The Reporters’ Collective (TRC) is a multilingual, multimedia investigative journalism collective that produces deep-dive reportage. TRC, co-founded in 2020 by two journalists Nitin Sethi and Kumar Sambhav, seeks to report the unvarnished truth and hold those in power accountable without fear or favour. The Collectives’ stories have been discussed in Parliament and courts alike, and have won several awards. It is part of the Global Investigative Journalism Network.
Core Members Nitin Sethi (here referred to as NS) Kumar Sambhav (KS) Anoop George Philip (AGP) Tapasya (T) Shreegireesh Jalihal (SJ) Harshitha Manwani Associate Members Srishti Jaswal Somesh Jha Poonam Agarwal Pawanjot Kaur Aritra Bhattacharya Mayank Aggarwal Tech Support Vidur
When did you start The Reporters’ Collective (TRC)? Tell us about its journey.
NS: In 2020, some of us like-minded journalists got together to set up The Reporters’ Collective. We felt there was a need for a resilient, diverse newsroom that went beyond victim-reporting to tell who or what has turned our citizens into victims of misgovernance.
Initially started by Kumar Sambhav and I, The Collective gradually grew to include other rigorous reporters – some joining us full-time, some working with us part-time and others informally helping us from the outside. We formally registered as a Trust in 2021.
At present, The Collective comprises 6 core member journalists and another 6 associate members, collaborating with researchers, data scientists, RTI experts to produce reportage that is published in media outlets in India and abroad.
The core members include editors, investigative journalists and a technologist, with 3–23 years of journalistic experience. Additionally, The Collective also collaborates with lawyers, multimedia producers, anchors and script writers to work on specific projects.
What were the reasons for setting up TRC?
“It takes a whole village to produce good journalism. We found the space for such villages to be shrinking.“
KS: Journalism’s key function is to bring out, rather wrench out, information, facts and truth that spotlight on those in power and hold them accountable to citizens.
In India, the space to do this kind of journalism has rapidly shrunk. We wanted to regain that space. We wanted to recreate a newsroom that invests in reportage, helps journalists develop a deeper understanding of how governance and business run in India’s political economy and enables them to use this understanding to put out the truth fearlessly.
We wanted a newsroom that celebrates and rewards good reportage, not one that punishes the journalists who attempt it. We knew that the newsroom had to be built collaboratively, drawing strengths and resources from existing new independent media, spread across languages, societal segments and mediums. It has to be built on the trust of citizens by drawing on the credibility of evidence-based journalism. It had to function like a committed team backed by a village full of supporters and enablers.
Do you follow a process for doing stories? Take us through it.
AGP: Our reportage goes through multiple rigorous editorial checks. It reveals information and insights that help citizens review their understanding of India’s political economy.
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 whistleblower reaching out to us with evidence of potential wrongdoing. The TRC member then works on acquiring documents and evidence for the story, individually or with the help of the whistleblower. The member reads up on the subject and meets experts to gain domain knowledge. This involves several rounds of brainstorming sessions to assess the evidence that begins to emerge.
One of us then plays the devil’s advocate and reviews all evidence. 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 that took us more than nine months to investigate and produce. At any given time, a member is working on not more than three potential investigations. Often, these investigations also require our reporters to collaborate.
Once our story is fact-checked and ready, we approach our prospective publishing partners, where the story goes through another layer of editorial supervision before getting published. It is then rendered into other languages and formats from the base format and language (English mostly) in collaboration with our partners.
At any given time, you can find the team collectively working on eight to twelve different projects.
How is TRC different from other journalism platforms?
KS: Our USP is that we produce rigorous evidence-based journalism following the classic tenets of the profession. But we do so in a nimble-footed manner, collaborating and innovating to tell the stories better and to reach audiences across languages and platforms.
At TRC, we harness technology for our reportage when needed. We collaborate with experts across fields for our reportage, and meld this expertise with classic journalism. The Collective publishes its reportage in collaboration with existing media organisations, and only displays a curation of the headlines on its website. It has so far worked with several partnering publications in various Indian languages. The relationship between our partners is not just pecuniary, they are built on mutual trust and a common desire for public-purposed journalism.
We are firmly focus on stories that put the spotlight on the powerful. Stories that investigate who and what corrode our democracy, diminish citizen’s rights and deprive our people of their rightful economic and development opportunities. Stories that hold the government and businesses to account for their actions. We do not stop at talking of the victims, we also centre stage the perpetrators. 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.
How do you remain independent? What model of funding do you follow?
NS: We rely on citizens for their contributions. Citizens who read and watch us. Citizens who want and can afford to support independent investigative journalism in India. Not only for themselves but also for other citizens who may not be able to afford it but need it as much. We are not in favour of putting our work behind paywalls.
When my Co-Founder Kumar Sambhav and I launched The Collective, we did so 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 have now opened TRC to donations from Indian citizens and entities who value good reportage and can afford to support it for themselves as well as others who cannot.
Additionally, we ask our publishing partners to pay our members, as remuneratively as they can, for their investigations. Publishers most often can afford only a small part of the full costs of such rigorous time – and resource consuming investigations. But it’s a supplementary stream of income. We also carry out trainings and workshops where we share our methods, skills and knowledge with other journalists.
In short, our funding model can be summarised in these three steps – we charge publishers for our investigative reportage, accept donations from readers, and conduct training and workshops. But more than any other source, we rely on Indian donors to keep going.
Citizens’ contributions ensure that our 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.
We have a monthly newsletter that goes out to more than 7,000 viewers and contributors at the moment. This keeps them updated on our activities. You can also contribute to us and subscribe to our newsletter here.
How many stories/projects have you done so far? What would you consider your top stories so far? What was the impact of these stories?
GJ: 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.
We brought out the data lying hidden in Supreme Court’s sealed cover on which parties have cornered funds through the secretive Electoral Bonds. The Supreme Court has not heard the case or opened its sealed envelope for more than two years but we were able to show how BJP got nearly 70% of all the funds through the scheme while other political parties have got a pittance.
Our reporters exposed how the government had used flawed data to discredit WHO’s projections of Covid-related deaths in India.
Our persistent follow up on a Rs 4,600 crore scam in supply of pulses to Indian armed forces and the poor finally made the government stop the loopholes that had allowed pulse millers to corner most of the grains and earn super profits.
Before that in a four-part series, we revealed how the government breached the Central bank’s firewall against political influence. The Collective found evidence of the Union government’s attempts at destroying RBI’s independence in setting the monetary policy from documents accessed through Right to Information. The 3-part series was published in Al Jazeera.
The Collective recently investigated how Facebook’s advertising platform undercut political competition in India by giving a leg-up to the ruling BJP in election campaigns. We collaborated with a researcher of the Persuasion Lab that tracks political ads on Facebook. The four-part series was published in English by Al Jazeera and 7 Indian languages partners.
During the pandemic, The Collective investigated the actual death count that the government instinctively hid to avoid blowback and deny compensation. The Collective began its investigation from the state of Gujarat. Our members tied up with dozens of volunteers and several organisations on ground to dig out death records. We found a catastrophic 2.8 lakh excess deaths during the period that the state govt claimed only 10,000 had died of covid. We worked with experts at Harvard University to analyse the data and publish a scientific research paper. We then partnered with 101 reporters to get death records data through right to information from across India. Our investigation revealed that in the pandemic 3,59,496 more people died than in a normal year in just 3 states where officially only 28,609 died of Covid.
Our investigations have consistently brought out how governments are deploying technology, riding roughshod over democracy and privacy. Our stories revealed how linking India’s national identity database and voter data has helped parties manipulate elections, and exposed the government’s plan to build a 360-degree-surveillance infrastructure to track the lives of all Indians. We scooped a report that claimed hackers planted evidence in the laptop of an activist in the government’s crosshairs to incriminate him. The Collective debuted exposing how the government brought the controversial source of political financing into effect through electoral bonds.
There are many more such reports that can be found here.
Tell us about your Wall of Grief project?
T: The ‘Wall of Grief’ is an online memorial to document the lives lost in India during the Covid-19 pandemic. The broad aim of this project is to visualise the scale of tragedy and provide a cathartic space to lakhs of people who are adjusting to lives without their loved ones.
The project is a collaboration of The Reporters Collective with the National Foundation of India, 101 Reporters and many public-spirited organisations and individuals.
The website has two main rooms. One contains a memorial to people who died. On ‘The Wall of Grief’ people can put up details of their loved ones whom they lost in the pandemic.The other hosts a resource centre with pan-India data on deaths collected under The Wall of Grief project as well as external sources of data on pandemic deaths.
The data repository will be open to all, and is a two-way street. Journalists, researchers, transparency activists, associations can dip into it as well as share with us information on Covid-19 mortality that will keep alive a public-spirited debate.
Several organisations and individuals are contributing to the memorial as a collective space of grief. You can too. If you want to share any information/data for deaths during the pandemic or if you have any query, please reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org
You can visit the website here.
What is TRC’s vision for the next 5 years?
NS & KS: We wish to undertake more structured courses and workshops to share our learnings, skill sets and methods with others. We will be collaborating 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.
Some of our upcoming investigations are going to be multimedia-first. We are enthusiastic about exploring mediums such as animation. We also wish 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.
In the long-run, we want to establish a full-scope collaborative newsroom that can report and investigate across a spectrum of issues that impact 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.
Interview edited by Anoop George Philip.