This is how Ola can revolutionize news industry, but maybe they will surrender

Last evening, Ola cabs – an app based ‘cabs on hire’ service provider – announced that they are getting into news gathering, especially hyperlocal news. They are calling this initiative ONN – Ola News Network.

In a promotional video that they have created for this initiative, it appears that not only there could be a digital TV channel of sorts – to be played either on the user device or the devices they have in their ‘prime’ cabs – but also there could be ‘information on demand’, especially local information.

Had it been posted tomorrow, perhaps it would have been a April Fool’s prank, as they have done earlier, for the idea could sound a bit outlandish. But since it was posted two days prior to the April 1, I’m assuming in good faith that they mean it! But more than that, there are another reasons why I think could prove to be a serious business.

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In the video, common users are seen asking the app about traffic condition somewhere in their town, or price of ‘bhindi’ in the local market, and other such information. Following which an Ola reporter – who are presumably the drivers of the cabs or autos – goes to the location and provides them with the sought information, sometimes by live streaming video from the location.

Essentially, from a location-based ‘cabs on hire’, they are now morphing into a location-based ‘reporters on hire’.

And it’s pretty exciting.

Earlier today on Twitter, I put out a non-serious tweet that Ola got inspiration for this idea due to a tweet of mine that I had posted back in January 2016. I was joking, but the truth is that I had pitched a similar idea to Network18 back in 2015 itself, which was about ‘reporters on hire’. And that’s why I think it is a serious business, and I’m very keenly interested to see how ‘Ola News Network’ unfolds.

Following Reliance’s acquisition of Network18, things had become a little slow, especially in the digital publishing division where I worked, and hardly any new initiatives were being taken up. The company was figuring out top management issues and other integration issues post the acquisition, and thus I could only get appreciation for my ideas, not any budget or team to work with.

While the motive of writing this article is partly to blow my own trumpet a little and claim that I had thought of this idea more than 3 years ago, I, in no way mean to suggest I’ve any copyright over it or Ola doesn’t deserve credit for it. I’m sure maybe someone else was also thinking of a similar idea way before me. In the end, execution matters more than ideas.

The main motive of writing this article however is to explain why I thought something like ‘reporters on hire’ made sense and why I was pitching for the idea.

Firstly, it makes sense economically. Journalism won’t survive unless news gathering costs are somehow met; and news gathering is a costly affair. The traditional model of journalism tries to subsidize this activity through advertisements where the reader doesn’t pay for the entire operational cost.

The traditional model worked in print format because news had a virtual monopoly on publishing – you can hardly consume anything else than news, on a daily printed paper – and thus they could command the advertising rates on publishing platform, which would eventually meet their revenue targets and sustain the business.

The same model also worked in electronic format, because the production cost of competing products – general entertainment TV serials for example – was usually higher than news gathering costs, hence the advertising rates on electronic platform too were good. The business sustained.

Apart from favorable advertising rates, television and print both are highly regulated sectors especially when it came to news, so life was a bit easy for news media organizations.

However, this traditional model of subsidizing news gathering through advertising is struggling in the digital domain because there is all kind of competition on the digital platform. A chat application, a meme generator, content websites requiring no on-ground reporters, and of course, the social networking websites – all of these are competing against the news organizations on the digital platform.

In fact, news was a late entrant in the digital domain, and thus it had to adapt to already set standards – low advertising rates, a belief that information and knowledge should be free on internet (thus resistance to paying for information), and an unregulated jungle.

In such a scenario, the news industry needs to find new ways to make people pay, as advertising money is not enough. As of now, subscriptions are the only model most news organizations are trying when they get on to the digital format.

But how about putting your reporters on hire?

Let people hire the reporters for their information needs, and make payment for that because it’s a customized service. It can meet a part of the news gathering costs. Every reporter is not busy 24×7 and thus ‘idle resources’ could be utilized.

Say, I need to relocate to Indore from Kolkata. On a real estate website one particular flat interests me, but I don’t know about the locality. I try to contact a local reporter in Indore who gives me a customized report about the locality and other relevant information about moving in that area. A reporter can even provide a live video streaming for information (the way it is seen in Ola’s promotional video), say for an area where I just want to stay for a holiday.

That was my thought and proposal. I guessed that it will be met with internal resistance in a news organization, for it’s a sacrilegious to suggest that journalists should be hired for petty personal information requirements of common men. After all, journalism is such a great and respectable job that is about saving the world.

However, my ideas couldn’t even get to the resistance stage due to issues I mentioned earlier.

Ola won’t have any such resistance fortunately because drivers are under no such illusion that they are saving the world – while they actually save a lot of lives by driving responsibly – or that any job is petty.

However, I presume that Ola will not be charging for their ‘reporters on hire’ from the very first day. The initial avatar of Ola News Network could be hyperlocal news content destination – accessible for free – to start with and a part of the costs sustained through advertising – say the ‘reporters’ wearing some branded shirts. But if they don’t move to ‘reporters on hire’ model soon where common people pay for information gathering, I would be surprised.

And that model, where a reporter is directly interacting with the common person, can prove to be revolutionary.

Because what ‘reporters on hire’ essentially does, is not to lower the standard or stature of a reporter, but it does away with the middleman called ‘editor’.

Most user-based and transaction dependent technologies are actually about removing the middlemen, and it could be revolutionary for the news industry if the middleman called editor is removed.

It obviously paints a very scary picture too – of anarchy, fake news, etc. but these issues can be taken care of with some checks and balances in the systems and processes. Overall, I think more good than bad will come out of it. Primarily because free flow of information regarding current events is far more valuable.

An editor’s role has been corrupted by the traditional media over decades. Instead of becoming a person who goes for sanity-check and fact-check, the editor is mostly busy coloring an information from ideological and political perspectives and suppressing facts. We have seen how editors at one website told their own reporter not to talk about an attack on her (the reporter) for sake of ideological objectives.

So current news is not about what is happening on ground, but what a few editors want you to believe is happening on ground. You need the control.

Therefore, I believe that this ‘reporters on hire’ was badly needed so that information reaches a common man without the corruption of an editor.

Take this for example: you just read a news in The Indian Express that a person in Vadnagar in Gujarat was assaulted because he just uttered ‘ya allah’. You think Express is spinning news and truth is something else that assault for a couple of words. So you go to your Ola app, search for Vadnagar, see the reporters/drivers around that area, contact them to get you a first hand report, make the payment on the Ola app, and make your findings public shaming The Indian Express.

Pretty cool, isn’t it?

I don’t really know if Ola has this in mind, but as I said earlier, I would be surprised and shocked if they are not moving in this direction eventually.

And that’s where Ola will face its biggest resistance from. The way Ola and Uber revolutionized and changed the cabs industry, they can do the same to the news industry. The existing players won’t just watch idly their citadel being breached.

I foresee that soon Times Group or someone will raise an objection as to why Ola should be allowed to get into news gathering. They will talk regulations, journalistic standards, etc. and try to stop it or throw spanners using their clout.

My fear, however, is that Ola too might yield to the pressure and start hiring editors – the same politically and ideologically colored ones – to buy peace with the old news mafia. And that will be pretty sad.

For now, let’s see how this story unfolds. (update: yes, it can unfold as prank too, as was mentioned earlier, but let me emphasize. I so well wish someone does it!)

And if Uber is reading it, you can contact me ;)

A well known expert on nothing. Opinions totally personal. RTs, sometimes even my own tweets, not endorsement. #Sarcasm. As unbiased as any popular journalist.

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