This episode we hear from Bhanupriya Rao, Founder of BehanBox, an Indian publication whose mission is to centre voices of women and gender diverse people through evidence and data-driven reporting. We spoke about the inequalities in access to media in India, how BehanBox hopes to make real changes for women and gender diverse people, and why data is so important in their reporting.

In the news round-up, the team discuss a collection of stories about access and representation in the media, from the ‘posh news for posh people’ outlook at some publications to the absence of working class voices in news media. In the news in brief section, we look at what makes a company a magazine company, Playboy’s push for influencers, and cost-cutting at the BBC.

The full transcript will be live here shortly, but for now, here are some highlights:

Founding BehanBox

India is a very unequal country. There’s gender inequality, there’s massive caste inequality – a very insidious form of inequality – and there is wealth inequality. I used to work as a public policy advocate, and as a as a grassroots activist, and it was plain for me to see when I worked that laws and policies weren’t working for the most marginalised, and women and gender diverse persons in the country.

In 2018, when I started to research and report from the ground, I travelled across the country, these inequalities were pretty visible to me. But if you looked at it in the mainstream media, it was as if these just did not exist. The issues of women and gender diverse persons were completely absent from the mainstream media. And I wondered why.

It is fairly clear to see that most of our newsrooms in India are not diverse at all. They are led by upper caste men, who were in the state’s capitals or in the national capitals. So there was the tyranny of distance. And at that time, I thought to myself, wouldn’t it be nice if there was an outlet which exclusively told stories of women, and gender diverse persons, 50% of the population whose lives and stories are never told.

This was around late in 2019. And just as this idea was simmering in my head, early 2020, the pandemic struck. It was again plainly clear to me that with these existing inequalities, the lives of women are going to be massively overhauled, they’re going to be affected very badly, their lives would be lost, their livelihoods would be lost, gender-based violence would increase. And so I thought that this was just the moment that despite all the challenges we were facing, at that time, that there was a sense of urgency then to start start this thing that has been simmering in my head.

Inequalities in access to news and information

The inequalities that you see in the rest of the society are also visible in the way news and information is consumed. So, with digital, which depends on the use of smartphones, even though the penetration is increasing, it is still highly unequal in the sense that women have less ownership of mobile phones. In fact, I think about 30% of women in rural and semi urban India, and also the rest of India, if you look at the figures, own and operate mobile phones, so those inequalities then manifest in the way people consume information and news.

But here’s the thing that we found was that the demand for this information and news from the population that’s left out is also increasing. In fact, the latest survey says that about 15% of women actually read newspapers in India. So you see, that sort of inequality then seeps into every facet of your life.

So news consumption is not going to be any different, but that need for information especially among the young Indian women from semi-urban India that’s very aspirational is increasing quite a lot.

BehanBox’s main channels

The biggest growth we’ve seen on social media is Instagram. And that should tell you how much that younger audience really wants the information and those tools that we’ve been talking about. So our social, our Instagram is growing like growing very organically. Twitter and LinkedIn is where a lot of our audience comes from, to our website.

And podcasts. We’ve developed these podcasts, mainly in Hindi at the moment because we wanted to reach the audience that is completely left out from this English language journalism. And so we developed some of those podcasts for our Hindi language, especially young adolescent girls, and women who live in areas that are just not known to most Indians in urban India. But what we also want to do is to start to also serve the urban Indian women in terms of knowledge about laws and policies, and the history of feminism, and so many other things. So we are looking at podcasts as a big medium, going forward to reach different sets of audiences.

The other thing we do also is we work with community radio stations. So there is an audience that is still in semi-urban and rural India that has access to smartphones. But we’re talking about communities that live in absolute any kind of information access, so complete blackouts. Those are places where community radio reaches, so we are tying up with community radio stations to make these audio formats available to them.

What makes a BehanBox story

The core of our footwork is still gender journalism. So when we plan a story, for us, every issue is a gender issue. So we don’t look at women’s issues as gender issues alone. Agriculture is a gender issue. Labour is a gender issue. Violence is a gender issue. Disability is a gender issue. And we look at different forms of intersectionality. So we are big on intersectionality. That is really the core of our reportage.

When we look at an issue as a gender issue, it’s wide ranging. But also, the way we look at stories is that we don’t report on on an event, we don’t say that a person has had a instance of sexual violence. What we try to do is to build that interconnectedness. We tell people, the why of things, we tell our reportage, our stories in a big way talk about why things are the way they are. Why is the justice system not working for the most marginalised women who face sexual violence? We don’t say, for example, that three in 10 women in India are victims of domestic violence, we talk about why violence should be a public health issue, and how hospitals and other sort of institutions are failing women who are who are survivors of domestic violence. So the why is a big part of our storytelling.

The third thing that we do, and this is again very important, is that stories of certain communities that need to be told, we always ensure that those are told by women who come from those communities. This way what we ensure is that the lens with which they are able to tell their own stories are is preserved, so it’s not like someone else, even if it’s a woman, someone from a more privileged community, or a general community is telling the stories of women from marginalised communities.

Main story:

  • At the Deloitte and Enders Media and Telecoms conference a responded to a question about paywalled news the moderator Kamal Ahmed, formerly editorial director of the BBC, reworded the question to: “Is everything going to be posh news for posh people that can pay for it?
  • FT commercial exec Jon Slade said it was a possible way forward for the news industry (he didn’t say it was a good idea, just a possibility).
  • Then there was a report from Holland, Understanding why people don’t pay for news, which showed cost concerns putting people off paying for news. Price was too high, too high compared to print newspaper, subscription fatigue etc.
  • The point of all this is there is a clear cost barrier in increasingly difficult times for people accessing news. Make all news paid and there is a major access gap.
  • Wrap all that up in a discussion around UK journalism’s class problem and the potential of Posh News for Posh People is a real possibility.
  • Good news maybe that publishers are finding ways other than hard paywalls to make money. Tortoise is using standalone podcast subscriptions to attract new audiences.
  • But the big question remains how do you maintain access and make a living?

News in brief:

  • Conde Nast, founded over 100 years ago, publisher of GQ, The New Yorker, Vogue, Wired, serving 72 million people in print is actually no longer a magazine company. That statement seems to be based on the arithmetic surrounding the hundred of millions of people that visit Conde’s website and social feeds. As you can maybe tell, this story got under Peter’s skin a bit prompting him to write a wee rantDitching your magazine heritage when you don’t have to is disingenuous at best and all about digital posing. No argument that growth is digital, but why throw your babies out with the bath water, especially when you have such great looking babies.
  • Playboy might have wound down its print edition in 2020 but it’s not slowing down. It launched its Centerfold platform in December, which is a rival to OnlyFans. Cardi B is Centerfold’s creative director, and Playboy are building up a network of influencers to act as a talent pool and help promote Centerfold. There’s a really interesting piece in The Drum which looks at how that’s all working and their plans to accelerate their DTC business.
  • The BBC’s director general Tim Davie has announced a huge tranche of cost-cutting measures across the corporation. James O’Malley says: “In the long run this will undermine the universality at the core of the BBC bargain, which will send the corporation into a death spiral. Fewer people see value in the BBC, so fewer people will pay the licence fee, which means smaller budgets for the BBC, which means less money to spend on content, and on the death spiral goes.”

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