A vibrant online community of citizen journalists in Assam reports from remote areas. Citizen journalists regularly reporting for the website are granted identity cards to help cover big events like ministers' visits to their areas.

It is barely four in the afternoon in Guwahati and the gentle winter sun is already preparing to call it a day. But webmaster Babul Gogoi is not finished yet. He has already uploaded over 15 news items on his website, assamtimes.org. These are sent across by people he has trained as citizen journalists in remote areas of Assam. He is hopeful even more news items will be trickling in.

“On a good day, we receive over 25 news items,” he says. Since 2008, Gogoi has been holding workshops to train people from various walks of life in citizen journalism so that they can report news from their areas. He has particularly focussed on those areas of Assam from where reports are scant in newspapers and TV channels based out of the capital city, Guwahati.

“We have now a fleet of 200 such citizen journalists registered with us and are regularly giving us news from areas which do not usually have newspaper and TV correspondents,” says Gogoi. These reporters are directly or indirectly associated with the news they send. “If they tag any news as breaking news, I ensure it is actually so,” he says.

Gogoi and his small team of editors sitting in Guwahati look at the language of the reports, correct spellings, grammar, etc. before uploading them along with the reporter's name, address and a photograph. “We avoid tinkering with their news. We are for free flow of news,” he says. One can use or reproduce the published news for free. “Our news is now regularly picked by papers and channels in Guwahati,” he adds.

Citizen journalists regularly reporting for the website are granted identity cards “to help cover big events like ministers' visits to their areas.” Based on this card, he says with a laugh, “some have been made members of the Guwahati Press Club.”

Gogoi doesn't offer monetary compensation to the citizen journalists. “Many already have a profession and report in their free time. Some, however, have got professional placements because of their association with us.”

Thinking up newer ways to make use of technology, Gogoi had the brainwave to start assamtimes.org in 2007. “As a webmaster for another Assam-based portal, I used to receive a lot of local news besides Assam-related cultural/social news from across the world. So I thought, why not create a site only to publicise local news online.”

Initial contributors included professional journalists and occasional writers. On doing online promotion seeking local news from people, “responses began to pour in.”

Things began to roll when he bagged a fellowship from Foundation for Social Transformation in 2008 to promote citizen journalism and new media in the Northeast. “Under this, I organised my first workshops, 20 of them covering 10 districts of Assam and one in Meghalaya. We publicised about the workshops through mass emails, smses and through local newspapers. I was also assisted by trainers from Panos South Asia and Mahiti Bangalore besides having local journalists at each location as resource persons,” recalls Gogoi.

The workshop content included basics of journalism besides touching upon ethics and best practices, effective use of mobile phones to click photos and caption-writing, emailing, etc. “The participants had an interesting range — students, budding journalists, teachers, wildlife officers, development workers,” he says.

On sensing a demand for such workshops, Gogoi continued even after the fellowship ended. “Besides people in remote areas wanting to learn journalistic skills, I also realised that there is a demand for news from these areas. Otherwise, why would the Press in Guwahati pick our news? I feel our reporters are bridging an important gap between where they are and where the seat of power is,” points out Gogoi.

About the future, he plans to print an annual journal with articles on new ideas to address some issues relating to the Northeast. “The target readers will be policymakers, bureaucrats, ministers, academics, politicians, development workers, journalists and research students.”