News for the people, by the people
We are at entrepreneur Punit Rajpal’s Sion office when we are hit by an existential crisis. Staring down at us from the wall is a poster that reads: You don’t have to be a journalist to report.
Aanchal Marwah (from left), Punit Rajpal, Andrea Noronha and Tejashri Chavan. Pic/Shadab Khan
But the words also neatly sum up the way Rajpal’s life has unfolded thus far.
The 28-year-old, who graduated with a BMS degree, quit his job at a web service provider to launch self-funded venture, localpress.co, on June 15. The app’s launch came after seven months’ of research, when he browsed through newspapers and other media to gauge the local reporting scene. He even hired a freelancer to carry out a survey on news consumption patterns among 16-45 year-olds. The 378 participants surveyed gave the venture a thumbs-up.
“Often local news goes unreported. This area (of reporting) was not explored to its full potential. In fact, out of the 24 local media outlets we researched, including newspapers, blogs and websites, that existed until last December, only four continue to survive today,” says Rajpal. Established newspapers don’t have the resources to cover hyper local happenings in detail. “Although the news is circulating online in the form of tweets, Facebook updates or blog posts, rarely does it reach the desired audience,” he adds.
His app crowdsources local news items, which means anyone using it can post a news item. Other users are encouraged to either ‘dismiss’ or ‘verify’ what’s posted in order to authenticate items. The app also allows users to tweak settings in order to reflect news within a desired location. “If you stay in Sion and want news only from there, it’s possible to receive alerts about goings on within a 1 km radius,” he explains.
Once an item is uploaded, a member of Rajpal’s team of four checks it for grammatical and spelling errors. “We don’t edit the text much. If the item is ambiguous, we unpublish it and get back to the user with feedback. We also verify every news item by surfing the net,” says co-founder Andrea Noronha, 24.
Speed, though, is key. “On July 21, when the city was hit by torrential rain, and a fire broke out at a shoe shop in Bandra, we had the alert an hour before any other agency picked it up,” says Rajpal. “It was the same with the wall collapse at Union Park. On that day alone, users uploaded nearly 12 items about waterlogging across Mumbai. That’s a big number for us.”
Between 10 am and 11 pm every day, users upload up to 45 news items. Most new users start by authenticating items, and gradually warm up to reporting. Inaccurate reporting is an issue Rajpal grapples with. Recently, a user uploaded faulty information about the Mumbai-Pune Expressway shutting down for repairs. “A Twitter user alerted me. But when I revisited the app, five other users had already ‘dismissed’ the news story,” he says.
Future plans include working towards being a platform that solely hosts the news content. “Eventually, we want to stop editing text. Plagiarised and PR generated content are not allowed, and we ensure due credit is given while using previously published pictures. Our aim is to build a responsible community of users,” says Rajpal.
The next version of the app, out in a month, will allow the team to add editorial comments to news items that they feel are suspect.