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The young man waved his arm in the air, eager to be heard. In the crowded library on the second floor of Delhi’s American Center, the US embassy was hosting a talk on sexual harassment attended by dozens of Indian college students. It was five days shy of the two-year anniversary of the day on which a 23-year-old woman was gang-raped on a moving bus and left for dead, and less than a week since news had broken of an Uber taxi driver allegedly raping a 27-year-old passenger after she fell asleep in the back of his car.

Delhi’s reputation as the ‘rape capital of the world’ was again at the forefront of everybody’s minds. And many of those gathered had their own ideas about what was behind it, and what needed to be done to counter it.

“Man needs to understand the meaning of ‘no’,” the young man almost shouted into the microphone, before dismissing popular notions that high rape rates were the result of uneducated men migrating to India’s cities and seeking to assert sexual dominance over women they perceived as otherwise more powerful than them. “The problem is the patriarchy of the society,” he concluded, to applause from the audience.

Others also spoke up. One man sought to explain the prevalence of such attacks in the capital, attributing it to the existence of “late-night partying in Delhi which doesn’t happen in small towns.” A woman offered a deeper analysis. “The fault lies in the upbringing,” she said, close to tears. “We are always taught that girls are inferior to boys.”

When one of those present called out that she even felt uncomfortable with the stares and comments from young men at the Center, others clapped in acknowledgement. But the discussion quickly became an argument, and when the moderator intervened, the meeting came to an amicable, if inconclusive, close.

After the talk, I asked a few of the students what measures they took to protect themselves. Some contemplated taking a self-defence class, but none had actually done so. When questioned as to whether they would carry a gun – perhaps the revolver specifically created for women and named after the moniker Nirbhaya, or fearless one, given to the 2012 gang rape victim – the response was a combination of interest and bemusement. Most of them had never heard of the Nirbheek revolver, despite the fact that it made international headlines when it was first launched last year.

‘Any gun is treated as a masculine object’

The 525-gram, 0.32 calibre titanium black revolver comes encased in the type of plush velvet box more commonly associated with fine jewellery. Marketed as appropriate for women because of its light weight – the revolver it’s modelled on weighs 750 grams –, it came onto the market at a time when rape and sexual abuse, coupled with underlying problems of gender discrimination and patriarchy, have become part of the country’s national conversation.

But it was widely derided for what many perceived as the preposterous idea of guns promoting safety. And its cost – 122,365 rupees, or upwards of $2,000 – was ridiculed as unaffordable for its apparent target market: working women who use public transportation. The fact that the price has since risen – a result of an increase in the cost of the materials needed to make it – has further compounded this argument.

After the initial fervour surrounding its announcement, however, little has been mentioned of the gun. A year on, what are we to make of the Nirbheek revolver? What has it meant for Indian women?

That is how I found myself at the Field Gun Factory in Kanpur, a city in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh that is a roughly seven-hour drive from Delhi. It is where the revolver is manufactured and sold – and where a team of six male managers told me that the revolver was never intended to be linked with Nirbhaya. The research into the product began before her case grabbed the nation’s attention, they said, and it was the media that made the connection, just as they first coined the name Nirbhaya.

Although Indian media had reported that Delhi police received 1,200 calls from women inquiring about how they could obtain a gun license, and more than 200 applications from females for such in just the two weeks following the Nirbhaya case, the Nirbheek’s sales figures pale in comparison. As of February 25, 2015, exactly 11 months after the first Nirbheek was sold, only 345 more Nirbheek revolvers have found homes. And just 24 of them, or seven percent, were issued in women’s names.

It’s estimated there are about 40 million privately-owned firearms in India, held both legally and illegally, making it the second highest number in the world after the U.S. The large number is in part due to India’s enormous population; there are about three guns for every 100 people.

Seated in a conference room within the estate that houses the Field Gun Factory, the managers explained that they were aware that only a select class of people would be able to purchase the Nirbheek revolver. Its sales figures, therefore, do not come as a surprise to them.

“Still, any sort of gun is treated as a masculine object,” explained Dinesh Singh, one of the managers. And what was intended to make the revolver attractive to women – its light weight and ornamental box – also appeals to the main purchasers of guns in India, he said: men.

Another manager described the difficulties in obtaining a gun license, which can often be a drawn out process and, like so many bureaucratic procedures in India, prone to corruption. The result, suggested Vijay Mittal, one of the managers, is that some men prefer to apply in the name of their wife — because they believe this is more likely to be successful.

‘It’s the consensual relationships people worry about’

In the aftermath of the Uber case in December, Rukmini Shrinivasan, a journalist and data reporter with India’s daily newspaper The Hindu, wrote an op-ed comparing the reality versus the rhetoric of rape in India. Gathering statistics collected by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime on the number of reported rapes around the world in 2012, she found that India ranked 85 out of 121 countries. Analyzing data gathered by UN Women, the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, she found that ten percent of women in India reported sexual violence perpetrated by their husbands, a figure that ranked India 43 out of 86 countries.

Naturally, she noted that rates of unreported sexual assault are likely to be high in a country where the stigma surrounding rape is great and marital rape isn’t even considered a crime. But her conclusions pointed toward a different story.

“Both sets of statistics together place India towards the middle to lower end of the global scale of sexual violence. Yet, for the last two years, the rhetoric around rape in India has not reflected this,” Shrinivasan wrote. “However, this statistically faulty focus on rape has led to both a misdiagnosis and a worsening of India’s real problem when it comes to women: autonomy.”

Sameera Khan, the co-author of the book Why Loiter?: Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets, expanded upon these sentiments. In a conversation outside her office at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, where she teaches journalism and media studies, she explained that the concern about women’s safety in India is intricately intertwined with the unspoken worry about their independent decision-making.

“It’s not just a concern for our girls being sexually assaulted by a stranger in a non-consensual way,” she said. “It’s also the consensual relationships that a woman will form when she accesses public spaces and gets access to the world outside her home. The worry is that a woman going out for higher education, or for work, or just to hang out will make the wrong kind of choices and perhaps form consensual relationships with a man of the wrong type – of the wrong caste, class or religious background.”

Rahul Srivastava, the deputy superintendent of police and security in Lucknow, the capital of India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh, agreed that policing women is part of the Indian psyche, and said he isn’t surprised that more women aren’t buying the gun.

“Things are changing in metro cities, no doubt,” he said. “But most Indian women have never been taught to take decisions on their own, or defend themselves. A gun involves a very precise, calculated decision.”

Usha Vishwakarma, the founder of the Lucknow-based women’s self-defence group Red Brigade, echoed that view. She argued that the most important thing about any kind of self-defence is that it originates not just in the body, but also in the mind.

“In my opinion, any person who owns that revolver and doesn’t have a clarity of mind or confidence…,” she said, pausing to point her left index finger to her eye to indicate the kind of self-assurance she was referring to, “that revolver will become like a bomb”.

‘Everyone knows I have a gun’

In her 2013 book Girls With Guns Firearms, Feminism, and Militarism, France Winddance Twine, a sociology professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, argues that guns are “polysemic”. “They have multiple and competing meanings depending upon the context in which they are used,” she writes.

Although sociological research in the US does not support the claim that guns make women safer, she explained that different audiences view guns differently depending on their own histories.

“There is a group of women who purchase guns because they view it as right,” she told me. “It’s not so much that they want to defend themselves, but that it’s almost a badge of citizenship.”

But that an object men are socialised to embrace might be placed into female hands to use in self-defence makes little sense to some observers, including Binalakshmi Nepram, the founder of the Manipur Women’s Gun Survivors Network, named after the small state in east India.

“It’s not to provide women’s safety and security. It’s a means of using the emotions of women to use weapons,” she said.

Yet it seems the narrative on Nirbheek is in the eye of the beholder. Seema Kharbanda, the 52-year-old housewife who was the first person to buy one, has no qualms about owning the revolver. In fact, it’s her second gun.

She lives in a middle class neighbourhood in east Delhi with her husband Om, their two sons, a daughter-in-law and their baby granddaughter. When I mentioned their family name to a man on the street in the hope that he could help me locate their home, the neighbour repeated the name back to me along with Om’s phone number, which he had memorised. The family is known in this neighbourhood.

Their white, three-story home has a surveillance camera out front and stylish decor inside. Family photos occupy tables and bookshelves. Om showed me newspaper cuttings of reports about Seema and her gun, and boasted of how she fired it for hours on end at a shooting range. “She was wet with perspiration,” he said, smiling.

Like his wife, Om is a gun enthusiast. He’s had his license for 25 years, and got it in part because he feels his profile as a businessman involved in local Delhi politics makes him a potential target. “Everyone knows me,” he said.

Om continued talking after Seema entered the room, though her presence occupied more space than his words. Dressed in a silk salwar kameez and wearing diamonds on her wrist, nose and earlobes, she joked: “I am wearing so much jewellery; of course I have to carry a gun.”

She told me that she became interested in the Nirbheek revolver when she discovered how lightweight it is in comparison to the revolver she already owned, which she originally purchased to match up with her pistol and rifle-owning husband. She doesn’t always carry a weapon when she goes out, but doing so seemed easier with Nirbheek.

“I can just put it in my bag like this,” she said, demonstrating with her large, metallic purse. “When I have it in my bag, then my mind switches on. ‘I have it’.”

But the real benefit for her stems more from the reputation it builds. “Everyone knows I have a gun,” she said. Its function is more to deter an attack than to defend in the instance of one.

“I don’t even need it for criminals; just for myself,” she elaborated.

As we talked, her daughter-in-law brought in the newest member of the family, and the grandmother set about cooing and cradling the baby to sleep. Pondering whether the gun had increased her sense of confidence or her safety, she concluded with a smile: “Both.”

This piece originally published in March 2015 on the Al Jazeera English Magazine app’s womens’ issue, “What Women Want.”

Outside the Cafe Coffee Day where we met in Lucknow, India.
Outside the Cafe Coffee Day where we met in Lucknow, India.

It was almost a year ago, at a Cafe Coffee Day in Lucknow, that she first stunned me with the comfort with which she carried herself. She had paired a dark men’s suit slightly too big for her petite frame with a sky blue and silver tie, a colour combination that synced well with the blue glow emitting from her Bluetooth earpiece. She was still chatting away on it when she sat down, splaying her legs wide and hunching forward slightly as she brought the conversation – a work-related one – to an end. Once she put the phone down, she apologised for making me wait, and extended her hand to shake mine briskly.

Other than a hairband keeping her shoulder-length hair away from her face, nothing about the 24-year-old woman’s dress or gestures was feminine by conventional Indian standards. Her androgynous features, not to mention an obvious self-assurance, worked to her advantage. Hardly anyone cast a second glance at her even though cross-dressing is not by any means common in Lucknow.

A mutual friend had suggested we meet, as I was reporting a story on Lucknow’s gay community at the time. Aside from the city’s elite circles, the LGBTQ scene here is virtually nonexistent. Lucknow is a growing city, but at the same time it climbs to modernity, it clings to the past. It remains tightly conservative. Local organisations working in HIV/AIDS prevention double as social support groups for its more working-class employees and target populations. These populations often refer to themselves as “MSMs” – men who have sex with men – since labelling a behaviour is easier than labelling an identity. Most of them remain closeted to everyone except their closest friends.

Though there have been attempts, establishing a similar group for lesbians or women who have sex with women is nearly impossible, simply because it is harder to find and reach those women. Men might find each other after sunset in public places like parks or railway stations, but most women in Lucknow are never unaccompanied after a certain hour, if they are out at all at that hour.

Yearning to be free

Needless to say, Arshi* was rare, even to herself. In a city population of nearly three million, she knew of only three other lesbians. But rather than shying away from her feelings, she embraced the freedom they offered her.

She would often hit on other girls by “giving them punch lines, making them feel shy, or giving them stray looks,” she told me. Even if people picked up on her sexual inclinations, no one took them seriously because she was a girl. Not even her mother, aunt or grandmother (she has never known her father) acknowledged her behaviour as anything more than a joke.

Arshi never had an honest conversation with her family about her attraction to females, she said, because in the back of her mind, she feared their reaction. She is an only child, and she would not do anything as rebellious as be with a woman or defy certain expectations because that would devastate her mother, who is a fairly religious Hindu and raised her as a single parent.

“Obviously I will get married, just for her,” she told me. “I want to give her each and everything she got in her life, not from her parents, not from her husband.”

Like the other gay and bisexual men I interviewed, Arshi accepted she would never fully come out. Her identity is too intrinsically tied to that of her family’s. And breaking that social structure was not necessarily her goal.

But she did want to be free.

“That’s why it’s even more important for me to build a good business,” she had told me, “because if I can build a good lifestyle, then nobody is going to force me for marriage.”

So alongside her schooling at a local technical college, Arshi stayed busy with various work schemes. Meanwhile, she allowed herself to explore her sexuality.

“I met with many girls who were interested in being bisexual because the only thing they wanted at that time was sex,” she said. “It’s just because a lot of the times they can’t find a male partner. And also because girls are generally considered ‘safer’.”

‘A phase in teenage years’

People’s perceptions of women in India and their expectations of them – especially in an emerging city like Lucknow – always remained in the backdrop of our conversations. It had seemed to me that Arshi’s projections as a confident, cross-dressing lesbian was as much about claiming her female identity as it was about asserting a gay one.

So when I met with Arshi again recently after months of not seeing each other, I was surprised to find that she had willingly allowed her mother to create her profile on the matrimonial website, and that she no longer considered herself a lesbian.

That identity started unravelling when Arshi confessed to one of her best friends – who is straight and about to get married – that she had feelings for her. Her friend, in response, told Arshi that she wants to see her happy too. But, given the circumstances of her life, she should be happy in the way that she can be.

In other words, her friend was encouraging Arshi to marry a man.

When we met again, gone was the suit that she had once sported so brazenly. In its place Arshi wore a Chinese-collar kurta that her friend – the one she had confessed feelings for – had given as a birthday gift. She had also allowed her hair to grow out, though she preferred to keep it in a low ponytail tucked into her coal-coloured jacket instead of allowing it to flow free.

Her way of speaking was the same – voice chipper, words articulate. But the now 25-year-old was viewing her previous behaviour and attraction to females in a different light.

“I personally feel that it was a phase of my teenage [years] in which I was confused at what I have to do, how I have to do it and what I should do,” Arshi said. “It was a phase which is now a bit clear to me.”

Giving up the ‘habit’

We were back where we had first met, Cafe Coffee Day. One of Arshi’s close friends, Anjali*, who is also friends with the friend getting married, joined us.

“Actually, I was pissed off when I heard that my bestie was going to get married,” Arshi told me. “But gradually, I met with my sister. She told me that, ‘Arshi, I think there is something wrong with you.’”

Arshi continued speaking, recalling the conversation with her female cousin. “She just examined me, and she came to the conclusion that, ‘Sweetheart, she is your very best friend, and you talk a lot. She is now like your habit. She’s not like your life. She’s your habit. That is the main point that you are feeling so crushed about.’”

To get over her best friend, Arshi’s cousin sister pronounced, she needed to change her “habit”. She must not message or talk to her friend daily. If she tried it out for two days, by the third day, she would not feel anything.

Arshi was resistant at first, but she gave it a try. The two days she did not talk to her friend were agonising, she said, but as predicted she could feel herself becoming less attached.

But when she would go and hang out with Anjali at their usual spot in front of a local park, her tears would flow. The fact that goons would come and suggest they were a couple angered them both, and Anjali was quick to yell at them to back off.

“She has been like my backbone through this whole time,” Arshi said of Anjali. “There are a few people who came in my life and cheered me up, like my sister who came and counselled me. They first knew who I am, and they said what I should do.”

“But how much do they know you versus how much do you know you?” I asked her.

Arshi paused, reflecting for a moment. She smiled. “Hmm, actually, this is a very vital question that you have asked me. I know zero about myself. These are the persons telling me who I am.”

Widespread gender bias

“I used to think I am a boy,” she continued. “When I was small, everybody used to say, ‘ladki ho, ladki ho, ladki ho’ (You’re a girl). But then I used to say, ‘No, I am a boy.’ And then people used to tell me, ‘Stay in your limits, be a girl. Don’t go out.’ But I used to be like, ‘Nahi.’ If I do like this, then my father might never come back.”

I interrupted her to make sure I understood her correctly. “If you act like a girl, your father will never come back?” I asked slowly. I did not have the heart to phrase the question the way I was interpreting it. That he would have preferred a son?

Gender bias is widespread across India. Recent data looking specifically at son preference and women’s attire shows nearly half of Indian families would prefer a son to a daughter. Meanwhile, 77% of those surveyed also disapproved of young women wearing pants – an act that does not so much signify “boyishness” as much as it does social status and modernity.

My face must have reflected my thoughts, because Arshi’s eyes softened a bit, and her pace of speaking slowed. “Yeah,” she murmured. “So I used to live a little like that.”

I did not know how to respond. But in my head, I could only imagine what others might say of Arshi’s change of habits. I had to broach the topic. Is this a way to go back into the closet?

Arshi responded with an emphatic “no”. But how she explained it brought up a different kind of social constraint in India – one men might face.

“I used to feel like I was hiding in the closet,” she said. “I was hiding all my feelings, my emotions. But now I am free, I can show my emotions to anybody without thinking ‘Oh, what will they think of me?’”

“Now I am free,” she repeated. “And it’s very relaxing and very soothing to be a girl rather than to be a boy. I would say this because boys take a lot of pains to make you comfortable.”

“Like what kind of pain?” I asked.

“Like a lot of emotional pain, some physical pain, financial pain. Each and every pain they are taking for us, to make us feel comfortable,” Arshi said, gesturing to the three of us women at the table. “When I lived my life like a boy, I used to take all these pains in for my friends, relatives, my family.”

There was a pause. “So what do you consider yourself?” I asked, drawing the words out.

“I don’t consider myself straight, I don’t consider myself gay, I don’t consider myself a lesbian,” Arshi said. “I consider myself a human being. And why not live like a human being? Because human beings have feelings for each and every one. A male or a female.”

“I am very emotionally attached to my best friend,” she said. “Maybe someday I will even get attached to someone else emotionally.”

But when we started talking about her friend’s upcoming nuptials again, her brave, direct front softened once more. “I will go [to her wedding] but I will cry quietly,” Arshi told me, “because I will be losing a very good friend of mine.”

* Names changed to protect identities.

Sonia Paul is a freelance journalist based in Lucknow. She is on Twitter @sonipaul.

This piece originally published on March 5, 2015, on

It’s the old news adage that continues to dominate the priorities of American newsrooms: “If it bleeds, it leads.” Hard news and tragedies tend to dominate headlines, and we rarely see the other side of the coin — what happens after the fact?

While niche news outlets like Upworthy and the Solutions Journalism Network have made producing and sharing more positive news part of their missions, the non-profit Images and Voices of Hope (IVOH)  hopes to help more mainstream news organizations do the same thing — through a “Restorative Narratives” fellowship program. The program aims to enable journalists to pursue these stories of resilience and have them published at their home news organizations.

The fellowship launched last December. The five fellows work at different outlets across the country and were invited to join the program to test it out in its first year.

“These are stories that need to be told but often come out overlooked,” Mallary Tenore, IVOH’s managing director, told PBS MediaShift.


Screenshot of the Newtown Bee, whose story during the 2012 Sandy Hook shootings helped inspire the idea for a restorative narrative fellowship.

The staff behind IVOH got the idea for building a momentum around this kind of storytelling genre from a New Yorker article detailing how the community newspaper The Newtown Bee reacted to the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Conn.

“The shootings caused him [the editor] to rethink the purpose of his paper,” Tenore said. “He wanted the paper to be a place where people could find a community of support.”

Bringing these stories of restoration — of the rebuilding, survival and resiliency following a tragedy — isn’t necessarily new to journalism, she said. It’s just that often, these stories haven’t always been given a good name, nor have they been the priorities in newsrooms. That might be because of the pressure newsrooms face to chase stories that will attract the right numbers of clicks and engagement or, it might be that some journalists might fear judgement for pursuing “advocacy journalism.”

“I think it’s easy to lump it all together under ‘positive news.’ That term would probably make a lot of journalists cringe,” Tenore said.


But documenting the resilience and restoration after a tragedy is not meant to put a one-dimensional face on these types of stories. And not every story details “restoration” either.

“Some stories aren’t restorative narratives,” Tenore told MediaShift. “You never want to assume that every tragedy is going to yield a story of resilience, and you don’t want to force it.”

Jake Harper, a healthcare reporter and programmer at WFYI in Indianapolis and one of the five fellows of IVOH’s inaugural six-month fellowship, said restorative narratives often fill in the missing pieces of a puzzle when it comes to understanding a story from start to finish.

“It’s sort of like the second half,” he told PBS MediaShift. “So you have a tragedy, or a negative event. You hear about the first part, but you don’t necessarily hear about the recovery.”


Photo by Flickr user Charles William Pelletier and reused here with Creative Commons license.

Arianna Huffington recently made headlines when she announced that the Huffington Post would be partnering with the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism to deliver more solutions-oriented journalism on the nearly 10-year-old news website.

“As journalists, our job is to give our audience an accurate picture — and that means the full picture — of what’s going on in the world,” she wrote in a blog post about the new initiative. “Just showing tragedy, violence, mayhem — focusing on what’s broken and what’s not working — misses too much of what is happening all around us. What about how people are responding to these challenges, how they’re coming together, even in the midst of violence, poverty and loss? And what about all the other stories of innovation, creativity, ingenuity, compassion and grace? If we in the media only show the dark side, we’re failing at our jobs.”

That strategy is along the lines of IVOH’s purpose with the Restorative Narrative fellowship, Tenore wrote in a blog post. But trying to monetize these stories outside of partnerships like the Huffington Post one is a bit trickier. IVOH, for example, offered each of the fellows this year a $2,500 stipend from the organization’s existing funds to work on their projects. The fellowship also sets out to explore best practices for telling these stories and and different curriculum and training methods.

That each of the fellows already had funding to pursue these restorative stories from an individual entity probably made it easier for editors to jump on board with the project, Harper told MediaShift. His editors at WFYI, for instance, hired him knowing that he had received the fellowship and were excited for it, he said. But it was a different ballgame before joining the newsroom and partnering with IVOH.

“At the time I was a freelancer, and pursuing stories like that — it was a lot of effort to even find them, and then pitching them was another story,” Harper said. “I think it’s just the ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ mentality is sort of pervasive, and it’s hard to get attention and readership to those [other] stories.”

Photo by  Rocío Lara on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.

IVOH, meanwhile, launched a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo in December to raise funds and build awareness and momentum around the fellowship. While the campaign fell short of its goal of raising $25,000 — it raised $18,396 — Tenore said it definitely helped generate a positive buzz around the fellowship and the emergence of the genre. But she also found herself wondering how to make it sustainable.

“The question I found myself asking was: How do you move people along the spectrum from sharing, to caring, to giving?” she wrote in a follow-up email to MediaShift. “I found that it was easier to get people to share the link to our campaign and care about it. Helping them see why they should give/donate required a lot more time and dedication.”

IVOH’s inaugural fellows will present their restorative narrative stories at IVOH’s annual media summit in June, which is currently open for registration. For an example of the restorative narrative genre, check out the stories from Ben Montgomery (one of the fellows) in the Tampa Bay Times.

Sonia Paul is a freelance journalist based in India, and is the editorial assistant at PBS MediaShift. She is on Twitter @sonipaul.

Correction: This story has been altered to correct Ben Montgomery’s last name. 

This piece originally published on February 23, 2015, on PBS MediaShift.

With the recent release of his new book “Engaged Journalism: Connecting with Digitally Empowered News Audiences,” it seemed like high time to have a long conversation with Jake Batsell on the future of news. The journalism instructor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, previous Seattle Times and Dallas Morning News reporter, and now, book author, was inspired to research and write a book focusing on news engagement when he found himself in a new “hybrid” position at the Dallas Morning News. Half the time he was pursuing and filing stories as he always had, and the other half, he was shooting and editing video.

Now, that sort of “hybrid” position is probably not anything unusual to many newsrooms. But at the time, it was an eye-opener for Batsell on the future direction of news. After getting a teaching position and applying for several grants and fellowships to visit various newsrooms across the U.S. and U.K., he’s come out with a book on best practices in engagement journalism, and theories on how journalists and newsrooms can continue to explore this connection.

Below is an edited transcript of a recent conversation I had with Batsell.

Sonia Paul: Engagement is a buzzword across media circles all over the world now. How do you think most media makers are understanding it, though? Is it similar or different from the way you understand it?

Jake Batsell: There’s a whole different conversation on how the wider world of communications defines engagement. I think from a journalism perspective, I think the sort of default knee-jerk definition a lot of people have in their heads is that engagement means interacting with audiences on social media. But especially after doing my work for the book, I’ve found it’s a much wider understanding than that. It’s not about tweeting links to stories half-heartedly. It’s about really and authentically integrating the audience into your work and mind when doing your job. It’s a way to not only deepen and engage loyalty, but it’s also a revenue opportunity.

My definition of engaged journalism is the degree to which a news organization actively considers and interacts with its audience for its journalistic and financial mission.



Just as “engagement” is part of the everyday lingo of newsrooms now, so too are the ideas of “sustainable business models” and “financially viable revenue sources.” The 1990s and 2000s saw the expansion of a more civic-oriented journalism method — newsrooms experimenting with town halls and other events where journalists could interact more personally with the public. In Batsell’s mind, this hasn’t necessarily stopped. Organizations are now just thinking more strategically about how they can also make money and fill a need for their audiences.

How might the financial incentives around engagement work? 

Batsell: For example, the Texas Tribune has an ideas festival where they have keynote interviews with newsmakers, and there are panel discussions as well. For the last couple of years, they’ve drawn over 2000 people to attend this festival. People attend partly out of altruistic reasons, but it’s also in their self interest to attend, because if you’re interested and involved in Texas politics, it’s THE place to be. The Texas Tribune translates that interest and attention into opportunities for sponsorship — you’ll get a mention in the program, on the stage, and so on. It’s because these sponsors want to reach this influential audience … It’s really through sponsorships that events have the most revenue potential.

But is it too much pressure for the journalist trying to engage an audience to think about the economic implications of engagement? Take me, for example. How should freelancers figure this out if they’re not attached to any one organization?

Batsell: If a freelancer is doing a job or assignment for a magazine or a newspaper or whatever, then first and foremost, she needs to do that job. It might be a little harder for freelancers to crowdsource on the front end if they don’t have institutional support — like someone guiding them, “Oh wow, this could be a better story if you put a call out on Twitter.”

Photo by Robert S. Donovan on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.

More fundamentally, it’s true this is a lot of pressure! The book is not all rainbows and unicorns. Many journalists [I talked to] came out with the sense that, if done well, engaged journalism never really ends. We’re on social media, on Facebook and Twitter and Google Plus, and still — how can I do the shoe-leather reporting I still need to do? I can see from the freelancer perspective that it can be even more tough. It’s a matter for the freelancer what your approach is. I think there is still an opportunity to build a community and be there.


In the introduction to your book, the idea that “journalism is about people, not technology,” is really emphasized. It sounds obvious, but how do you think that mantra might fit into this paradigm of what we call “engaged journalism?”

Batsell: I think it’s really essentially a mindset to open yourself up to an audience, but to be strategic about it. Look for opportunities to find readers and viewers where they already are. Like take Snapchat’s new Discover tool. My students loved it, and all these twenty-somethings are already on Snapchat … So they will consume the news in their natural habitat.

But being aware of all these available channels doesn’t mean deploying them for every story you do … you can’t do every form of engagement on every story.

On a similar note, you wrote, “At its core engaged journalism is the latest incarnation of the age-old journalistic dilemma between covering what the public needs versus what the audience wants. And that “audience-focused engagement is essential to help sustain the watchdog journalism that benefits the public. Boiled down to a single tweet, it might read something like this: Engagement is crucial to journalism’s survival. But to be effective it must fill a specific audience need. And it comes with perks & costs.”

Can you just unwrap that a bit more? The differences between the audience and public, and what they need and want? Because I don’t think most people distinguish the two!

I had that same moment myself when I read [about it] in the Tow Center report on post industrial journalism … those two terms, audience and public, had seemed indistinguishable to me as well. It presents the age old dilemma of feeding people their spinach and giving them the candy they want. Obviously, this is not a new dilemma. Newspapers have comics and puzzles all the time. I think we as journalists arrogantly assumed people want our news, versus maybe they want cartoons or puzzles or the classifieds.

Photo by NS Newsflash on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.

So it’s not necessarily a new dilemma, but it is a present dilemma. The first thing is to understand that distinction. But it doesn’t have to be an either/or debate … To me, it’s how you navigate that balance, and the moderate way of how a news organization balances competing interests.

Yes, and you mention that solving a problem and filling a need is at the core of building an engaged audience. So is that to say that engagement is different for different news outlets? Or is engagement different for different audiences? How do you negotiate the two?

I guess both, but ultimately it comes down to really understanding that audience well enough to understand the need you have to fill, especially niche audiences that have different sensibilities, different interests, and so forth. The Texas Tribune has an insider’s newsletter, for example, and most of their news is for free. But they do have a niche subscription service, Texas Weekly, and it’s really insider stuff. It’s the inner workings of Texas politics. They poll a 100-plus insiders every week, and they respond anonymously because they don’t want to be public on the comments section, trading opinions. That’s the sensibility of that crowd.

It boils down to understanding your audience and knowing your audience. I think just about every news organization just has to have head of audience engagement to see what really resonates with people. Because the stories that strike a chord with communities might not necessarily be on the front page.

Sonia Paul is a freelance journalist based in India, and is the editorial assistant for PBS MediaShift. She’s on Twitter @sonipaul.

This piece originally published on February 18, 2015, on PBS MediaShift.


The International Women’s Media Foundation has announced an unprecedented new set of funding opportunities for women journalists starting this year. The Washington D.C.-based organization dedicated to supporting the role of female journalists worldwide received a total of $10 million in grant funding from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, which opens up the scope of their current offerings.

Half of the funding is dedicating to expanding IWMF’s existing international reporting trips in Africa’s Great Lakes region — in the Central African Republic, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda — and to conduct security training for both local and international journalists. The training will include both hostile environment training and the use of a mobile app called Reporta, to help in gathering and tracking information on violence and threats against journalists.

“That’s one side of the grant through which we hope to change the narrative of the Great Lakes region,” IWMF Executive Director Elisa Lees Muñoz told PBS MediaShift.

A portrait of 16-year-old Yusra Suleiman al Toum Ahmed in El Fasher, Sudan. Ms. Ahmed is an aspiring journalist. Photo by Albert Gonzalez Farran for the United Nations and reused here with Creative Commons license.

The other half of the funding will go toward establishing a fund in the name of the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, which would offer grants of up to $230,000 a year for the next 10 years. The funds would be distributed on a quarterly basis, and the criteria for funding has been purposefully left wide open. It could go toward anything from a book project to an investigate proposal, Muñoz said.

“Really, we haven’t defined the guidelines beyond saying it’s for women journalists looking to advance their careers in some way,” she told MediaShift. “It’s really going to be the basis of them telling us their needs and why they want to do what they want to do.”



IWMF is also creating a Courage in Photojournalism Award with a $1 million grant from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation in the name of AP photographer Anja Niedringhaus, who was killed on assignment in Afghanistan last year.

The IWMF is celebrating its 25th anniversary year in 2015. Especially with press freedom issues becoming even graver, Muñoz said it’s necessary to continue to support women, especially freelancers who might not operate under the support of a traditional news organization.

“We focus on women because we don’t feel there is an organization that does so, and as a result, women might fall through the cracks,” she said. “The investment made by the Howard Buffet Foundation to IWMF, and the true partnership to try to elevate the voices of women around the world is really going to make a difference.”

The first round of applications for the open-ended grants will take place from March 2 to March 23. More information is available on the IWMF website.

Sonia Paul is a freelance journalist based in India, and is the editorial assistant for PBS MediaShift. She’s on Twitter @sonipaul.

This piece originally published on February 9, 2015, on PBS MediaShift.

A handful of men sat huddled on wooden benches inside a shop in Lucknow, the capital of the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, drinking from diminutive bottles of a variety of alcohol manufactured nearby. The government-licensed outlet is a “theka desi sharab” — an Indian liquor store that sells indigenous booze, which is distinguished and sold apart from “foreign alcohol” such as whiskey, vodka, or rum.

“English liquor is strictly forbidden here,” read a sign on the wall in Hindi.

Rajesh Jaiswal runs a lunchroom inside the shop. He gestured to a bottle of liquor available for 65 rupees, or about $1, as one of the employees squatted on the floor to clean a freshly butchered chicken.

“Rich men are restaurant-types, and educated,” he told VICE News, smiling. “This is for the poor man.”

He was quick to note that the hooch in question was not to be confused with the tainted Indian moonshine that prompted a health scare earlier this week, when some 200 people in the area fell seriously ill after ingesting it on Sunday. The death toll had climbed to 41 by Friday.

A shopkeeper displays a bottle of legitimate Indian-distilled “country liquor.”

“This is the best brand,” Jaiswal offered reassuringly. It was indigenous “country liquor” — made from raw materials like sugarcane, rice, or coarse grains — but clearly labeled. “In the villages they have no licenses,” he said, referring to manufacturers of bootleg liquor, adding that their products are “made with excessive alcohol.”

The recent poisoning highlights a long-running problem within India, where unregulated moonshine is widely consumed. Almost 170 people died in southern India from drinking toxic rotgut in 2008, with another hundred-plus in the state of Gujarat perishing for the same reason the following year. Such reports are distressingly frequent: more than 120 people died from tainted alcohol in West Bengal state in 2011, and Uttar Pradesh saw dozens of drinking casualties in 2013, with some victims going blind.

‘They consider the liquor that works the quickest to be the best.’

Under Indian law, only authorized distilleries can produce beer, Western-style distilled beverages, and country liquor. Because the latter is significantly cheaper to make, it is particularly appealing to poor Indians who want a drink. Illicit alcohol produced without the proper licensing, materials, or supervision is even cheaper — the bootleg liquor behind the recent tragedy was sold in packets for 20 rupees (about 30 cents) each.

Watchdogs and analysts charge that local corruption sustains a booming moonshine industry, which essentially operates in the open despite its illegality. In exchange for bribes, police and excise authorities turn a blind eye to the activities of bootleg liquor barons.

“Without all their ignorance, nothing is possible,” Surendra Rajput, a political and social analyst based in Lucknow, told VICE News. “They all know the small-time dealers and manufacturers.”

An Indian policeman displays packets of illegal bootleg liquor seized from a village southeast of Lucknow. (Photo via AP/Rajesh Kumar Singh)

A typical variety of moonshine in northern India might be fermented from molasses or mahua, a type of flower, and spiked with additives like ammonium chloride, lye, or even battery acid to increase strength or speed fermentation.

“When they want to increase the alcohol content and potency, they might add sedatives, urea, oxytocin, or methyl alcohol,” Rajput said.

These materials are widely accessible in India despite their danger to humans. Urea, a nitrogen-containing compound in urine, is the most common fertilizer in rural areas. The hormone oxytocin, which is misused to spur milk production in cows and buffalo, is readily found in local markets despite being banned. Methyl alcohol, or methanol, is used in industrial products like antifreeze and fuel.

Bhasker Tripathi, a reporter with the rural newspaper Gaon Connection who has seen these rustic distilleries, believes that the lethality of their spurious liquor might sometimes result from a confusion between highly toxic methanol and ethyl alcohol, or ethanol, which is typical of alcoholic beverages. But village distillers might also include methanol because it’s cheaper than ethanol — and because it gives the beverage more of a punch.

“They consider the liquor that works the quickest to be the best,” Tripathi told VICE News. Poor villagers have little to spend, he said, “and they just need a liquid to help them forget all their miseries.”

Despite the series of deaths over the years, most of the people who purchase this liquor have little knowledge that what they are buying might essentially be poison, said Dr. Kauser Usman, head of the trauma center at King George’s Medical University in Lucknow, where the most severely affected victims in this latest incident were brought.

“A lot of them are quite used to drinking this alcohol,” he told VICE News, referring to methanol varieties. “They can’t afford ethyl-based alcohol.”

Large numbers of deaths have a knack for prompting regional governments to action, and local administrators have responded quickly to the recent poisoning. The chief minister of Uttar Pradesh suspended several excise officers for their lack of oversight, and ordered an investigation. The manufacturer of the moonshine, who locals say had a known history in the business,was promptly arrested.

Debashish Panda, the principal home secretary for Uttar Pradesh, told VICE News that police had as of Thursday raided 12,500 sites, seized 76,000 liters of illicit liquor, and arrested 2,900 people. “We are trying to crack down through the police,” he said.

But similar flurries of activity followed other mass poisonings with little impact on the viability of bootleg liquor. Locals opined to VICE News that the fact that police officers were able to seize so much liquor and raid so many places within the last few days probably reflects their foreknowledge of the illicit distilling rather than investigative prowess.

Devastated relatives of the deceased have burned down the distillery that produced and sold the illicit liquor. A young man also attempted to set himself on fire in front of the chief minister’s office on Wednesday, charging the state government’s negligence for being responsible for the tragedy, and demanding its removal.

Meanwhile, some victims who survived the poisoning face a magnitude of health concerns, including paralysis and permanent blindness.

“The tragedy with such victims is that they hardly get public sympathy,” said Sudhir Panwar, a member of the Uttar Pradesh state planning commission and president of Kisan Jagriti Manch, a group that negotiates with the government on farmer-related issues. “Officials crack down because it’s in the news. Afterwards, nobody cares.”

Follow Sonia Paul on Twitter: @sonipaul

This piece originally published on January 17, 2015, on Vice News.

A new survey on the relationship between social media and stress from the Pew Research Center has found that social media use alone does not have a direct relationship with a person’s stress levels.

But, the increased awareness of stressful events in other people’s lives — which one might come to know about from the use of these digital technologies — plays a role in increasing stress levels among social media users, especially among women. The survey refers to this as “cost of caring.”


Image by Jeremy Hiebert and used here with Creative Commons license.

Among the survey’s major findings is that women are much more likely than men to feel stressed after becoming aware of stressful events in the lives of others in their networks.

“Stress is kind of contagious in that way,” said Keith Hampton, an associate professor at Rutgers University and the chief author of the report. “There’s a circle of sharing and caring and stress.”

Women in general are already more likely to report higher stress levels than men. This could be attributed to a number of reasons, such as that women have increased demands in their lives or that men don’t care or pay attention to their own stress levels as much, Hampton said.

Overall, however, women who were regular users of social media actually reported lower stress levels than women who did not use these digital technologies, the survey found.

“It could be that there is something valuable about social sharing, and that it actually helps them manage their stress in a low-demand way,” Hampton told PBS MediaShift.

Compared with men, women are also typically more likely to be aware of the happenings of their friends and families. But the survey results show the loop effect of sharing and consuming tense information online also changes according to the familiarity of the person.

The biggest predictor of stress for women was knowing that someone close to them had experienced the death of a loved one. Yet the survey also found that knowing that about someone who was more of a distant acquaintance changed the reaction.

“It gave them less stress,” said Hampton. Instead of the “fear of missing out” that can be common when witnessing events online, it was almost a “joy of missing out” that could be interpreted as an extension of the cost of caring.

“When women see more-distant acquaintances struggling with stressful events, it might have the effect of inducing relief that this particular event has not happened to someone closer to them,” the survey’s report said. “It is a reminder that the lives of close friends/family could, after all, be much worse.”


Technology has changed the scale in which we experience stress in part because it has changed the way we communicate and keep up with others. Figure courtesy of the Pew Research Center.

The Pew survey evaluated answers from 1,801 adults using an established measurement of scaling stress called the Perceived Stress Scale. The influence of digital technologies was then applied to this traditional stress scale.

While it’s expected that finding out about upsetting circumstances in the lives of others might cause someone distress, digital technology has changed the scale in which we find and experience this information — because this technology has changed the way we communicate. This has changed the magnitude of the different emotions resulting from this connection.

“For many, the new social reality is that people are pervasively and persistently connected through social media,” said Lee Rainie, the director of internet, science and technology research at the Pew Research Center. People are now connected with acquaintances who might have been long forgotten and have a steady stream of information on the lives of others at the tip of their fingers. People might only be “sipping” the bits of information people are sharing, but the cumulative effect of that has its own toll.

“In fact, all these little sips add to a big gulp,” Hampton told PBS MediaShift.

More detailed information on the survey’s findings are available at the Pew Research Center’s website.

Sonia Paul is a freelance journalist based in India, and is the editorial assistant at PBS MediaShift. She is on Twitter @sonipaul.

This piece published originally on January 16, 2015, on PBS MediaShift.


On a recent Saturday morning in Lucknow, the capital of the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, male commuters at a local bus station couldn’t help but notice a canopy and table set up near the entrance. A poster displayed prominently behind the stall showed a pale pink condom cartoon character next to the Hindi words “Kabhi bhule na,” meaning “Never forget.”

Some of the men snickered and hurried past when they realized what the stall was promoting. But others remained, listening curiously and attentively as the man behind the table pulled out a pale pink dildo. After unwrapping a condom, holding it up to the light, and explaining how to use it, he encouraged members of his audience to try it themselves. Hesitantly, one of them obliged. After fumbling slightly with the dildo, the young man placed the condom on the head — handling the tip with care, as instructed — and rolled it down.

Ved Prakash Tripathi, the man behind the table, admired the young fellow’s effort, awarded him a blue pen, and then proudly exhibited the dildo so that other men could see the properly placed prophylactic.

Ved Prakash Tripathi demonstrates the proper way to wear a condom. (Photo by Sonia Paul/VICE News)

“We are trying to motivate them to use condoms,” Tripathi, a communications officer with Hindustan Latex Family Planning Promotion Trust (HLFPPT), told VICE News. “The main work is to break the hesitation.”

While condom advertisements and discussions about sex have become common in some of India’s urban areas, educating men about safe sex practices remains a significant hurdle throughout much of the patriarchal country. Prevailing stereotypes give men the upper hand in sexual matters, but they are often left to contend with their insecurities alone. Because of the constricting nature of gender norms and the widespread mobility of men, health professionals believe that sensitizing and educating them is key.

The coyness and complicated social relations surrounding sex are the biggest barriers when it comes to contraceptive use, whether in the case of birth control or in the prevention of sexually transmitted infections.

HLFPPT works across the country to promote condom use for family planning and HIV/AIDS prevention and control. Hubs like bus and railway stations serve as on-the-spot venues for demonstrations that offer education and outreach to men who commute from rural to urban areas for work.

“Over time, there has been an evolution of the [HIV/AIDS] epidemic,” Oussama Tawil, the country coordinator for UNAIDS in India, told VICE News. “One of the main factors is of course mobility.”

India’s HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention program has expanded in recent years to include targeted interventions with migrants and long-distance truck drivers in addition to core at-risk groups: female sex workers, men who have sex with other men, intravenous drug users, and transgender individuals. Though the country’s latest HIV/AIDS surveillance report showed that the epidemic was stabilizing among those groups, Tawil noted that the movements of traveling men are suspected of influencing infection patterns in different Indian states.

Historically, authorities have monitored high rates of infection in portions of India’s northeast and parts of the south. But an alarming 41 percent of new infections are taking place in states like Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, and Gujarat — areas with historically low HIV/AIDS prevalence, and where large numbers of men are leaving in search of employment.

“They’re the ones who act as a bridge between the high-risk groups and the general population,” Dr. Sangita Pandey, the joint director for information, education, and communication for the Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society, told VICE News. Studies have found that migrant men and their partners are at a higher risk of HIV infection than non-migrants due to their having unprotected sex with different people.

Reaching out to and educating men is also important because of assumptions in India on who has authority when it comes to sex.

An audience member tries his hand at condom application. (Photo by Sonia Paul/VICE News)

“In Indian society, it’s the general opinion that males are the main decision-makers of the family, so we target them,” Safia Abbas, a communications manager at HLFPPT, told VICE News.

Last month, more than a dozen women in the Indian state of Chhattisgarh died in a botched mass sterilization surgery. While recent reports suggest that tainted medicine might have caused the deaths, the incident drew attention to family planning methods in India. Female sterilization is the country’s most common method of birth control — 37 percent of Indians favor it, whereas only five percent use male condoms, according toUnited Nations data.

Reports on the Chhattisgarh incident, in which a doctor and two assistants operated on more than 80 women within a few hours, have revealed that various incentives under a population control scheme were associated with the case. These included sterilization targets among healthcare providers and cash payments of about 1,400 rupees ($23) offered to persuade women to undergo the surgery — a common enticement in India.

India’s social conservatism makes it difficult for most people to talk frankly about sex, let alone casual sex that might occur outside of marriage.

The coyness and complicated social relations surrounding sex are the biggest barriers when it comes to contraceptive use, whether in the case of birth control or in the prevention of sexually transmitted infections. For many couples, the religions and social norms governing their lives teach that the point of sex is to reproduce a family, so they are generally not interested in impermanent contraception like condoms or intrauterine devices. The decision to undergo sterilization comes later.

“They generally decide [after having a few children], ‘Our family is complete, now we should go to the permanent method,’ ” Mukesh Sharma, the deputy director of Urban Health Initiative in Lucknow, a project of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that counsels families in urban slums on health and family planning, told VICE News.

But male sterilization, though safer, is exceedingly rare — only one percent of Indian households report using it for contraception. Sharma said that it is generally not a favored option because of masculinity myths associated with the procedure, such as that men are afterward incapable of doing physical labor. Patriarchy also invariably plays a role, because men favor themselves when making family planning decisions.

Meanwhile, women in rural India are practically powerless to make decisions themselves regarding sex, according to Narendra Kumar, a project director for the Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society.

“The female population cannot really go and buy condoms,” he told VICE News. “It is also the males who have their inhibitions.”

India’s social conservatism makes it difficult for most people to talk frankly about sex, let alone casual sex that might occur outside of marriage. Health experts noted that men are also often concerned that using a condom will decrease sexual pleasure, or fear stories shared among them suggesting that it will burst during intercourse — a rupture that is generally the result of improper application, according to Tripathi, the communications officer at HLFPPT whose demonstrations are meant in part to ease male anxieties.

“We explain to them that their usage is not correct,” he said.

Besides the condom demonstration, his stall featured a dart game poster that he uses to teach about sexually transmitted infections and how condoms help prevent them. The cartoon condom, pink dildo, and lighthearted quizzes and games make raising awareness of safe sex more entertaining and easier to discuss.

“It’s not presented so seriously,” Tripathi noted. “But when they come, they understand.”

When men express worry about the loss of sensation, he reminds them that they have a choice among rubbers.

“We tell them, ‘If you don’t feel pleasure, then buy the dotted [textured] kind of condoms,’ ” he said.

Follow Sonia Paul on Twitter: @sonipaul

This piece originally published on December 16, 2015, on Vice News.

At MediaShift, our sweet spot is covering the space where technology and media intersect. And what a dynamic space that is — always changing, always shifting. 2014 was no different. As we see it, here are the biggest stories and trends that shaped the media and technology industry in 2014, and will likely reverberate into the new year and beyond.

We’ve added in embeds from relevant podcasts from The Mediatwits if you’d like to hear more about those topics.


2014 brought the first taste of trouble for a new crop of billionaire media moguls who came into the spotlight the last few years.

Despite the hype surrounding its founding, eBay founder Pierre Omidyar’s First Look Media saw the departure of former Rolling Stone staff writer Matt Taibbi after just seven months due to reported conflicts over management style. The Intercept reported — on itself, no less — his leave as a “serious setback” for the organization, which had already scaled down its original plans to have a large general interest website with several “digital magazines.” Former Gawker Media editor John Cook soon followed Taibbi’s departure to return back to Gawker.

Then The New Republic joined the mix, with several staffers publicly resigning en masse after owner Chris Hughes — co-founder of Facebook — decided to “force out the editorial leadership, move the magazine to New York, and rebrand the venerable, century-old publication as a ‘digital media company,’” as Politico reported. Hughes hired Bloomberg media editor Gabriel Snyder, who previously ran The Atlantic Wire blog, to replace former top editors Franklin Foer and Leon Wieseltier before they even resigned.

As the Guardian’s Emily Bell pointed out, these billionaire troubles are a larger reflection of the existential conflict journalism is facing as technology entrepreneurs and journalists face editorial differences over how to run modern-day newsrooms. Legacy media outlets can never be what they once were anymore — but technologists and journalists also need to integrate their missions so a “new and unified” media culture can emerge. Of all the new tech overlords, Jeff Bezos at the Washington Post has done the best job of balancing the traditional while pushing the new.

Prediction: The tension between Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and journalists will continue to be  potent. Change will be hard, but good.


2014 was a year of expansion for social media giant Facebook, especially in the realm of news. With its $19 billion purchase of the international messaging app WhatsApp and its $2 billionacquisition of the virtual reality technology Oculus Rift, Facebook showed it’s not only trying to become a go-to destination — it’s also intent on occupying other popular spaces in the present and future.

Users have long expressed their worries and frustrations at what this dominance means, and now publishers have a right to be concerned. With new controls allowing people to turn down or amplify certain users on their feeds, Facebook users now have more control over what they see, though some critics have been quick to point out this is a “phony claim” because users must agree to Facebook’s terms and conditions to use the service.

Photo by Robert S. Donovan on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.

The entire operation is a behemoth to be reckoned with for news organizations and other publishers. A recent Pew study found that more than 30 percent of American adults now get their news on Facebook. These algorithms that dictate what pops up on a person’s news feed, whether the user is tweaking them or not, influence how users are getting their news. The result is thatpublishers are ever more dependent on these social media traffic referrals, especially as users continue to increase their use of mobile devices and access Facebook from their phones or tablets. Facebook in effect is becoming a life raft to publishers, and is encouraging them to use more of its tools to promote content on the social network. The question is, even if they’re not sinking, will the life raft help publishers actually swim?

Prediction: Facebook will continue to extend its arms out to publishers in 2015 and become a powerful news hub on its own, especially as projects like its sentiment analysis shape up. But publishers will pressure the social giant to be more transparent about its algorithm.


HBO announced in October that it’s going to launch its own standalone streaming service in amove to target the 10 million people in the U.S. who have an Internet connection but don’t pay for a bundled cable television or satellite package. It’s what Jeff Cole, the director of the Center for the Digital Future at the University of Southern California Annenberg, called a “seismic event in the future of television,” according to the Wall Street Journal. It offers consumers more choices than ever, but it also shakes up the television industry because HBO content is no longer exclusive to its cable partners. Yet the time was due — a 2013 Nielsen study found that younger viewers are much more likely to live in “zero TV households,” and therefore prefer online video subscription services such as Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime. Twenty-five percent of people aged 25-34 and 19 percent of people under the age of 25 reported cutting the cord on their television sets.

Indeed, with the announcement of this streaming service, HBO in effect is now modeling itself after Netflix, making the two streaming services competitors. HBO has 30 million subscribers in the U.S., whereas Netflix has about 37 million. HBO’s new streaming service, which will run on a third-party platform, will likely launch in April 2015. It’ll be just in time for new episodes of “Game of Thrones,” its most successful original series.

Prediction: HBO’s streaming service will become enormously successful among consumers when it launches, but only if it gets the price point right — without cannibalizing premium cable packages. Plus, the division of Time Warner will need to calm internal issues: Its chief technology officer, Otto Berkes, stepped down following the announcement that HBO will outsource the building of its streaming service to a third party instead of building it in-house.


Photo by Ronnie Pitman and reused here with Creative Commons license.

The months-long dispute between e-commerce giant Amazon and book publisher Hachette over e-book pricing and profits finally came to a close last month, just in time for the important Christmas holiday shopping season. But as The Economist pointed out, it’s not quite clear who won the battle. The controversy between the two outfits painted Amazon as the bully of the book trade and stirreddiscussions over the entire publishing ecosystem. Is Amazon — which controls nearly half the book market and is America’s largest book retailer — an actual monopoly, and therefore right to insist it had authority over setting e-book prices? One of the main arguments of Amazon’s supporters is that in the world of digital self-publishing, publishers like Hachette aren’t necessarily as relevant as they once were.

Yet in the tussle to help its authors earn more for their work, Hachette, which is the fourth largest book publisher in the U.S., wanted to set its own e-book prices. They were inevitably higher than what Amazon wanted. By the late spring, it became obvious that Amazon “was suppressing Hachette book sales and shipments in response to Hachette’s refusal to agree to lower e-book prices,” as Casey Johnston reported for Ars Technica.

In the multi-year agreement the two companies finally reached, Hachette won the right to set its own prices, but the deal also “includes specific financial incentives for Hachette to deliver lower prices.”

Prediction: With the murkiness of the specifics of the agreement, it’s no wonder several analysts are already predicting the standoff is long from over. Amazon’s growing power in book publishing will continue to put pressure on traditional publishers and bookstores.


Some of the hottest names in digital media added clout to their reputations this year by attracting heavy funding. The now 20-year-old media organization Vice, known for its edgy and notoriously rebellious take on news and current affairs, grew up this year. In March, Vice News became a separate entity and quickly went on to provide stunning coverage of the Ukraine uprisings and the rise of the Islamic State. After flirting with a union with Time Warner, Vice Media announced a deal with A&E Networks, which would have A&E “invest $250 million in Vice in exchange for a roughly 10 percent stake in the company,” as the New York Times reported. The deal would value Vice at more than $2.5 billion — an amount that speaks to Vice’s popularity with younger audiences and savviness in the online digital space, especially its early entry into the video market.

Vice Media has made a name for itself by pursuing edgier stories and distributing heavily across digital platforms. Screenshot courtesy of Vice.

While it’s taken two decades for Vice to reach the clout it now has, Ezra Klein’s explanatory news start-up Vox needed only nine weeks to hatch. Just five days after Klein and fellow Washington Post staffers Melissa Bell and Dylan Matthews announced their departures from the Post in January, Klein announced they were going to start a news site with Vox Media, and officially launched in April. Last month, Vox Media secured $46.5 million in funding from General Atlantic, which puts the company at $380 million in valuation.

Meanwhile, BuzzFeed — which has had a noticeable step into more serious, in-depth reporting — announced in August it secured a $50 million investment from the prominent Silicon Valley venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz. It had previously raised $46 million, which puts its total valuation at $850 million.

Prediction: If there was any sort of hesitation this year over how seriously to take these outlets because of the method of their journalism, they will definitely have more financial clout next year as more people accept their presence for the long-term.


From #YesAllWomen and the #icebucketchallenge to #Ferguson, #IfTheyGunnedMeDown and #ICantBreathe, hashtag activism, sometimes called “slacktivism,” was certainly a go-to method for raising awareness in 2014. But in the cases of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in New York, the hashtags were just one part of a larger shift.

As James Poniewozak wrote in Time, the “meta-protests” on social media of people posting pairs of photos with the #IfTheyGunnedMeDown hashtag was a larger form of media criticism. It was a powerful reminder to journalists and editors that they also inevitably promote stereotypes and cultural baggage associated with different races in their picture choices for different stories. The #ICantBreathe hashtag — Eric Garner’s last words —  similarly went viral and became a rallying cry for people upset at the decision not to indict the police officer responsible for his death.

Duke University freshman Jason Fotso constructed and tweeted the poem “Last words” from the entirety of Eric Garner’s own last words. His original tweet has been retweeted nearly 27 thousand times and favorited even more times than that. Yale professor Fred Shapiro is including the words as his most notable quote of the year. He says that doing such an activity is “capturing, producing a first draft of cultural history and political history.”

Prediction: Hashtag activism, particularly ones associated with social justice and racism, will continue to make headlines in the coming year as America comes to terms with its structural racial injustice.


Thanks in large part to the success of the podcast “Serial,” and growth in mobile technology and other forms of technology that are putting automobiles online, podcasts are seeing a renaissance. Smartphones and bluetooth-enabled cars — not to mention third-party apps like Stitcher and Overcast — are making it easier than ever for people to listen to them, because people can now just download a podcast directly onto their listening device of choice.

The economics behind production are also streamlining how ambitious producers might be able to get their own podcasts running, since it requires fewer equipment and software than say a TV show. Marketers can also benefit from the intimacy of the medium, analysts say, since listeners are probably much more likely to sit through an ad, especially when it’s read by the host of the podcast, than they are a television ad. The success of crowdfunders like Roman Mars of the popular podcast “99% Invisible,” who has run annual Kickstarter campaigns for his show to fund it, also adds confidence that people will pay for great storytelling. Take the podcast networkRadiotopia — it ran a Kickstarter campaign pledging to “remake public radio” through podcasts. It raised $620,412 by the time it closed, offering several lessons for others thinking of crowdfunding a project.

Radiotopia had a widely successful Kickstarter campaign (MediaShift file photo).

Prediction: Podcasts will continue to boom in 2015, building stronger bonds with listeners. But the hype over “Serial” will calm down a bit once it finishes its first season — though it will more than likely start up again in anticipation of its second story.


The beheadings and kidnappings of American journalists James Foley, Steven Sotloff and Luke Somers brought home the dangers journalists, especially freelancers, take when reporting abroad. Dwindling foreign news budgets means that cash-strapped news organizations are using these freelancers at unprecedented rates, and they often lack the support and safety that come from institutional media backing. The situation raised discussion on whether the United States should change its ransom policy for targeted kidnappings, because these journalists are going out on their own to bear witness on behalf of their audiences.

Photo by Osvaldo Gago on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons.

But at the same time, the question of what it means to bear witness in the digital age— already a common topic among some individual freelancers and niche news organizations like Tehran Bureau — is alsogaining traction within mainstream news outlets as social media makes events across the world a visceral reality. First Look Media’s global social media news hub also recently launched, with its mastermind Andy Carvin — known for his Twitter coverage of the Arab Spring — announcing on Medium, “we want to produce native journalism for social media communities, in conjunction with members of those communities.” In other words, social media outlets are no longer just ways for publishers to refer audiences back to their websites. The act of bearing witness online, whether through watching a direct live stream from a journalist or citizen or debating and analyzing news with others, is just as important.

Prediction: Although sounds promising, bearing witness online won’t necessarily have a universal appeal among news consumers, although there will be a particular interest among journalists. The discussion of freelancers and their risks — and the support needed to help them continue to do their jobs — will definitely be a bigger topic in the months to come.


From Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight to Ezra Klein’s Vox and the New York Times’ Upshot, 2014 proved data journalism had staked its claim in the media world. FiveThirtyEight launched as an ESPN-owned entity in March after years at the New York Times, and its coverage of the 2014 midterm elections and pursuit of America’s best burrito made it a mainstay among both loyal and new audiences.

FiveThirtyEight turned to statistics to help find America's best burrito. Photo courtesy of

With Nate Silver’s departure, the New York Times had a vacancy for a data journalist — and itdecided to fill it by launching a new section on the Times’ website in April called The Upshot, which focuses on politics, policy and economic analysis. Its announcement stated it was necessary tohelp audiences understand the news, which is the same purpose behind Vox, which also started publishing stories in April. Although some observers are still not sure what to make of the explainer website, its fusion of journalism and technology is raising eyebrows across media circles. The “Vox Cards” are designed to offer readers consistent referrals right when they’re reading a story.

Prediction: Other news outlets will bolster their use of data in reporting, but there probably won’t be too many other niche data-explainer websites launching — after all, having too many sources to help explain the news might end up adding more confusion.


Online harassment, especially directed at women, became a huge topic of discussion in 2014, thanks in large part to the #GamerGate controversy that began in August. The issue started with the online harassment of indie game developer Zoe Quinn and gaming critic Anita Sarkeesian and later spread to award-winning games journalist Jenn Frank and fellow writer Mattie Brice. The moniker now encompasses the wider misogyny in the online gaming world.

A Pew research survey released this year also found out that women, especially young women, are bearing the brunt of online harassment. While men may experience it more, they generally experience the less-than-severe forms like simple name-calling. Women, on the other hand, are prone to stalkers and sexual harassment online. Emma Watson, for example, received wide backlash online after speaking to the United Nations on gender equality. Users on the image board website 4chan threatened to unveil alleged nude photos of the actress. It follows a wave of nude photos of female celebrities leaked online — which some call a “CelebrityGate” scandal of its own.

In effect, GamerGate and CelebrityGate are examples of the rise of “doxxing” — which, as The Economist explained, first emerged about a decade ago to refer to hackers’ habit of collecting personal and private information, including home addresses, and releasing them to the wider public. Others have come to see it as another form of investigative reporting. Meanwhile, Twitter recently announced new tools to make reporting abuse and harassment easier, and prevent users who are “blocked” from seeing the profile of the person who blocked them.

Prediction: More discussion and awareness of the treatment of women online will help curb the skewing of harassment toward them, although Internet trolling and harassment will continue to be an issue as long as people merge their online and offline lives.

Sonia Paul is a freelance journalist based in India, and is the editorial assistant at PBS MediaShift. She is on Twitter @sonipaul.

This piece originally published on December 16, 2014, on PBS MediaShift.

Social media platforms and cell phones are playing increasingly important roles in how people are accessing information about politics and election news, according to a new Pew survey. Photo by Esther Vargas on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.
Social media platforms and cell phones are playing increasingly important roles in how people are accessing information about politics and election news, according to a new Pew survey. Photo by Esther Vargas on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.

A new national survey by the Pew Research Center released this week found that social media platforms and mobile phones are playing increasingly important roles in how people are accessing information about politics and election news.

Compared to the 2010 midterm elections, the percentage of people who are using their phones this year to track the campaigns has doubled, from 13 to 28 percent. The proportion of Americans who are following candidates and other political figures on social media has also increased substantially, from 6 percent in 2010 to 16 percent this year. Continue reading