Politics intervene: How journalism startups balance their inclusive agenda and social media goals


In recent years, several digital-native news startups with progressive and inclusive agendas have come up in India. They resist the trend of hyperpartisan legacy news coverage that panders to the politicians and corporates by espousing political and professional ideals. However, they come to depend on social media platforms to reach and interact with their audience. Existing literature warns that platforms encourage journalists to chase after engagement metrics at the expense of key journalistic values and autonomy. This paper investigates how digital news startups balance their political commitment with their social media ambitions and challenges.

Startups, with their corrective agenda and commitment to inclusive politics, have a significant role to play as Indian journalism grapples with the increasing sway of business in politics and media and the journalistic ideal that advocates redistribution and giving voice to the marginalized. Social media platforms exacerbate this situation: journalism that chases shares and likes becomes less representative and inclusive. Journalists show reluctance to cover minority issues, which can mean low engagement, low traffic and ultimately low revenue. How can startups, who occupy a more precarious position compared to established legacy media, pursue inclusive coverage, focus on minority issues and criticize hegemonic power?

The reasons that motivate alternative or progressive news startups to use social media, the constraints they experience there, how they negotiate and resist platform pressures and what resources they draw from to do so are explored through an exemplary investigation into seven journalism startups in India. The dynamic between bids placed by social media platforms on journalistic production and how the sense-making practices of news organizations influence the negotiation of platform power is brought out.

An interdisciplinary research agenda that combines approaches from platform studies and (journalistic) production studies is advocated in this paper. While platform studies literature can help us map the various levels at which platforms influence production, we lack insight into journalists’ agency in resisting platform power and why it varies. Newsroom ethnographies and experiential approaches reveal the role of journalists’ sense-making, context, organizational cultures etc in their navigation of social media. However, they do not adequately engage with platform power.

The findings indicate that social media platforms have become vital infrastructure that supports the creation, circulation and consumption of news. Even journalists who seek to reduce the extent of corporate influence on their work have to comply with some platform regulations, though they do not perceive them as such. Though they accepted some platform diktats, they do not completely give into platform logic either. How journalism startups defined their politics, positioned themselves in relation to mainstream practice and sought audience’s legitimacy determined how they made sense of and resisted platform power.