The Reporters’ Collective – a collaborative, investigative effort

2022-03-04. Nitin Sethi is the co-founder of The Reporters’ Collective — a multi-lingual, multi-format investigative platform. He talks to WAN-IFRA about the motivation behind launching the Collective, its business model, and what sets it apart in the investigative journalism beat in India.

by Neha Gupta | March 4, 2022

The Reporters’ Collective (TRC), co-founded in 2020 by Nitin Sethi and Kumar Sambhav, is an investigative platform that seeks to report the unvarnished truth, hold those in power accountable, and to do so without fear or favour.

The Collective’s core team comprises seven full-time members, and another six people who work as associate members. These members, who include editors, investigative journalists and a technologist, come armed with 3–23 years of journalistic experience. Additionally, the Collective also collaborates with lawyers, technologists, data analysts, RTI experts, multimedia producers, anchors and script writers to work on specific projects.

The Collective publishes its multi-lingual, multi-format reportage in collaboration with existing media organisations, and only displays a curation of the headlines on its website. It has so far worked with some 27 partnering publications in 11 Indian languages and aims to consolidate these relationships for the next couple years. 

TRC is currently being funded through three channels – it charges publishers for its investigative reportage, accepts donations from readers, and conducts training and workshops. 

Some of TRC’s biggest projects include its investigation on electoral funding, exposing the government’s plans to survey over 1.3 billion Indians, and the Gujarat death registers to reveal the actual number of pandemic-related deaths in the state.  

WAN-IFRA spoke to Sethi about how The Reporters’ Collective was conceived, how it aims to disrupt India’s investigative journalism space, and its collaborative workflow. 

Here is an edited version of the interview.

WAN-IFRA: What was the motivation behind launching The Reporters’ Collective?

Nitin Sethi: Journalism’s key function is to bring out the truth that the powerful and the influential do not want people to know. Our aim is to wrench out information and facts that put the spotlight on those in power and hold them accountable to citizens. 

In India, the space to do this kind of journalism has rapidly shrunk, and we wanted to regain it. Our purpose was to recreate a newsroom that invests in reportage, that helps journalists develop a deeper understanding of how governance and business runs in India’s political economy, and enables them to use this understanding to put out the truth fearlessly.

In the last few years, we have all learned to keep at this difficult genre of journalism by creating an informal village of collaborators across newsrooms – often, in the face of repressive editorial leaders who wanted us to stop and bend over to the wishes of those in power. 

We knew that the newsroom had to be built collaboratively, drawing strengths and resources from across languages, societal segments and mediums. It had to be built on the trust of citizens by drawing on the credibility of evidence-based journalism. 

So, some of us like-minded journalists got together to set up The Reporters’ Collective.  Kumar Sambhav, a senior journalist, friend and the other co-founder, who came with the experience of establishing Land Conflict Watch, a research organisation, took the lead with me. A few people joined us full-time, some work with us part-time and yet others who help informally from the outside. 

At TRC, we undertake deep-dive reportage and investigations – reportage that can, at times, take several months. The Collective wants to go beyond victim-reporting to tell who or what has turned our citizens into victims of misgovernance. 

We make sure that journalists who undertake such painstaking, and sometimes risky, reportage are remunerated well for their work. This encourages them to keep at it without fear for their livelihoods and material security. This also enables journalists from less privileged backgrounds who have equal, if not greater, ability to work with us. 

What are your company’s core value propositions?

We provide exclusive investigative journalistic work, backed by solid documented evidence. Our members put out new information and knowledge that unsparingly focuses on the working of those in positions of power, governance and policy making. The reportage goes through multiple rigorous editorial checks. The kind, I am willing to bet, no newsroom in India today affords. Our reportage reveals information and insights that help citizens review their understanding of India’s political economy. 

We publish our work in several languages and mediums by collaborating with media organisations that stand for honest journalism. 

What sets The Reporters’ Collective apart in the investigative journalism beat in India?

Simply put, there is no newsroom doing what we do. Not with this consistency, not at this scale, not with such rigour, and not with such depth of experience across the spectrum of the political economy. 

A few new media and legacy media organisations do try and occasionally produce fantastic investigative journalism. However, they also have to invest in their own platforms and enhance their reach. So, they become our partners. 

Since we partner with several such brave and willing publishers, we are able to focus entirely on this particularly tough, resource-intensive genre of journalism. 

You collaborate with numerous media organisations to produce content in different languages and formats. How do these partnerships work? 

We stitch together collaborations across publications in different languages. Once our reporters have finished their investigation and had their work fact-checked, they produce it in one base format and language (which has been English, so far). It is then rendered into other languages and formats in collaboration with our partners. 

The relations between our partners are not just pecuniary, they are built on mutual trust and a common desire for public-purposed journalism. 

How does technology help you in producing multi-lingual, multi-format content?

Producing our work into multiple formats and languages does not require technology. It requires committed journalists working across languages and the dexterity of senior editors. 

We use technology purposefully for our reportage when needed. We collaborate with experts across fields for our reportage, and meld this expertise to classic journalism. 

During one such collaboration with some excellent technologists, a few of my colleagues parsed data with more than 2 million data points to investigate an upcoming story. We have worked with epidemiologists and experts at Harvard University to analyse government death registers during COVID-19 to reveal how the actual numbers were suppressed.

What is The Reporters’ Collective’s business model and major revenue sources?

My co-founder, Kumar Sambhav, and I launched The Reporters’ Collective by putting in our own resources. We had a few fellowships and personal incomes from other journalistic and research work. We put a cap on our personal incomes and post-tax committed the rest of it to TRC.

We rely largely on donations from Indian citizens who value good reportage and can afford to support it for themselves, as well as for those who cannot. Additionally, we ask our publishing partners to remunerate our members fairly for their investigations. Publishers often cannot afford the full costs of these rigorous time and resource consuming investigations, but this is a supplementary stream of income. 

Another income stream is holding training and workshops which serve as a medium to share our methods, skills and knowledge with other journalists.

What does a typical investigation cycle look like?

A story can be triggered by smelling something amiss in the way an issue has been reported by legacy media outlets, or it can be triggered by a whistle-blower reaching out to us with evidence of potential wrong-doing. This sets off that TRC member to either work on acquiring documents and evidence for the story, or working closely with the whistle-blower, or both. 

The member then simultaneously reads up comprehensively on their subject of interest, and meets the relevant experts to gain domain knowledge. This involves several rounds of sitting together to assess the evidence that begins to emerge. 

One of us then plays the devil’s advocate and reviews all evidence with a sceptic’s eye. If the reporter reaches a point of confidence that they have something revelatory or deeply insightful at hand, they then begin to craft the story. This again takes several rounds of back and forth with the editors helping structure the reportage. The story then goes through two to three layers of editing and fact-checking. 

This cycle can take anywhere between three-four weeks. At times, we have had stories which have taken us more than nine months to investigate and produce. At any given time, a member is working at not more than three potential investigations. Often, these investigations will also require our reporters to collaborate. 

Once we are ready, we begin approaching our partnering publishers, where the story goes through another layer of editorial supervision before getting published. At any given instance, you can find the team collectively working on eight to 12 different projects.

Any special steps to increase engagement such as newsletters or campaigns?

We have a monthly newsletter that goes out to more than 7,000 viewers at the moment.  In our next phase of work, we are going to consolidate and innovate what we provide in the newsletter and set up campaigns to create a community, keeping our core purpose intact – in depth, investigative reportage. 

Do you agree that people need to pay for good quality content? Do you see a paywall fitting into your collaborative workflow? 

If citizens who can afford to, do not pay for journalism, then we will all get dished out the sub-standard content we get now in the name of journalism. 

However, not everyone can afford to pay for the resource-intensive investigative journalism we undertake. We ask those who can afford to pay for themselves to donate generously so that those who can’t afford it but have as much need, right and desire to know the truth also get access to it. 

We are not in favour of putting our work behind a paywall. We rely on the generosity of public-minded individuals and entities to ensure our members get fairly remunerated for their work and are able to carry on without fear or worry of livelihood.  

What are some of your key objectives for 2022 and what is your long-term vision?

We formally came together as a registered trust in 2021, though we began working as a collective in 2020. 

We are gearing up to produce some of our most ambitious work this year. We intend to expand our team, enable more journalists from more diverse backgrounds to learn and produce good reportage. 

Some of our upcoming investigations are going to be multimedia-first. We want to try new mediums such as animation. 

We will undertake more structured courses and workshops to share our learnings, skill sets and methods with others. We will collaborate with experts and organisations that are similarly public-purposed in their work areas.

Some news organisations have shown interest in taking our help to skill up their own reporting teams. We want to work more closely with them and grow this village that supports and enables good reportage.

In the long-run, we want to establish a full-scope collaborative newsroom that can report and investigate across a spectrum of issues that impacts Indians. We want to expand our thematic areas of reportage but without compromising on the rigour and depth of our work. We also want to enable journalists working in different languages and mediums to do similar work.

Neha Gupta

Multimedia Journalist

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