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In Pilibhit district of Uttar Pradesh, near the Nepal border and 217 km north of Lucknow, a question on what’s the local news will fetch the answer, “Look up WhatsApp!”
That’s because an enterprising local journalist Shivendra Gaur’s initiative to use WhatsApp to broadcast news has caught the fancy of thousands in the district.
Called Rocket Post Live, Gaur’s WhatsApp news broadcast service has notched up 11,400 subscribers so far. Of them, about 8,000 are paid customers: they pay Rs 100 a year. The rest are students who get the service free of charge.
“We provide updates on every important development all day long. The video news bulletin, which is of three to five minutes duration, goes at around 8pm and our audience eagerly await the hour,” Gaur says. “If the bulletin gets late due to unforeseen reasons, the eagerness turns to desperation. We start getting irritated calls.”
To be sure, several news organisations have used WhatsApp as a channel to distribute news but Gaur’s venture seems to be the first one of this scale and scope.
Rocket Post Live reports mostly local news — crime, politics and, at times, social issues — in a district of 20 lakh people mostly dependent on farming. Gaur says he counts doctors and engineers among his subscribers along with local politicians, senior police department officials, and officials from the district information department.
Here’s a Rocket Post news bulletin on the UP elections, broadcast to subscribers on WhatsApp:
The smartphone has revolutionised the way news is consumed the world over. It is no different in Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state by population, where cost-conscious, news-hungry rural consumers are beginning to consume easily accessible and very affordable digital content.
In February this year, FactorDaily highlighted how news organisations and media-house wannabes are racing to launch mobile apps in the state in the run-up to the legislative assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh.
Gaur says people in Pilibhit are “very excited” and “totally fans” of Rocket Post Live video bulletins, and Rocket Post Live “flash news”. One such fan is Dr Shailendra Gangwar, a general physician, whose profession keeps him busy throughout the day. He turns to Rocket Post Live, which he says saves him time and is cheap. “Thanks to Gaur, we can rely on WhatsApp news. There are hundreds of other news groups on WhatsApp in this district, but it is hard to trust many of them unlike Rocket Post Live’s posts.”
Gaur also works as a stringer (affiliated independent reporter) for Bhaskar Digital, Times Now and a clutch of regional news channels. But even as a graduation student, he was chasing news. Being tech-savvy, he made videos on the 2000 Panchayat Elections for a local cable network. They were a hit.
“I always wanted to be a journalist. And covering the 2000 Panchayat Elections gave me was for starters. I became a full-time journalist only in 2010,” says 45-year-old Gaur. He runs a weekly newspaper of the same name but says he finds it difficult to keep the paper going for lack of a regular stream of funds.
“My objective is very clear. I will report but I will not compromise on truth. The problem is that some news is about some bigshot who’s an advertiser and he doesn’t want that news to go.”
Gaur was born and brought up in Pilibhit in a middle class family. While his father was working at the UP state Hydroelectric Power Corporation, he completed his graduation and then moved to Delhi to find a job. But within three weeks he realised Delhi was not the place for him and he returned to Pilibhit on his wife’s insistence. He wanted to be a broadcast journalist, but he could not afford to buy a new video camera. So he rented one from a person who shot wedding videos and covered the Panchayat Election in 2000. “I did not spare even a single politician or candidate. I got good response from the audience and it boosted my confidence. This helped me in my journey as a journalist,” says Gaur.
For Rocket Post Live, Gaur uses the broadcast feature of WhatsApp to send news bulletins to each of the subscribers separately.
“There’s a problem with WhatsApp group messaging. A lot of useless fluff is also sent. People don’t like that. So, to avoid that kind of situation, we use the multimedia broadcast feature,” says Gaur.
“A new subscriber is given a code. He or she can then message us using the code and ‘ADD ME’ text. Once they do that, they start receiving news bulletins after we add them to our network.”
To market and monetize his venture, Gaur has appointed two young men to canvas for subscriptions on a 30% commission basis. Five other people, including Gaur, do the “editorial production.”
He pays his employees anything between Rs 3,000 to Rs 5,000 per month. As for himself, he ends with around Rs 20,000 at the end of each month.
Saurabh Sharma is a Lucknow-based independent journalist and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.