For the past decade, Bengaluru’s crowdfunded Citizen Matters has been getting its readers to report on civic issues. This is how it works.

"Mainstream media did not cover these issues in detail. We wanted to give people access to this kind of information."

By Thomas Abraham
Splice India

In a perfect world, people would pay for news in the same way they pay for other essential infrastructure in a modern society such as water, electricity, roads and data services. And they would contribute to the production of news, by providing tip-offs, feedback and insights to professional reporters or even by going out and reporting on events. Citizen and journalist would be linked organically, through funding as well as news production.  

But this model is hard to achieve. Only a handful of news organizations have tried, and few have succeeded.

Bengaluru's Citizen Matters uses a reader-funded model to pay for its coverage of civic issues. (Photo: Meera K.)
Bengaluru's Citizen Matters uses a reader-funded model to pay for its coverage of civic issues. (Photo: Meera K.)

Addressing urban chaos

Citizen Matters, an online news site in Bengaluru focusing on civic affairs and governance, has survived — and thrived for the past decade with a reader-funded model that relies on a mix of citizen journalism and staff-reported stories.

The site’s founders, Meera K. and Subramaniam Vincent, were typical of the people who had began to make Bengaluru their home as the IT industry took off. Many had lived in the U.S. and they reacted to the urban chaos in their adopted city by looking for a way to help fix the problems they saw around them.

“I wanted to know how things happen. Why did projects like flyovers take so long to get completed, who got the contracts, who approved these projects, why was a project designed this way, why did projects get delayed?” Meera says.

“We felt it was important to get answers to these questions, and the mainstream media did not cover these issues in detail. We wanted to give people access to this kind of information. We wanted to make a difference.”

The Citizens Matters team running an Open Data session with community members. (Photo: C. Nishant)
The Citizens Matters team running an Open Data session with community members. (Photo: C. Nishant)

Readers’ central role

A noticeable lack of explanation in existing news outlets coincided with a heightened demand for detailed information about the city’s governance and administration from Bengaluru’s increasingly vocal professional class. They had begun to form residents’ associations in their neighborhoods to lobby the city government for everything from better garbage collection and disposal to fixing street lighting.

Citizen Matters found an important niche in this ecosystem of residents’ associations and non-governmental organizations that were sprouting up to solve the problems created by the city’s rapid growth.

Initial funding came from the founders and a few donors. The two founders pitched the idea for their platform to angel investors and venture capitalists, but found it difficult to raise money this way for a news site that did not promise the kind of rapid growth that investors want.

“As a local site, our audience was limited by geography, so you were not going to get millions of readers. Our impact could not be measured by numbers,” Meera says.

So they decided to go non-profit and created the Oorvani Foundation to own and manage the site. Inspired by the National Public Radio model in the U.S., they launched annual drives to solicit funds from readers, and have raised enough to continue funding the site.

Exchange of information

Citizen Matters operates on a shoestring budget, with four or five staff members supported by a network of freelance journalists and unpaid contributors.

The founders wanted to create a platform for sharing information, so extended their model to the public, with staff fact-checking news reports submitted by members of the public to ensure content accuracy. “We talk to every writer, verify everything,” says Meera. “Sometimes people would tell us what they had observed or experienced, and we would go and follow up and report the story.”

The ground-level perspective that citizen reporting offers was illustrated in a recent story on the site about Bengaluru’s new draft masterplan. Instead of simply reporting on a press conference on the plan or interviewing key stakeholders, Citizen Matters’ report was written by a resident who had cross-checked the masterplan’s map of the area where he lived and found that it showed a road that did not exist.

The so-called road on the map petered out after a couple of hundred meters into a construction site where a private builder was apparently trying to convert public land  to private use. The report, backed by photographic evidence, was published under the headline “Non-existent roads make it to Bengaluru master plan.

As each story also generates data of some kind, ranging from city government budget allocations to pollution data, it was a natural progression to create an open data portal to collate the information. It is published on Open City, to which readers can also contribute.

In its decade of existence, Citizen Matters has collected awards and recognition for its work. A sister site has launched in the city of Chennai, and Meera says similar sites could possibly come up in other cities.

But when it comes to future growth, Citizen Matters has hit a wall. The reader-funded model provides enough to keep operating the site, which costs about $30,000 a year to run. But there are not enough staff to cover the city’s administration full-time, something Meera sees as necessary if the black box that is Bengaluru’s administration is to be opened to public scrutiny.

“We don’t have the bandwidth right now to do everything,” says Meera. “We cover our expenses through fundraising, but it would be good to have grants for something like having someone to cover the city council.”

Thomas Abraham was a foreign correspondent based in Sri Lanka, the UN office in Geneva and in London. He's worked at The Hindu and the South China Morning Post. He taught health and science journalism at the University of Hong Kong. Thomas is currently based in Bengaluru. Follow Thomas Abraham on Twitter.

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