The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you end up at Scroll.in?
I have been a journalist for 18 years now. I actually started as a reporter at NDTV where I ended up doing long-form political stories on national TV. I then moved over to print at the Times of India, where I found the investigative work quite rewarding. However, I was growing tired from the challenges of big media. So, I turned to independent journalism in 2013. Around that time, Naresh Fernandes—now editor at Scroll.in—was starting to work on Scroll and asked me to come on board. I was actually hesitant to join a newsroom but I was intrigued.
I finally decided to come on board to cover the national elections and did a month and a half long train journey, starting in Assam in Eastern India, all the way to Kashmir. The entire project was about talking to voters that I would meet serendipitously on the train, instead of just covering what people in power have to say. I found myself working at a newsroom that was open to experimenting with form and excited about stories with ordinary people. I loved that, and I have loved being able to help shape the newsroom itself, too.
What makes Scroll.in special?
One of the first taglines that Naresh came up with for Scroll was, “the news that matters and the things that make life worth living.” This philosophy makes us stand out among the handful of independent news organizations in India that pursue public accountability journalism, scrutinize the government and hold the powerful accountable. It’s increasingly rare, especially at a time when the news media in India is largely abdicating this role.
While conducting critical investigative stories, making sure we cover the under reported and giving voice to the undercovered, we at Scroll try not to lose sight of the fact that our readers care about other things, like literature, cinema, sports, food, etc. That’s why you’re as likely to find a hard-hitting story about arbitrary police action against human rights lawyers and activists as much as a great film critique or a story about food history.
But we remind ourselves of this: We’re one of the few newsrooms in India that will not hesitate to publish a story because it takes on powerful interests. Despite being smaller than what we once were, we still punch above our weight.
How has Scroll changed since starting in 2014?
Maybe it’s because this weighs most heavily on me as an editor in the newsroom, but we’ve had to curtail our ambitions as a result of financial pressures. We’re not able to spend as much time and effort as required on ground reporting and big investigations. We even used to produce a video show called Your Morning Fix, which readers loved, but we had to stop that. When we started in 2014 most of us were in Delhi and Mumbai. Gradually we started expanding across the country. We had reporters join us from Bangalore, Chennai, Srinagar, Guwahati, etc. Over time we expanded beyond the two big metropolitan cities and had presence across six to seven states. This has been reversed completely. We’re now a much smaller team. It is frustrating. But we remind ourselves of this: We’re one of the few newsrooms in India that will not hesitate to publish a story because it takes on powerful interests. Despite being smaller than what we once were, we still punch above our weight.
Your team has identified three beats: land and climate, health and education, work and gender. Why did you pick them? And has your team covered these topics before?
Early on at Scroll, we covered these beats but weren’t able to sustain that coverage because of financial pressures. As an editor, I feel that these stories always get lost in the daily news grind and do not get adequate space in our news coverage. But more so now – when we’re particularly distracted with dissecting viral videos and fighting polarization – that we often forget that these themes are also shaping our lives dramatically, shaping day-to-day life more than we know.
How would you compare news coverage about India by foreign correspondents to coverage by local journalists? Are there news stories that only Indian journalists can cover?
I wouldn’t go as far to say that there are stories that only Indians can cover. Rather, broadly, as a principle, Indian journalists cover stories inside out. For example, air pollution in India is not just a story for us; it is our reality. Every winter, I wake up with watery eyes; I feel suffocated. For me, the stakes in the story are that much higher.
Local journalists have stakes in stories that foreign correspondents don’t. Practically, local journalists also have more insight and better sources, which often lead to a more rounded piece of journalism.
Is there a particular story that comes to mind that demonstrates the importance of a free press in India?
The problem is that 10 articles come to mind. In one of our more recent investigations, we examined a police investigation into violence that had taken place in Delhi in February 2020. This was after the controversial citizenship law that resulted in violent protests across the country was passed and politicians tried to vilify those who were against the law, fueling tension between Hindus and Muslims.
A few months into the pandemic, police went around arresting those who had protested against the citizenship law, building up a case that these activists – students and academics – were the cause for this communal violence and part of a bigger international conspiracy to defame the Indian government.
Not only did we find major legal and factual fallacies in law enforcement’s investigation, but we also discovered that the police had interrogated a much larger group of people, showing up at front doors unannounced, interrogating people for hours and effectively creating an atmosphere of fear.
We had to spend a lot of time convincing people to open up, and then published a series called “A Silent Crackdown,” pointing to the fact that right here in the nation’s capital, a police investigation had created a chilling effect hindering democratic rights. If you have a situation where those here, in Delhi, who have social capital can be silenced, what about those with less power? With less social access? Those who live in rural areas?
What do you think are the benefits of being a part of Report for the World and creating your Common Ground team?
We’re really excited to go back to covering topics we feel very strongly about, issues we haven’t been able to pursue because of financial pressures. We’ll be able to cover these stories through a more critical lens, bringing important stories to life, holding public authorities accountable and delivering key insights to our readers. We’ll do what journalism does best: bring fresh information, raise awareness and build empathy—all of which can be done best through ground reporting!