We are constantly making traditional journalism obsolete: Sudipta Sengupta, Vice President - Product and Alliance, merinews.com

Merinews.com, a media company founded in 2005 with the ambition of democratizing the media space has made quite a progress since the time it was founded. Sengupta leads an army of citizen journalists in country’s crowded media space.

Sengupta who was a part of the founding team parted ways in 2008 only to rejoin the company as business head in 2011. With a clear mandate to grow the citizen participation, Sengupta had been spearheading community participation across India for the platform.


We caught up with Sengupta on a lazy afternoon of Sunday. Below are excerpts of the interview.


Merinews had been surviving among the crowded and well-funded media landscape in a bootstrapping mode. How? 

We never considered ourselves as a traditional media platform. So we never built the pompousness around it. Our HR costs are low. We kept the team small, motivated and focused towards one goal – empowering citizens. That is a very fulfilling experience in itself. Over the last 3 years we had absolutely zero attrition in manpower. We take pride in believing that we are disrupting the space and gradually making traditional journalism obsolete. It’s people writing for people now.

We still work in a start-up mode with very low outflow in rental or similar other overheads.Our local and hyperlocal chapters are being developed in a franchisee mode with very little additional cost bearing on us. And some of them have started becoming profitable too riding on high interest from local advertisers.


But is this sustainable?

We hope it is. A business model will have to evolve eventually. We have started selling advertisement space for the last 6 months and we are seeing a decent attraction from clients and agencies. Our local chapters like merinews Gurgaon has already done operational breakeven within 6 months of its launch. While other media platforms are focusing on big tickets global clients, we are focusing on building a hyperlocal model. We are selling advertisements to local retailers at a very low cost. There is hardly any competition to that in the cities where we are currently operating.


You have opened up local chapters in a cosmopolitan city like Gurgaon as well as a semi urban place like Haldia. What is the strategy behind it? 

There isn’t much, honestly. We wanted to hyperlocal but at the same time lacked experience of setting up bureaus. It all started when we started getting proposals from our existing citizen journalists’ network. We are currently opening up local chapters in an experimental mode. And the major decision making factor is the presence of a dependable citizen journalist volunteer in the area. We are building these local chapters as a franchisee outlet where the volunteer takes up the ownership to run it and we support in the backend with tech and edit. So far, the attraction is decent.


Do you pay these citizen journalist volunteers?

Not directly. We are trying to develop a revenue sharing model with them.


What are the challenges?

Many. From unstructured content to poetries – we receive thousands of posts every day. Scanning through them and finding out the right content pieces and then editing them – it’s a tough task. However, the biggest problem we face is the unverified, dubious claims made in some of these posts.


So, how do you handle these posts that are unverified?

We do not publish them. Not sure if this is the right way. Somewhere we constantly keep debating about the fact that this may go against the very motto of citizen journalism. So we do all we can and try to find leads who can help us verify any piece of news we doubt. But it’s not always possible and we need to take a call.


But isn’t it the web 2.0 era? People have Orkut, Facebook to write freely now… 

We do not position ourselves vis-à-vis the social networking platforms. We deal with serious content pieces – 300 words of length. Not everyone can write the same – we understand. So we do workshops to train them. Post that we have a manual editorial board to scan every submission and then publish it. We will never allow free publishing on merinews. We believe that is a responsibility we hold towards the readers.


What are your future plans? 

Going hyperlocal to around 100 cities in India. We are aiming high for that. We want to experiment with hyper local print too. Print still is a strong medium in India and we get quite a few advertisement queries around the same.

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