Rural India will now have a voice in the form of a newspaper dedicated to its cause with Gaon Connection. The Hindi weekly newspaper was formally launched on Sunday in Kunaura village, Uttar Pradesh by Akhilesh Yadav, chief minister of the state.
The project is led by Neelesh Misra, co-founder and editorial director of Gaon Connection. The 12-page all-colour broadsheet will be priced at Rs 5.
Misra is armed with years of journalistic experience and is also a published author. His tryst with journalism began while still in school in 1989 writing for a Hindi newspaper called Swantantra Bharat. He went on to write for The Pioneer and after earning a post graduate degree from Indian Institute of Mass Communication, Misra worked with Reuters and India Abroad News Service (IANS). Misra has also had long stints at Associated Press (AP) and Hindustan Times. He quit Hindustan Times in 2010 as the deputy executive editor.
Among Misra's published books are 173 Hours in Captivity, End of the Line, Once Upon a Timezone, The Absent State and one he co-wrote with his father, Dr S B Misra, Dream Chasing.
Besides journalism, Misra has also pursued interests in cinema in the past decade as a lyricist and scriptwriter. Among his recent projects include Ek Tha Tiger, the script for which he co-wrote. He also hosts a radio storytelling show on 92.7 Big FM called 'Yaadon Ka Idiot Box'.
According to Misra, Gaon Connection is led by the philosophy of 'Rural Cool' and will portray the rural parts of the country as regular places showcasing stories that are fascinating and different from the stereotypical perspective.
"Mainstream media is not keeping us informed of the substantial changes in rural India, one of the many being the rising literacy and aspiration levels. Rural India is going through amazing growth and churn. The way rural citizens live, what they eat, what they aspire for, what they wear, the vehicles they drive - it is all transforming," he says.
The content of the newspaper will include a lot of narrative writing, long-copied news, all based out of villages. The first issue also includes a particular story of a farmer from Uttarakhand currently based in Washington DC attempting to open up rural India to a global audience as well.
The newspaper is targeted at villagers, rural citizens residing in urban areas and NRIs who wish to stay abreast of rural developments (through the newspaper's website).
Gaon Connection is community-funded and has no corporate backing, and its directors will plough any profits back into the newspaper. The initiative is supported by the 40-year old organisation, Bharatiya Gramin Vidyalaya Society, while the ownership will be transferred to Content Project, a company owned by Misra that will market Gaon Connection.
Gaon Connection is being promoted heavily online, particularly through social media. Other vehicles include road shows, activation and radio. A special song has also been composed and will be pushed aggressively.
Along with the newspaper, a news wire service will also be launched which Misra says will be the country's first rural news agency. Gaon Connection will also be available online as an e-paper at www.gaonconnection.com.
The newspaper was earlier scheduled to be launched in August. The project was delayed with the desire to scale up and spread out, given the interest it received from companies, advertising agencies and investors.
While earlier planned for only 40, Gaon Connection backed with sufficient funding is now being distributed across 75 districts in Uttar Pradesh.
Gaon Connection is being launched with a print run of 10,000 copies, the numbers will be increased every week. Misra says that the editorial integrity will be fiercely protected. While there are interesting platforms for brands that will be available in the non-news section, there will be absolutely no advertorials, he states. The ratio of advertisements to editorial content is being maintained at 30:70 for the time being; as the ads increase, the number of pages will go up, too.
Misra admits that 10,000 is not a huge number but asserts the challenge is beyond the print run. He adds that the project has the support of leading advertising and media agencies.
"Circulation is just a number for us. The challenge is not the number of copies being printed but whether we are able to reach every district in the state. The distribution network hence is very crucial for us. Sure, 10,000 is a small number but the achievement is our presence in the 75 districts," he says.
While using the distribution network of the existing newspapers in the state, Gaon Connection is also receiving support from the UP distributor community who are making efforts to help the newspaper penetrate deeper. The distributors are also being trained to double up as journalists and vice-versa.
There are also Connection Centres being set up for distribution purposes across the state. The team having physically travelled across Western and Central UP have set up the centres in 40 districts and are now looking to do the same in the eastern part of the state.
Misra's father, Dr Misra will serve as the editor-in-chief of Gaon Connection. He is currently supported by a 10-journalist team that is a mix of people from both urban and rural areas, distributors, and small operations and marketing teams.
Dr Misra, an experienced geologist grew up in a village near Kunaura. With a dream to set up a school, he founded Bharatiya Gramin Vidyalaya in Kunaura giving up his achievements in geology in Canada.
Misra though insists that Gaon Connection will not be a family enterprise and Dr Misra's involvement in the project is purely coincidental.
"We are building on the same legacy as Bharatiya Gramin Vidyalaya Society carrying forward its values and not working for profit. It was necessary that people at Gaon Connection share the same vibe. Dr Misra has incredible news sense; sometimes even better than a journalist. His involvement is coincidental but it would have been hard to find people with such passion who would work not for monetary interests," he says.
The immediate aim, Misra says, is to cover the whole of Uttar Pradesh through a sound distribution network and content, and gradually move to other states and even publish in other languages. Distribution interest has already been witnessed from states like Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand.
He informs that the project has received encouraging support from investors, companies and ad agencies alike. A sampling done earlier also revealed that the people of the state are warming up to the idea.