Sneha Banerjee has worked in many different roles within the journalism space. An engineer-turned-journalist, Sneha’s first journalism job was at Reuters covering energy companies. Then she joined Entrepreneur magazine to handle the editorial operations in South Asia. In 2017 she became a program manager for the Independent and Public-Spirited Media Foundation (IPSMF), a philanthropic initiative that has backed publications like EastMoJo, The Caravan, Down to Earth, Khabar Lahariya, The Wire, The Ken and many more. In her current role at Dailyhunt, she works with English newsrooms on content partnerships. We talked about her work in different roles throughout her career and why she thinks it’s the best time to innovate and go independent. Here is the text from our video call with her (edited for brevity as we spoke for over 40 minutes) starting with her pivot to journalism:
Sneha: From the very beginning I was interested in the news and media ecosystem, I was an avid reader, I was interested in activities like elocution or rhetoricals, but it never translated back then into a career choice back in school. Probably back then the lack of understanding about the profession within the family. I don't blame parents here, because they came from science background — father's an engineer, mother has done her MSc in mathematics. So they never thought this could be a career. But as and when I learned about it, I started freelancing for certain magazines. I started writing, sending my articles for The Hindu newspaper, Times of India, you know there was this readers’ section, education plus and all that. So I started writing for them. But eventually… I was enrolled into an engineering college. But when I joined my profession, as in when I got a job at IBM, I realised that it's not what I wanted to do. And then I was reading up about different colleges, there was Asian College of Journalism, there was Indian Institute of Mass Communication and other colleges that were enrolling students, graduates who were coming from [a] different background, not necessarily from the literature background, or arts background. They were looking out for engineers, the trend of picking engineers and people from different graduation backgrounds was gradually picking up in India. And that's when a couple of friends suggested that ‘why don't you try registering, and giving these exams?’ And I told my parents that this [engineering job] is not going to work long term. And I think I have a potential to have a career in another field. And that's how I joined Indian Institute Of Journalism & New Media. And I think those 10 months over there completely changed my thought process, changed the way I was learning things, studying things… The whole mark sheets and grades, that whole process was completely not there. It was more about reading, understanding, writing, assessing a particular situation from a journalism angle. The experience at Indian Institute Of Journalism & New Media really helped me then realise that this is where I'm meant to be. And post Reuters, there was no looking back.
In Old News: Do you feel like your background in engineering has informed or helped the work that you've done as a journalist?
Sneha: Absolutely. Engineering, first of all, kept me very in touch with science and mathematics, which was very important, and [is] still very important. But when I joined Reuters, I was covering business news, equity markets over there. So understanding different chemical companies, energy companies, understanding sectors like solar, wind energy. So I think what you learn at engineering is also a lot of problem solving techniques. You never give up on a situation when you're in engineering college. That's from the academic point of view. Second, when I was interviewing a lot of startups at my role at Entrepreneur magazine, I could understand a lot of sectors because I was an engineer. So a lot of entrepreneurs who I was interviewing came from engineering backgrounds. So I was not alien to those subjects, what they were talking about. It didn't take me a lot of time to understand certain sectors, whether it's the biotech sector, agriculture sector, AI, robotics… And engineering also teaches you to interact with different people from different backgrounds because when you are at an engineering college, you come across people from various states, various multilingual backgrounds, and it helps you mix with them. And I think that also helps you as a journalist, that's a skill that I kind of implemented while I was a journalism student. And I still think it's helping me.
I definitely feel more science students should enroll for journalism, at newspapers, and online portals because of the kind of topics that are being covered today, especially health, climate change, you need more science.
In Old News: You've had this shift from being a daily reporter to working in this space of funding journalism, and then in partnerships. What were those shifts like?
Sneha: When I was a journalist, honestly, I was just covering startups. And my only idea was to put out more content out there. There was not much of an insight about how the ecosystem works, what it takes to run a media organisation. I was just writing and I was just covering startups to get more visibility as a journalist and get the most for the brand, because it was starting out in India. But what happened at IPSMF [Independent And Public-Spirited Media Foundation] is that I literally saw a media organisation start their journey from scratch. And that really helped me understand what are the challenges, what are the joys of starting from scratch. There were companies that would come with a germ of an idea and then translate it into a company. And today, so many of them are out there producing some really good content. I got to work very closely with journalists, with journalists turned entrepreneurs, helping them understand — helping actually myself understand more than helping them — understand how the ecosystem works, what content works… We would brainstorm around content strategy, they would definitely come with a lot of ideas, we would kind of align it with the kind of impact the organisation was trying to see for itself. And as a human being what I was able to learn from this experience was the amount of passion people have for this profession. [When they’re] in very comfortable jobs, starting from scratch is not easy, especially in media, because media is not the most profitable business model that is out there. So leaving everything aside, starting from scratch, believing in that idea, and relentlessly pursuing it is something that taught me a lot about life in general. And I also understood the economics of digital organisations. Not to give away a lot, but there would be companies that would come about, try out different things to kind of sustain the organisation. You might be producing the best content out there, but how do you sustain the company? So that's something I learned.
In Old News: Do you think paywalls and subscriptions have been effective for Indian media?
Sneha: Not all types of content will work on any one system, but there is quality content, and there is a user base out there that is willing to pay. And that's why we have publishers that are doing really well. I think there is an audience out there that is willing to pay for quality content, both in news and even like on OTT, I mean, everyone's having subscriptions to pay for good quality content at the tip of their fingers. So I think gradually shifting towards that model. Some of them have taken the freemium models, some of them bunch to have the membership model that's also working really well for certain platforms. But yeah, first the quality should meet that standard so that people are willing to invest their money time and engage with that organisation at such close quarters.
In Old News: Would you recommend someone who's starting off that it would be better for them to do something with just a paywall?
Sneha: I think they should not be dependent on advertisements completely, but they should start off with a mix. There are organisations who gave out free articles, and then, you know, put everything behind the paywall. So if you're very confident about the quality, and you know that you're the only one who is producing that quality of work in the digital ecosystem, then you can definitely try a mix. And then based on the feedback that you're getting, should take things forward.
In Old News: Have you seen any correlation in terms of how successful someone's paywall strategy has been versus how much exclusive content [like exclusive interviews] they publish?
Sneha: I think content that is not present [elsewhere], the kind of research, in terms of quotes from people, the writing quality, all these are contributors to a well written article, or a podcast or video. So if you have all the quality parameters in check, and you're producing something that's not an easy article to get, you're not just taking something off a press release or putting data together, it's not just about you have to do a lot of research, you have to get someone very exclusive to talk to your platform. So all these quality parameters of high standards really contribute in putting a good article that is paywall-worthy.
In Old News: And do you think paywall can be a kind of a roadblock for someone who's trying to start from scratch?
Sneha: When a renowned journalist starts an organisation, he or she carries this audience with him, it's not just about the brand they have been previously working for. So when they write something that is some sort of credibility that this person has built over the years through his work. That is one. Second is a little bit of a snapshot of what the story is, so that you build a certain level of curiosity around the story. If you're in initial days, if you want to put out a snapshot summary, like a 50 word, or 100, word summary of your story, saying that this is what I'm writing about, that will help generate certain amount of interest. And a lot of word of mouth also helps a lot of organisations.
People start tweeting about the story, people start discussing the story, good, bad, whatever, there's some amount of curiosity discussion, that it kind of ignites around a certain topic. So that is also very important.
In Old News: Other than paywalls, do you have any additional advice for early stage journalism initiatives developing a business model?
Sneha: I think whatever I have learned at IPSMF, I've learned through the partners, the portfolio companies, who have made it to the portfolio, and who have not. There are good ones who have not made it. First is, you need to know technology. In today's time, you cannot say “I don't know how to go about the tech aspect of creating a website,” and then create content. You need to know some amount of how digital works. And, obviously, you first have to be a very, very good journalist and hire people who have the same sentiment as you have. Hire people who are dedicated, hire people who will stay with the organisation. [And] you cannot not know about the different distribution platforms and create a company.
In Old News: Can you tell us a little bit about Dailyhunt’s mission for people who might not be very familiar with it?
Sneha: So Dailyhunt has been around for more than a decade now. It is the largest hyperlocal news aggregator. It's available in 15 different languages. Dailyhunt as a company has evolved. It started with aggregating ebooks to now there are articles, there are newspapers, there are internet sites that are integrated to the platform. And using AI and machine learning technologies we are catering to the content appetite of “Bharat” [India]. Why I am using the term Bharat [is] because Dailyhunt’s audience base is not just specific to the tier one news consuming audience, it caters to tier two, tier three, tier four. So it covers the content and news consumption needs of audiences across the country at all levels of the ecosystem. It's kind of trying to fulfil the news and information means of an audience that probably was not hooked on to the mobile earlier, but is gradually transitioning from a hard newspaper, to a mobile phone to consume news.
In Old News: Do you think the consumption patterns are very different depending on the demographics of the audience that Dailyhunt serves? Or is the general interest in news the same across different languages or regions?
Sneha: I think every language, every region has different content requirements. I can say Dailyhunt has learned to cater to all those needs. Every geography, every strata of the society requires different information. I'll give you an example. If you see three, four years ago, mutual funds sharemarket was something that you would not see so much of news around it, or even the advertisements on television. It was not a terminology used across the board. But now, everybody is investing in these financial items. And gradually content around that is also being consumed across all the strata. So understanding what each section of the society needs and what is the desire? What is the appetite for that in different sections of the society at different points in time is what Dailyhunt really tries to match. But it's very dynamic, it keeps changing on a day to day basis. What you see on television is not necessarily the same thing that everyone at tier three, tier four audience is really interested in knowing. There might be something very sensational being telecasted on television, but the common man out there might just want to know how does the vaccination system work? Basic as that, you know, that's the information that people are looking out for in their mother tongues, Telugu, Tamil, Hindi, Bhojpuri. So that is something that a common man is looking for. And so every demography, from time to time, has different requirements in news and content. And that's where Dailyhunt comes into the picture.
There are some topics that people are always curious about, say movies. Cinema is not going anywhere. Cinema has been there forever. And people are obsessed with cinema in India. So people are always reading about it. [They] want to know what the next movie is, what their favourite movie star is up to, whether he's joining politics, announcing his retirement, so that curiosity around movies, cricket and politics has always remained the same. Business opportunities in the country and basic things like tax related news announcements from the government, subsidies, the simple things that impact your day to day lifestyle. So, these are certain topics that will always remain in vogue across India.
In Old News: What does managing the content partnerships look like on a day to day basis?
Sneha: So when you manage a particular language on the app, you are interacting with publishers across the board in that specific language, and helping them understand what kind of content would help them get better eyeballs on the app. So it could be suggesting topics, it could be suggesting things that they could tweak in their content strategy to help get better reach on Dailyhunt. Because every social media platform or an app has a different way of functioning, there's a different audience on Twitter versus Facebook versus Dailyhunt. So my job as a content partnerships manager would really entail that you help your partners make the most out of their content on the app. Get the most in terms of reach, visibility… make the brand more visible on the app. So that’s what, in short.
In Old News: At what stage should a company feel comfortable about approaching an aggregator like Dailyhunt?
Sneha: You can approach even if you are doing like 10 stories a day. There is no hard and fast rule about the content that you’re putting out [or] number of stories. Obviously volumes do matter. But if you’re starting or you’re smaller organisations, it’s not like you can’t come on board. There are absolutely no rules around that.