[Reader-list] Struggling to keep an owl's watch on the giant India media

shivam zest_india at yahoo.co.in
Sat Jun 19 18:37:50 IST 2004

  TheHoot.org: Struggling to keep an owl's watch on
the giant India media

  By Frederick Noronha 
  Indymedia / 17/09/2002 At 02:04 

India's media is vibrant and lively, yet journalists
in the country are seen 
as either being the handmaiden of the government, a
law unto themselves and 
excessively racket-prone or anything in between. Can a
humble website set up 
at the cost of under Rs 200,000 (US$4000) change this
situation some way? 

Poor payments from most of the small and medium
papers, a lack of ethics, 
blurred or non-existant codes of conduct... these are
only some of the 
dilemmas and difficulties facing mediapersons in this
geographically vast 
and diverse country of some 5000+ newspapers and many

If The Hoot has its way, it hopes to bring in some
degree of accountability. 
By making clear what are the critical issues affects
the media, the site 
www.thehoot.org hopes to push towards positive change.

"I feel strongly that the media matters in a
democracy, and needs to be kept 
on course by people from within it," says Delhi-based
senior media critic Ms 
Sevanti Ninan, who has played a key role in putting up
thehoot.org site. 

As thehoot.org site explains: "The sub-continent has
plenty of media, it 
does not have enough scrutiny of the media. This
portal is the outcome of 
the concern felt by a group of practicing journalists
at some recent trends 
in journalism in this part of the world. It is an
attempt to revive a 
concern for media ethics, restore focus on development
in the subcontinent, 
and preserve press freedom. It will attempt to hold a
mirror to the way 
journalists practice their craft in this region." 

The Hoot (www.thehoot.org) calls itself a 'media
ethics' website. Over a 
year old now, this site however recently faced
pressures for its survival. 

Said Ninan, in an open letter to supporters: "(You)
have supported the idea 
over the past year, without losing too much sleep over
it. But this missive 
is to ask for more active support, if The Hoot is to

The Hoot, to quote Ninan, "started purely out of a
felt need to have a forum 
to discuss media practice, not because any resources
were available!" It was 
started through the Media Foundation run by veteran
journalist B G Verghese 
and with with moral or initial financial support from
Shailaja Bajpai, 
Mannika Chopra and Shubra Gupta, all media critics
based in Delhi. 

"There was no long-term funding in sight.... But we
got a small grant from 
Unesco and got going. It has now developed into
something useful, though it 
has many drawbacks arising out of a lack of staff and
resources. Word about 
it has spread, and the number of those using it have
grown. There definitely 
is not anything else of this range in the
subcontinent," says Ninan. 

She says the total investment crossed Rs 175,000 or
thereabouts, with no 
staff, or office or budget. "It has been partly
financed out of journalist 
contributions. Our business plan, if you can call it
that, is that 200 
journalists paying Rs 100 a month can ensure its
survival. But only ten 
have responded!," says she. 

What prompted the setting up of this site? Says Ninan,
in an interview with 
this writer: "The fact that there was no forum in
India where you could 
honestly critique both the print and other media, and
the fact that such 
critiquing was desperately needed. Journals cannot
respond as fast as a 
website can." 

Ninan has herself covered television since 1986,
beginning with the Indian 
Express and going on to the Hindu. She has also
written a book on television 
and change in India ('Through the Magic Window',
Penguin 1995), and is 
working on another on the regional print media in
North India. She 
contributed to a book on broadcasting reform. 

There's a whole lot of interesting content on this
site. It's clear that it 
has been put together by professionals who understand
what makes an 
interesting read. 

One recent visit to the site took us to a link on
'Dhirubhai (Ambani) and 
the media' -- a blunt, critical yet balanced piece of
the billion-rupee 
magnate done with the depth, perception and sharpness
that few newspapers or 
other media organisations have done since Ambani's

There were write-ups on foreign direct investment in
the Indian media, the 
Prime Ministerial "paranoia" and press freedom ("The
overreaction to the 
Time story is because most of India's 'trusted'
publications appear to lack 
the courage and the leadership to expose truth or
touch controversial 

Other topics covered include Press freedom in
Pakistan, the Deccan Chronicle 
needs a new editor, covering land alienation in
Jharkhand, and censoring 
peace ("It is a strange world where nuclear weapons
are believed to help 
prevent war and a film on peace is seen as a potential
instigator of 

One study offers a "systematic survey" of the coverage
given by 
Bangalore-based newspapers in Kannada and English to
the violence in 
Gujarat. There's even another feature on how a network
of women journalists 
presents its study of media coverage of the events in
Gujarat in English, 
Gujarati, Marathi, Urdu and Hindi newspapers published
in Mumbai. 

This is the irreverent but relevant tone of the site,
as reflected in one 
article recently: "The Hindustan Times, located just
beyond Connaught Place 
in Delhi, has solved the problem of parking for
employees by decreeing that 
those above forty can park inside the compound, but
those below forty have 
to park outside! A wag wants to know if this applies
to the proprietor's 

The Hoot's self-described goal is: "Watching media in
the subcontinent. The 
more the media matters, the more we must track what it

On  http://www.thehoot.org one finds links to a
media-watch column, media 
resources, and media-law information. There's also
material on the Right to 
Information debate, which could be of immense use to
journalists, provided 
they make efforts to use the law when passed. (In Goa,
a law already 
existes; but after a potent protest over the same,
hardly any journalists 
have sought information under this law.) 

There are also special 'buttons' covering 'views from
the region', 
media-ethics, media comments on the media,
media-research, press-freedom 
issues, and a focus on media-and-conflict, media
activism, media-and-gender, 
and related themes. 

As one scrolls down the options available, it's
surprising to see how many 
often-forgotten dimensions the life of a mediaperson
could have. 
(Development reporting, grassroots media, community
radio, new media, media 
jobs, and much else....) There are sections 'for
journalists' and 'for 
journalism students'. 

Surfers are told: "The Hoot welcomes articles,
letters, reviews, and 
comments from readers and fellow journalists." You can
contact The Hoot at 
 editor at thehoot.org 

But there have been difficulties in keeping going.
"Because neither media 
houses, nor business houses would want to be
associated with something which 
critiques mainstream media. Everybody needs the media.
Also because the 
Media Foundation does not take foreign funds," says

What were the high points of The Hoot so far? 

Its promoters site coverage of the handling of the
massacre in Nepal, in 
which case MediaChannel.org in the US picked up The
Hoot's story by Ammu 
Joseph. What was also noticed was coverage from an
Indian point of view of 
the info-war between 'terrorists' and the USA, written
after September 11 

There was also strong reader response to an article
called 'The Ungreat 
Indian Middle Class' and other stories, and the
community radio conference 
which must have been the first Net event of its kind
in this region, on 
community radio, recalls Ninan. 

Above all, TIME journalist Alex Perry, caught up in a
controversy over his 
report on the health (or poor health) of prime
minister Vajpayee, mailed 
Mannika Chopra to say that he thought her story on the
site on the whole 
TIME and Prime Minister's Office issue was the fairest
and most complete, 
even though it contained "two rather rude paras about
his brand of 
journalism", according to Ninan. 

This site was set up in March-end 2001. Hits climbed
slowly from nothing to 
17,000 a week at the beginning of this year. (At the
time of writing, it was 
at 371 visits -- 870 page views -- a day and 21000
hits a week. By July 10, 
it was at 591 daily visits and 4400 daily hits.) 

The site suffered when the company that had booked the
url did not forward 
reminders and the url lapsed. It was off the air for
two weeks. "It ... 
needs to do much better than that. I have no means to
publicise it off the 
Net," says Ninan. 

What would be the best chance of making the site
sustainable? Sevanti 
believes it could hinge on getting a broad base of
people, five hundred on 
more, to pay an annual subscription to support it. 

"We have said Rs 100 a month, but much smaller amounts
are also welcome. 
Alternatively, becoming part of large, well-funded,
public interest Net 
initiative (could work). Needless to say, I prefer the
former, but have not 
had much success with it so far," says Ninan. 

There are challenges too. One of the biggest is trying
to manage a media 
watch site without enough money, and with no daily
help, editorial, 
managerial or technical. Plus doing fund raising and
publicising the site. 

The costs of putting up the site excludes part payment
for a content 
management system, which is avaited. Freelance
journalists are paid for 
articles exclusive to The Hoot. 

Ninan is clear when asked which three achivements
makes her proud of The 
Hoot. She says: "The fact that it has completed a
year, that fact that it is 
current and outspoken, and the fact that journalists
and readers are slowly 
but surely pitching in to support it with money and
articles, which shows 
that they feel the need for such an initiative." 

In recent weeks, the Media Foundation has applied for
permisson to accept 
foreign funding, while the current shortfall has been
bridged with a 
personal loan, and small donations are trickling in. 

>From here, where? "In terms of survival, the Hoot is
not over the hump yet. 
If it survives I hope it can go on to a more secure
platform with other 
public interest sites, so that it becomes a
media-watch and media-research 
hub for the subcontinent," says she. 

"Personal letters written by Mr. Verghese to all the
big newspapers in the 
country to contribute towards a corpus have yielded no
response at all. We 
will now be writing to Indian business houses. I can
no longer keep The Hoot 
up and running without support from a much wider base
of people," Ninan said 
in her open letter some months back. 

She seeks Rs 100-a-month contribution from journalists
wanting to support 
this venture for "a hundred rupees a month is not a
lot, and media as we 
practice it, could do with some scrutiny". Her appeal
concluded: "If you 
believe we need something like The Hoot, please help
save this endangered 

The Hoot can be contacted via mail at 180 National
Media Centre, Gurgaon 
122002. Sevanti Ninan can be contacted via email at 
sevantininan at vsnl.com 

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