more dollars in the future, most watchers would say: Sponsored content is “part of a growing media trend,” says Durga Raghunath, former CEO of Web18, an Indian media conglomerate. And the NGO-style sponsored content on YKA is an easy fit, meshing with the beliefs of its readers.
Next up, Tewari wants to find another way to make money. This year, YKA will launch its YouTube channel and a Quora-style discussion platform, which he hopes will bring in revenue. The website also plans to solicit contributions from Pakistan and Sri Lanka. And then? We’ll see — when the youth grow up.