Innovation and paywalls were the buzzwords at the 20th World Editors Forum (WEF) and the 65th World Newspaper Congress, held recently in Bangkok, Thailand. There was hardly any panel which didn’t address the ostensible merits of establishing a paywall, or how innovation – proposed and perceived mostly as mobile app development, responsive web design or changes in the newsroom culture to embrace new media and mobile first strategies – had changed the fortunes of media companies.
In my own submission at WEF, I flagged the innovations pioneered under Groundviews in using web based platforms and services to highlight stories otherwise marginal, or untold. Whereas WEF was agog with the potential profit making potential of paywalls, innovations through Groundviews focussed on content that would not otherwise be known to a wider audience, or recorded for posterity. Groundviews doesn’t have a multi-million dollar budget, any newsroom staff or a graphics department and yet launched an iPhone app to access site content, Twitter feeds and report from the field as far back as 2011. Optimised for the then freshly introduced Retina display on the iPhone 4, the app was the first of its kind in South Asia for a citizen journalism initiative.
While the innovations paraded at WEF by some of the world’s largest and best known media companies and news organisations where mostly rants about how one needed to embrace the mobile web or else face rapid obsolescence, Groundviews offered a different, and I hope, more compelling story – a meta-story if you will, about how it captures, archives and visualises content often no other media institution in Sri Lanka can or will feature. I spoke about the use of Google Earth in the visualisation of the bloody end of the war in Sri Lanka, as well as in the fate of mass graves in the North and East of the country. I flagged how the site archives tweets around significant events and processes in Sri Lanka. Data visualisation and open data journalism are alien concepts in Sri Lanka, and yet this is precisely what – without calling it such – Groundviews is providing examples of, and moreover, how to do it for free or little cost.
But beyond the technology, I spoke about how Sri Lanka is NOT a story in the global media today, after the end of the war and more precisely, how the feel good tourism coverage on the country glossed over real violence. Flagging, inter alia, the serious and growing violations of human rights, the systemic breakdown of democratic governance, the rapid rise of Islamophobia, the near total mockery of the Rule of Law and the continuing and the violent marginalisation of the Tamil community, my presentation was in effect how a platform as simple as WordPress could bear witness to that which no one else was recording, interrogating, archiving or investigating.
The most valuable innovation for me is not what you do with a multi-million dollar budget. It is what you do, and how you do it, using little or no resources – human or financial. It is how you showcase the best journalism under duress, and a violent content. It is how you report when you know what you focus on will invariably result in serious pushback – physically, virtually or both. It is strategically planning for this pushback. It is leveraging the power and potential of freely accessible web platforms and apps, which may have never been designed with journalism in mind, to capture stories that need to be told. It is the self-education that is necessary to keep subjects and contributors safe, and yet, get their stories produced and published. It is how a simple archive of tweets can be, over the years, the richest source of critiques over promises unkept or broken. It is to embrace arts, theatre, music, photography, dance, painting and data visualisation as forms of journalism and then see how digital media can augment physical production and performance.
All this and more, over seven years, Groundviews has pioneered. WEF was a rare honour to participate in and contribute to as well. Yet for me, it was substantively largely passé. Innovation in media blossoms not just with millions of readers subsidising its real cost, or for and in the developed world, but when there is no help, safety net, international media gaze, human resources or financial resources. It’s this innovation that also needs to be flagged, and models to support and sustain, created.