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Why media literacy is its own journalism vertical, with HR Venkatesh
We spoke to the creator of the Media Buddhi newsletter about his journey.
HR Venkatesh describes his career path as ‘restless.’ He's had many roles within the journalism industry, from being a reporter, to an anchor, editor and even an entrepreneur. Venkatesh was a founding editor at The Quint, and he’s been a Tow-Knight fellow, ICFJ Fellow and a John S. Knight fellow at Stanford University. He’s now the director of training and research at BOOM, a media organisation working against misinformation.
We spoke to Venkatesh about his interest in media literacy and how it relates to misinformation and polarisation. Among many projects, he runs the newsletter Media Buddhi (which has also stemmed into a series of videos, and maybe one day a podcast!).
This interview has been edited for brevity as we spoke to Venkatesh for over 40 minutes. If you want to listen to the interview, you can click on this link to open our podcast.
In Old News: What is the origin story of Media Buddhi?
Venkatesh: So Media Buddhi has many different aspects to it. It's got training, it's got content, it's got videos. When I say content, I mean text and it's got videos. So we've done all three. And I would say the text and the videos are part of media literacy journalism. Media literacy has always been the domain of educators and universities. But I think just like explanatory journalism is a genre of journalism, or solutions journalism is a way of framing journalism, I think that media literacy journalism is important in today's world.
I think there are many steps that led to [Media Buddhi]. The first step, I think, would be that I was an ICFJ Knight fellow. And I was interested in the whole polarisation phenomenon, which I'd been interested in since 2013 and 2014. And I had tried to deal with it in a startup I created called NetaData, but I couldn't go anywhere with it. And I had just come out of NetaData. After a year of not earning anything and spending money on it. And I was working with ICFJ when the world kind of took notice after the 2016 election. And so ICFJ sent me to get trained in fact-checking pretty soon after that.
And so there I was, I was trained to be a fact checker, but I wasn't interested in being a fact-checker. But I was interested in the phenomenon called fake news. And I also had the time as a nice fellow to catch up on the news, to do some thinking, you know, dream a little and all that jazz. And so I came up with a framework that I called the 5P Framework to deal with the phenomenon of misinformation. And I realised, thinking through it, that fact-checking was an antidote to false news or fake news or misinformation, disinformation, whatever word you want to use. But what we needed was, a vaccine And I got interested in media literacy as a concept.
And the way I think about things is I always think about nice names for something. And so I started thinking about a name, and the word buddhi [meaning: ‘wise’ or ‘sense’] came into my head. I got excited. And I thought of it as, you know, this is 2018, I thought of it as something that could be called Media Buddhi or Tech Buddhi or, you know, Politics Buddhi, buddhi being the keyword. And then I went off to Stanford for this journalism fellowship where I came across this guy called Sam Weinberg. He's kind of the leading authority in media literacy, at least media literacy 2.0 which is post 2016. And it is still in the back of my mind because I wanted to do many things when I left Stanford, but it so happened that I came back home to India in 2019 in July, and I went to one or two places to find a job because I wanted to earn a good pay packet. You know, I spent six years doing six different things. I thought I needed to find an organisation where I can settle down and put everything I have learned in operation and then I ran into Govindraj Ethiraj at Media Rumble... and I told him, 'can we do something on media literacy?' and it was a two minute conversation. He said, 'yeah, yeah, sure.' Of course, it helped that Govind was my first boss and all of that. So those things matter as well. So we started Media Buddhi. That's the genesis, really, that I wanted to fight misinformation, but not as a fact-checker. That's the short answer.
In Old News: What goes behind the decision of what's going into text versus what's going to go into video? Are you trying to reach different audiences or fill some gaps?
Venkatesh: I don't work in a traditional vertical. And I haven't done so in a while. So my theory of change, [if] you want to call it in journalism, is that find an idea that you want to talk about. Write about it. If you can't find an editor and you can't go through multiple revisions, put it out in the world. And once it has been refined through interaction with people, then recycle that whole thing into a different medium. The thing is, a lot of the stuff I write about in Media Buddhi is stuff that I am thinking. The act of writing helps me think and the act of writing creates a frame or a way of looking at the problem, whatever that issue is, whether it is polarisation or whether it is Wikipedia, you know, anything, right? And so that's the first step. So I write it out and I push it out to the newsletter. One or two people inevitably will get back to me saying, “well, this [part] is nice. This [part] is not so good.” And then I refine my thinking on it. And I put it out as a video. So it's all informed by: do something, but don't waste it on one medium. Repeat it. For example, I like what hip-hop artists do. They use a lot of repetition in their verses. And I think repetition is very important. So I feel very comfortable in doing the same story five times.
In Old News: You also talked about news versus journalism. Like taking it slow is important. How did you get that?
Venkatesh: I started my career in 2001. I was in TV news and I rode the TV wave and, you know, by 2008, I was like, really senior at CNN IBN. But I also was very irritated by what TV news was in 2008. It was irritating for me to do the same kind of news. I felt there was a lot of issues with it. And so I didn't want anchor anymore. That was basically it. So that's the origin of wanting to do., trying something else. And I've always been very restless.
So I started as a business journalist. Then I became a sports journalist. Then I became a general news journalist. Then I became an anchor. Then went to the desk. So restlessness is part of my career. It's kind of hidden because I spent nine years at CNN IBN. Of which, one year I went to study and I came back. So people don't realise how restless my career has been. And then in 2010, a friend of mine when I returned from my one year study break, he told me that there is this guy called Jeff Jarvis, who's written a book. It's called 'What Would Google Do?' So I read it and my mind was blown. And I already had been blogging for a few years. And by the way, I like to think I had India's first podcast as well. I had a podcast called News Junky Podcast at CNN IBN. Now CNN News18 and I did some seven or eight episodes, but it came out in 2007-08. And the problem at that point was that we had the equipment and all of that to do a good podcast, but we didn't have a distribution thing in place.
So I really got into the ethic of trying different things out okay. Try it for a month, try it for six months. It doesn't matter. And if it doesn't work, reject it and move on. And so the voice in my head that says 'you don't complete things and you're a failure and you're a serial starter of things' and all of that, I learned to deal with that voice. So that allowed me to try different things out. And then I realised as a regular journalist, I won't be able to do all of these things. So six years later, I was CUNY for a few months I met Jeremy Kaplan. Jeff [Jarvis] was my teacher and it was great to have him as my teacher. So everything I learned got reinforced. So today I'm the kind of guy who will try a dozen different things out, and most things won't be known to people. But I'll try it out and I'll do it once. I learn something and I'll refine it and I'll put the learning to something else. So I guess it's very natural for me to be like this. And a regular reporting job on a regular editing job would not give me the time.
In Old News: As like the training and research director, what does your day-to-day [schedule] look like?
Venkatesh: So the idea is to create a lot of training modules and workshops, which we've been doing. And also getting into some of the research aspects of misinformation. Put together little reports on the patterns of misinformation we're seeing and all of that. But really what has happened is on a daily basis, my job description involves training and research, but I do a lot more as well. So I kind of morphed into a guy who... of course, I created and run Media Buddhi and I also do training and research. So we put together many workshop modules and more are forthcoming. And so we've experimented with in-person zoom training and then using a platform to create a training module. We've experimented with free, we've experimented with getting other people to pay us to train other people. And we also experimented with that actually getting payment and things like that. And the third thing I would say that I'm doing at Boom is, you know, we're trying different things out. We tried out a membership program. And it's an ongoing process. We're trying to create a meaningful connection with our readers and users.
And so I've work on the membership program. I worked with the Membership Puzzle Project asked them for help and so on and so forth. We also work on different mini-projects within, which is based on using data and processes to inform our decision making on certain things. So essentially, sometimes I feel my job at Boom is like a handyman, but unlike a handyman, I don't know how to fix everything. Also Boom is a great place and it's got a very healthy atmosphere of working, you know, touch-wood, it's a nontoxic atmosphere. And so Govind is a great boss to have and Jency is a great colleague to have. Jency Jacob is the managing editor, so he runs everything in Boom. Govind is the publisher and also he's like one of those editor-publisher type people who do both. So, there are two and then there's the rest of the team. So I fit in very well because about four or five years ago, I had three potential options (paths) to choose. One was to become the editor and I was the one of the founding editors at The Quint. So there was that option. The other option was to do something behind the scenes. So I've been an anchor type, so I have been both behind the scenes and on the camera. But the third thing is what I prefer the most, which is to be an individual and do your own thing. I mean, I like the idea of managing people and all of that, but the phase which I am in my career, I just prefer to do things on my own. This job allows me to do that.
In Old News: Is there a kind of a cautionary tale or a tip that you would want to share with aspiring entrepreneurial journalists?
Venkatesh: We know many journalists who did reporting for a particular media organisation, but that organisation, once they got sued, once there was a legal case, they dropped the journalist. You know, it seems to be the norm rather than the exception, which is sadly the case. So what does an individual journalist do? And many people learn the hard way that: you should know people who can help you. Aniruddha Bahal recently wrote this book recently, I think, 7-8 months ago. [He's] an investigative journalist who famously broke a lot of stories, including the match-fixing scandal of 1999. So he spent eight years going to a court on and almost on a regular basis, like every week. 'Tarik pe tarik' [hearing after hearing] kind of situation. So he said that 'the only thing that helped me was I had 300 numbers on my phone.' So lawyers, people from civil society, other journalists all of that. So the more you report, the more you cultivate relationships which will help you later on. I mean, in the absence of any protection from the state or in the absence of any protection from organisations, the only thing you can fall back on is protection from the community. Right? And this community can take multiple forms. It can be a lot of relationships with people who can help you. But it could also be things like being part of reporters collective, like the Network for Women in Media, India — NWMI. I believe they do a lot of work helping journalists. Or it helps to have a really supportive family you know, who will be there for you. On your own, you might feel isolated and cut off, but you just need the help, support of three or four people, and then that's it. You know, you can take on the entire world once you feel supported. So that's what I tell people. It's a long term game that you're playing. Don't look for impact. Don't look for immediate noise. So a good advice is: do your work through your reporting and not necessarily through your tweets. And things like that. And try to do all the work so that it stands the test of time and you collect all the data. And the world that we live in... The burden of proof is much higher on a journalist. So preserve everything. Preserve your notebooks, preserve your digital trail, everything don't delete. Find a way to organise it.
In Old News: As someone who observes very closely the journalism space and has been involved in entrepreneurial journalism on many occasions... What are some trends that you noticed? Are you expecting certain new developments in the coming year?
Venkatesh: This is the future of journalism question right? What trends am I seeing? I think the trends I'm seeing will only deepen. One is, I think English language journalism has its place and that place is going to continue to shrink. I feel the language space is going to be even more important in the coming years. And we see that trend changing. I mean in 2014, 2013, 20,12 was a perfect time to start a digital-only newsroom. And we had many people who started in English. The year of 2016, 2017, 2018, and thereafter was the right time to start something in Hindi, you know. And in the last few years really, I mean that is actually a trend that's accelerated. People have started realising that the real growth and maybe opportunities for making a sustainable income from journalism comes from what is known as a TTMK market which is Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada. You know, so I see those trends really changing.
And the other mega-trend of course is more people are going to have a smartphone in that hands and those people may not necessarily know how to deal with the information they get... There might be the tendency to believe everything you get because it looks clean or it looks great or it's funky or whatever it is. I would say the need for training people to consume news is also going to increase. There might not be opportunities to monetise such a thing, but definitely there will be opportunities to do this in the coming future.
And I think the potential for misinformation is huge and continues to be huge going forward as well. So I don't see anything changing. But there are some positive things as well. I feel more and more diverse voices are going to come into the mix and more and more publications that cater to specific communities will be born and will continue and they will thrive.
So I feel that decentralisation is really the theme for the future in this space. And we are also seeing with the whole creator economy and all of that. The combination of individual journalists and the tools that you have at your disposal as a potential creator can create the opportunity to have an individual business as well. So I see that increasing as well. Of course, there'll be a huge expansion before this consolidation inevitably, because not everybody is going to be able to sustain an independent media business but I see that happening a lot as well. So I would say the language space, then technology fuelled decentralisation and individuals turning into creators in journalism as well and increase in that.
The fourth mega-trend is of course the potential increase in misinformation, not a decrease in the near term. I would say we can see that over the next year or a couple of years.
In Old News: Do you think more newsrooms will start taking up media literacy initiatives, much like the one that you've started? Do you see that happening already?
Venkatesh: Yeah. I mean even a lot of universities are also getting more aggressive. There are other newsrooms like us who have started doing media literacy. And so it is only going to pick up pace, I feel. And especially in the language space, I see it picking up as well a lot.
In Old News: And [in terms of] the audience that you're interacting with, I'm sure there's a lot of interest from journalists... Do you have a mix of a journalist audience and general public?
Venkatesh: For the audience of my own work, it's basically a mix of people in the journalism space and adjacent professions. That's one bucket. The second bucket is people who see real value in what I'm doing. So who believe that it makes a huge difference personally in their lives. So that is also very significant audience bucket for me. And then the third really is people in my satellite, you know, friends, family, friends of friends. Friends of my colleagues. That's really how it goes. I'd say there are three large buckets. And it's the middle bucket that I'm really interested in focusing on, which is people who think that without this, my life is not complete. And really, this kind of thing that I'm doing, forces me to ask this question: 'am I making a difference to people's lives?' Like on a daily basis. If I'm not, then I won't do it. So it's very important that I grow this middle bucket and get more people involved who believe that I'm making a difference in their lives.
In Old News: The newsletter kind of sounds like it's been an important feedback mechanism also, not just a distribution [medium]. And you kind of started around the time when the newsletter space was really heating up. Has the way you perceived the newsletter changed since you started?
Venkatesh: It's more or less remained the same because this is my second newsletter. I had a newsletter with NetaData which I used to send using MailChimp. And I've studied several case studies on how newsletters make a difference to both the journalistic organisation and to the people it is being sent to. And so I was pretty clear what I wanted the newsletter to do when I started the whole thing. See, there is this misnomer with newsletters. At least I think it's changed now, but it was seen as a device to generate traffic to your website. Right? But it's now I think it's more and more people are accepting that a newsletter is not necessarily that. It can be that, but it is equally a product on its own. So the purpose of clicking on a newsletter is to open it and read it and close it, not clicking on a link and going to the website or doing something else. So I think that I was very clear about I knew that it would be a product on its own, which is why I really liked Substack. It was both a newsletter and a website at the same time.
In Old News: We were listening to a podcast yesterday actually. Nilay Patel was interviewing the former editor-in-chief of Vox Lauren Williams, and she has launched her new publication. And there was a conversation about how much social platforms and Google have really influenced how journalists do their job. Like SEO has changed how journalists write. Facebook has influenced how people do videos, YouTube has done the same. Do you think that plays a role in how misinformation is spread? Not [just] in terms of the fake news that people propagate on social media, but in terms of making everything look like a template?
Venkatesh: Yeah, absolutely. There is a connection there. The big word that's bandied around a lot is the word “trust.” Right? So I think we have a media trust problem. And when we write news for algorithms and not for people, when we write a headline for an algorithm and not for people, we are contributing to the breakdown in trust. For an SEO headline, it has to be under 70 characters. You've got to write it in a certain way and you've got to use keywords and all of that. Sometimes it's fine, but in most cases, I find that it's not being written for people and that creates a trust problem and that a connection to the rise of misinformation as well. So I think if you leave the first years of media organisations on the Internet, the first major trend was the search trend. And then there was a social trend. And in the last few years has been the subscription trend, what I call the three S's: search, social and subscription. Along with that is membership and all of that. And I think, you know, we will see a few more trends like this. We will cycle through a few more trends. But I think we will settle on a formula that creates real value for people as opposed to feeding the algorithm or something else. I think we are in the middle of a historic re-evaluation of journalism and the purpose of journalism. And so maybe it's going to take another five years, maybe it's going to take another ten years, or maybe it's always going to be like this. Ever-changing. But we will get better at making sense of new trends driven by technology and behaviours that have been changed by technology. I think we'll get a better sense of how to keep the message of journalism alive.
And so maybe five years later, we will have journalism in a form that is not recognisable today. Like already we have that right? Someone was talking about, for example, the whole idea of news deserts. It's a term that became really popular in the United States because all these local newspapers were forced to shut down and they were dying out. And that's been a trend for the last 15 years or more. And so when you apply that lens to India and when you think about it, you have many communities where you never had a newspaper in the first place. Right? So it's a preexisting news desert. It was never a green place, so to speak. But, you know, the SMS is a is a great tool and WhatsApp is a great tool. And I'm not sure if these areas that are not served by journalism are information-poor in any way. And so, generally speaking, I feel like that is also going to change. And I think more and more people will get access to more and more information while at the same time having a lot of misinformation to deal with.
In Old News: For journalists who are in their first few years of getting started, trying to find their footing in this really confusing landscape... Any advice on how they can form their own frameworks to kind of navigate this or find what to them means a meaningful day at work or a meaningful project that they're working on?
Venkatesh: Well, my advice is: try different things out and go to different organisations, cycle through different organisations, develop new skills. You know, I wrote a piece once called 'Five [Career] Strategies for Journalists...', which I think is still true. So in that, I said things like, you know, don't stress about your vanity CV. What you're doing might look good, but if you keep doing it for more than a year or two, you are no longer learning anything. So horizontal growth is very important. So vertical growth, you don't always have to go for: I'm now a correspondent, now I'm going to be a senior correspondent, then a special correspondent, [then] a principle correspondent. So you don't have to do that. You can you can go sideways. You can learn different things. So long as you are learning things, specific skills, you should be okay and don't do anything that a bot can do. Don't work in a desk for too long when your job is to recycle wire copy by adding a few tweets and publishing it. You know what I mean? So the bot is anyway doing that, and eventually, you know they'll be doing it at scale in organisations.