The voice on the other end of the line sounded cautious. As the conversation picked up speed, the person became friendlier. Caution is the prize Niraj Naik, founder of Digital Goa, must pay not to succumb to the pressures of money and muscle power from the rich and powerful of Goa. In the years since May 5, 2005, when he launched the digital news service, looking over his shoulder has unwittingly become second nature. With threats piling up on his doorstep, he’s learned an important lesson: there’s no substitute for caution. Digital Goaa daily “breaking news” news service is available only to subscribers via WhatsApp.
The news flashes have caused discomfort to many, if threats of dire consequences from powerful politicians, casino owners and mining companies are to be believed. An ad-free service, says Naik, it’s this income independence that helps him feel free from the pressures of powerful politicians and corporations.
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When it was launched nearly 20 years ago, the news service was only available to subscribers via a short message service (SMS). As mobile technology has evolved over the past two decades, Digital Goa adapted to changing dimensions and decided to take the WhatsApp route. “SMS was initially good for making our presence felt in the market, but the limited type size did not allow us to elaborate the news. In addition, it was a very expensive service for us,” says Naik Outlook. “Being an independent service, it is possible to innovate and give news to subscribers before the newspaper or television”, informs Naik. A significant number of journalists from Goa and other parts of India subscribe to the news service to stay in touch with Goa events. He is, however, unwilling to reveal the size of the subscription base, but says he has Goa’s who’s who on his list.
Digital Goa is completely ad-free, a fact subscribers appreciate. Naik has a list of those who are interested in advertising for the news service, but have staunchly walked away from it, despite the stress of maintaining the revenue stream. According to Naik, his independent business continues to be the only subscription news service in India. “Our service has been recognized by several awards. The most important of these is the mBillionth Award (2018), awarded annually for mobile innovations in South Asia.
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Every morning, the first newsletter lists all exclusive stories from popular newspapers, mentioning their sources. It’s the warm-up for subscribers before they’re hit with breaking news throughout the day. There are no fixed daily bulletins because the periodicity is triggered by the day’s events, says Naik. During the 2022 Assembly polls in Goa, at least seven daily bulletins listed the breaking news of the hour. “The number of subscribers increased significantly during this period. Political events were such that they got something new every hour. Even now, after the election, our news flashes on political movements are picked up by other media,” says Naik.
The first morning bulletin lists exclusive newspaper articles, citing their sources. This is followed by hard news throughout the day.
Four years ago, full-time journalist Rupesh Samant and three of his media friends teamed up to create goanewshub (Goa News Center), a news portal for breaking news. They wanted to put in place something that would break stereotypes in journalism and “break stories as they happen”. They saw Twitter as the perfect platform for that vision and that was the start, says Samant, founder-editor of goanewshub. “We decided to run it without income, and therefore decided not to take any salary. Four of us pooled our own resources to start the website,” Samant told Outlook. The portal with the slogan Website Who Never Sleeps – Really Goanprovides news as it happens and posts breaking news simultaneously to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram.
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contrary to Digital Goa, goanewshub is not subscription based. Samant and his team share the links of their stories that are posted on social media in various WhatsApp groups. “We send our links to over 150 Goa-based WhatsApp groups giving us a reach of 1.5 lakh viewers,” notes Samant, whose previous stints were with O Heraldo, Navhind Times, Sunaparant (a Konkani daily) and Tap Trust of India. The company started with four members and now has 10 employees; the size of the organization was reduced to avoid huge wage bills. “We balance income and liabilities so that we don’t close due to financial losses,” says the Panaji-based scribe.
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Unlike Naik who has given up on ads, Samant has started accepting ads. In the past, goanewshub operated as a no-profit, no-loss business, and it operated without any advertising. However, it was during the Covid-19 pandemic that one of the first advertisements from a manufacturer of disinfectants and masks found its way onto the news portal. This was a starting point when they got into advertising on Twitter. Since then, the flow of ads has increased during and after the Covid era, Samant reveals.
The advent of mobiles in India and the popularity of SMS prompted Naik to switch to SMS news service in 2005, which later switched to WhatsApp.
This portal has a mix of everything—Dating Hub section for video interviews, travel show Passayanalytical stories, blogs and express hub—the hugely popular candid interview segment. Goanewshub uses sophisticated cameras and drones for on-the-ground reporting which has been translated into in-depth analytical material. Viewership increased significantly during the elections. “We settle any differences with those who have an issue with our stories through conversations, so no threats have come our way. We have consciously decided not to align ourselves with any politician or political party. Corporate advertisements are our only source of revenue. Our business model is very limited so that we don’t face a shortage of funds,” says Samant.
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Writer, political commentator and human rights activist Rajan Solomon subscribes to Digital Goa since 2008. The Curtorim-based activist said Outlook this Digital Goa had helped him become a “news investigator instead of a newsreader”. It’s the quality and standard of content that has kept it glued to the news service all these years. Even his wife is a subscriber, and the two don’t want to share their subscriptions with each other. “I get the news before the newspapers. When you are on the move, it becomes difficult to access information on television. Digital Goa is convenient and gives me the latest news and other updates from Goa. Even when we travel, we don’t lose anything of what’s going on in Goa,” says Solomon.
Naik’s stint in journalism began in the newsroom of O’Heraldo, one of the most popular newspapers in Goa. Then he was with the Janmabhoomi group in Delhi, and subsequently a stringer for IANS (India Overseas News Service) in Kuala Lumpur. After returning to Goa, Naik became involved in many environmental movements and in the struggle to make Konkani the official language of Goa. This strong identity struggle pushed Naik to start his own business which was by a Goan for only Goans. “It’s a big struggle to stay free and fair. I only have part-time employees because I can’t pay big salaries. It’s a wonder I’m still alive with all these threats,” says Naik For Samant, too, it’s a struggle to maintain an independent stance on content.
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Before the daily news service, Digital Goa was a bi-monthly magazine launched in 2002. The advent of mobiles in India and the popularity of SMS service caused Naik to evolve and adapt to a new form of communication – digital news service via SMS in 2005, which is later switched to WhatsApp. First with a team of four people, it now has 11 employees, all part-time.
Reporting on the Goa Assembly polls in 2022 was a huge challenge for the news service. “There was so much money pumped into media houses. Paid news was on a massive scale this time around. From small to very large, everyone got the financial boost. We were approached but we did not succumb to it. I am very clear about not flattering politicians and political parties,” says Naik. Although he received multiple threats, it did not water down the tone of the content. He didn’t hesitate either.
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After working with O’Heraldo for 24 years, Suraj Nandrekar, decided to move on and create two websites in English and Marathi. He is now editor-director of Goemkarponn, an e-paper published in both languages. Six months later, he launched an electronic journal, while maintaining the two websites.
Like Naik and Samant, Nandrekar also believes it is the breaking news category that brings readers to the paper and its websites. “We upload the latest news to our subscribers mailing list on WhatsApp. As we post the links on all WhatsApp groups in Goa we are getting requests for our free memberships. We started with two staff members 18 months ago, and have now grown to 15,” Nandrekar wrote in a WhatsApp interview with Outlook.
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Goemkarponn is entirely monetized by advertisements. However, Nandrekar says he does not compromise on content and adds that he is not aligned with any political party. GoemkarponnInvestigative reports have had many successes, if threats are a barometer for measuring impact. “I received many threats as a journalist. However, my urge to reveal the truth helps me stay independent of other pressures. I lost a lot of friends in the business,” he says.
(This appeared in the print edition as “Fast, Cheap and Truly Independent”)
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