Meera has built a community news platform for and by citizens, that provides them with the critical information they need to drive change in their communities. She is building a model of citizen media that enables civic engagement and community revitalisation.
The New Idea
Meera recognizes the power of in depth local news and information to catalyse and accelerate local citizen movements and started Citizen Matters, a platform that publishes local and hyperlocal content combining professional reporting with citizen stories. The growth of Citizen Matters in Bengaluru is intertwined with the power of growing neighbourhood groups, resident welfare associations and citizen groups.
Her work catalyses the efforts of local groups, by providing the information they need to take action, with stories investigated, researched and written by both professional and citizen journalists. The approach of involving citizens as 'problem solvers' provides easy to-dos to communities and prompts them to action.
Meera has encouraged a strong culture of citizen journalism with workshops, community interactions, internships, training citizens to investigate and present stories about their own communities that catalyse action.
The citizen movement is accelerating in India. Bangalore alone has more than 200 citizen groups registered with the municipal corporation working to better their neighbourhoods. According to Richa Singh’s book, “New Citizen’s Activism in India”, all major social changes in India over the past five years have been through citizen movements, like the movement for stricter rape laws after the brutal rape case of a girl in Delhi on a moving bus, the anti-corruption movement and so on. Meera recognizes the opportunity there is in accelerating these citizen movements to further catalyse social change.
Although there are hundreds of citizen groups in cities and town, all of them are not able to bring large scale change like the anti-corruption movement, for example. In spite of being passionate about taking action to develop their neighbourhoods they face the challenge of not having enough information on the problem they want to solve, and not knowing how to solve it. To find this information, through investigation and research, is time consuming, and having other full times jobs and responsibilities, they cannot invest time and resources into digging up the information.
While lay citizens are affected by the information gap at the local level, much of mainstream journalism focuses on stories on national or global topics. Only 2% of stories in mainstream newspapers are city or town specific, and none report on hyperlocal neighbourhood issues. In addition, even the stories that are published, report about what has happened but never mention what readers can do to actually solve the problem, leaving them hopeless and disempowered.
Meera recognizes this opportunity that lies in the overlap of these two problems- lack of information for citizen groups to support them in driving change, and the scope of journalism to fill this gap.
Meera co founded Citizen Matters (CM) in 2008 as a local newsmagazine. She believes that every community should have the right to define what development is, for their neighbourhood, and not have to abide by the dominant development paradigm. For some communities development might mean being a Wi-Fi enabled neighbourhood, while for others it might be an environmentally sustainable green neighbourhood. Meera does not think that it is her role to impose any development agenda on communities, but to catalyse whatever development they define for themselves by providing them with critical information on how to get there. For this reason Citizen Matters is distinctly agenda less, and practices a 'demand-driven' journalism model.
Citizens can provide leads on the Citizen Matters website, and request the journalists on their network to do a story on it. For example, if a park in a neighbourhood is being destroyed to build an apartment block there, one or a group of citizens from that neighbourhood can add a lead on the CM website asking if the building construction is legal, and what can they do to stop it in order to preserve the park.
The cost of journalism is covered by reader funding, and members of the Citizen Matters reader community contribute small - medium amounts to help the operation continue.
Since citizens are paying for stories to get investigated and published, they can hold CM accountable for doing a good job, fulfilling the need of the community, presenting the information in a way that was useful for them to take action. Meera thinks this citizen led accountability is what will act as a constant quality check for CM and ensure it really adds value to citizen movements.
Citizen Matters stories are published online and were available as hyperlocal print editions between 2009-12. Her team also published guidebooks on Living in Bengaluru, Getting to Know Bangalore Better, and Buying and Selling Property in Bengaluru.
As public funded operation, the stories are also shared with other media under the Open Media Initiative. Partners include small neighbourhood newspapers to larger mainstream media.
Citizen Matters is credited with catalyzing the citizen movement around lake conservation, waste segregation and organic gardening. These movements have found space on Citizen Matters from their nascent days. The waste segregation movement developed the 2Bin1Bag model, that has now been adopted not just by Bengaluru but many cities across India!
When a group of citizens wanted to do something about the sorry state of their nearby lake, a guide on Citizen Matters proved helpful. 'How to save a lake', written by a citizen volunteer who was involved in saving her neighourhood lake, the informative piece from a practitioner made the difference. They could find out under whose jurisdiction the lake came under, how to complain and which support groups could guide them.
With over 60 Indian cities having population of more than a million, Meera believes every city deserves its own independent media to enable civic engagement. She is currently working with chapter leaders handling Citizen Matters in Chennai and two more cities. Over the next few years, Meera is going to focus her efforts on identifying and mentoring more chapter leaders, who care about their cities, understand the need for an independent platform empowering citizens and show commitment and journalistic integrity to make it happen.
Meera has also co-initiated two other projects to complement the community news media operation. The Co Media Lab facilitates developing more community journalists with training and resources, and the Open City urban open data platform helps citizen access and contribute public data to promote transparency.
Meera’s father was a journalist in a leading daily and she grew up discussing politics, current affairs and social issues as normal dinner table conversation in her family. This influenced her to pursue political science in college. Disillusioned with the rote method learning rather than the critical analysis of socio-political issues that she was expecting, she switched to studying computer science instead.
When Meera moved to Bangalore to work with an IT company, it was her first time living outside the small community in her hometown. Her relatives, friends, school, college, had all been within a 10 kilometer radius of her home, and she had grown up with a close sense of community. Bangalore was quickly becoming a city of migrant workers, with people from all over the country moving to Bangalore to work in its many IT companies, and she noticed a disconnect from local issues and lack of awareness of local politics among the larger populace.
During her stint at the IT company, Meera was posted to several cities in USA and other countries, where she got to observe communities and the role of local media. She especially remembers being pleasantly surprised by the neighbourhood newspapers, which had hyperlocal news, but also served as a platform to bring people together.
Meanwhile, Meera had started with volunteering with citizen groups, like Association for India's Development (AID) and learnt more about development, grassroots movements and governance. In 2007 Meera eventually quit her IT job to start Citizen Matters.