Before she made this switch to independent, hyperlocal media, Meera had been a techie in wireless and embedded technologies for over a decade. Ever since, more than a journo, she’s been a concerned citizen trying to improve things through this magazine.
Citizen Matters is a pretty unique effort and you’ve been involved right from its inception. First of all, hats off on not just having the guts to start something like that, but sustaining the enthusiasm.
How did the switch from embedded software to media happened!?
Well, I had always been interested in news (my father was an editor in Indian Express). I was always an avid reader. Much as I had fun with developing code, I was looking out to do something that had a direct impact or could help make a difference at the local level.
Did it look like an attractive opportunity when you started? Or was it, like most hyperlocal efforts have been, clearly a challenge even then?
Hyperlocal content has worked for us. As a print media business, it looked very reasonable. Just after we launched, the economy worsened. We just clenched our teeth and survived it — that made us strong. A pretty similar situation last year has helped us in a way, tweak our course and decide on the long term focus areas especially online media and our book business.
Did you always like writing? Journalism dreams from early on?
I wasn’t really into writing earlier. I was too much of a reader! When I came across community news of high calibre in the US, I felt that’s an important need in any society. Our local news and freesheeters rarely have substance and there were so many things happening in the local space. A city of 8 million deserves its own newsmedia.
How’s the story been? Print vs online, signing up authors, battling with advertisers, driving local agendas, and getting involved – all of it?
The journalism side – sourcing news, citizen writing, handling writers and interacting with citizens – all this has been great fun. Providing an open yet credible city-focussed platform for citizens to share their news, experiences that complements the in-depth articles from skilled journalists has been very fulfilling. It was good to interact in person with citizens, through our community events and workshops, on recycling, water, gardening etc.
Print was also a great experience and was a hit with readers. However for the quality of product we wanted to main, the economics of local advertising produces very unhealthy margins, especially when the market goes through dull cycles. It is too long term a game for startups. It may work for big media with deep pockets. But a small startup has more pressure to deliver fast and become sustainable soon. And media is a funny space. Few investors really understand the space. Fortunately we have been lucky enough to find angel investors who believe in the Citizen Matters idea. Our hats off to them for their patience and belief.
Now, our book Living in Bengaluru (www.livinginbengaluru.com) is a great success. We are constantly exploring ways that directly gives useful information to citizens, whether it is finding a bus route or your local MLAs contact. There is some interesting developments to look forward to in the next few months, as we integrate more data and tools into Citizen Matters.
What have the highs and lows of this journey been? What are the biggest takeaways, and persistent doubts?
I am strongly convinced of the role and impact of an independent, balanced media. Now with Citizen Matters and our other publication India Together (the national public affairs magazine founded by Subramaniam Vincent and Ashwin Mahesh in 1998) – we reach more than 3 lakh people a month.
Doubts — well there is always a question if there was a way to have made the print edition work without compromising our values. Our readers crib about stopping the print edition – a lot!
Biggest takeaways: Team is key to execution and we simply have to have the right people on board.
Advice/tips to folks looking to “do something more meaningful”
Just do it! The time is right, there is an ecosystem falling into place, especially in the social space, and just a lot more happening, people are more open accepting of new initiatives. Even if you can afford to take off just 6 months or a year, you can find something to fit your inclination and talent.
We at NextBigWhat wish Oorvani and Citizen Matters the best for daring to explore a tough niche in media. We understand, to an extent, the challenges and pains of being in such a space, but, like Meera says, making a significant difference is a reward in itself.