A: I’m Aryan
Ar: and I’m Arshika
A: So, can we start?
Rahul: Yeah, sure.
Ar: Yeah, so first of all a very Happy Birthday in advance!
Rahul: Thank You.
Ar: So, What was the inspiration behind “Faking News”? I mean, the concept of raising social and political issues in a satirical form has been done before but this is a new format and not something many people venture into.
Ar: Did you ever grapple with fear or uncertainty that people might not be receptive towards the idea of Fake News?
Rahul: Yeah, that’s right. As you rightly said, satire in itself is not a new genre in India. In Fact, even news satire is not a new thing that I suddenly discovered. Literally, [it has been around] for hundreds of years – Mark Twain was one of the earliest ones to write satire – and in India also we had a lot of political satire. I come from a Hindi speaking belt which includes writers like Shree Lal Shankar, Hari Shankar. So, they are absolutely wonderful satirists. But, as you rightly pointed out that news satire – the format that you write news in a daily manner, almost like a news website – frankly, even that was not novel. I mean, Onion.com which is the US news satire website existed and I long wondered that if something like the Onion can do well in the US, then in India we are a far more plural country, we are a far more “newsy” country, you know? Every minute there is some breaking news, you know. So, yeah , your question was whether people would be receptive that obviously even I was not sure about, which is why I started writing anonymously, so that even when I ask my friends, and I would actually do that, I would show them the links of Faking News which I had written and I would tell them that somebody is writing them and “How do you find them?”. So, I would start measuring receptiveness among my immediate circle without telling them that I’m writing it. So they would give me very honest feedback because they wouldn’t know that I’m doing it. So once I discovered that it’s being receptive in this closed group, then perhaps it will be receptive in a larger group also and I – if you start catering to the topics or you know points which interest a larger audience. And that’s how you know it worked, so yeah, to answer your question shortly I was definitely … a little fear was there whether it may work or not but I worked for that you know. And writing anonymously was basically a strategy to measure receptiveness.
A: Sir, “Faking News” started a blog.
A: But it eventually moved to a satire news website. So did you intend the “Faking News” blog to always become a website or did it just happen?
Rahul: Both, actually. I would be lying if I say that I never intended to commercially exploit it, you know. Because, if I didn’t want to do it commercially, then why did I have a “.com” in the end, right? I could have written it on a RahulRoushan.blogspot.in as well or a pseudoname.blogspot.wordpress. So, when I booked the domain name I definitely I thought that “The Onion” is doing well in the US and if they have a business model perhaps the same could happen over here as well.
A: Domain-picking was indeed a huge thing back then, eh?
Rahul: Yeah, it was. As I said, it was very impulsive but at the same time, it was also because I had booked the domain name “.com” it was definitely on my plan that if it works I’m going to make it commercial.
A: Oh, so, could you tell us something about how you transitioned a blog to a commercial website?
Rahul: So, first thing was obviously me getting sure that there is demand for it. Because the talk was already getting too long, so I forgot to tell that I started it somewhere in September 2008. In 2009, for a couple of months, I had almost stopped writing because I was doing a small project with a news channel around IPL. 2009 was the first IPL I think or second IPL or whatever. In the same duration, a blogger called “Fake IPL Player” had appeared. So many people used to wonder if I am “Fake IPL player” because I had stopped writing on “Faking News” and this new thing had come in. So yeah, the reason why I told you this is because once I stopped writing and people started querying where I have gone, what I have been doing, so I realised that there is demand. You know, because for any commercial thing to sell anything there has to be a demand. So, in those two months, I realised that there is demand for “Faking News”. And that’s when I decided that I will do it more professionally even though it was a “.com”, you are very right that the appearance and the approach were very “bloggish”. So, in 2009 , I redesigned it because of my earlier venture that in the stock exchange I could understand a little bit about how websites are run and all that and I could do it on my own. So I redesigned it, I started getting more people involved, I started, you know, soliciting contributions because you cannot be a company or venture on your own. You need a team. So, those were the things that I did to venture it, change it, from a simple blog to a proper commercial website.
A: So what were the initial services that you employed?
Rahul: GoogleAdspace only. In fact, I wouldn’t do anything because my initial focus was never on monetisation. Mostly because I was alone also, you know, it was a one-man show being run. So, my entire focus was to get the product right, that is, the writing right, because I had written satire earlier as well. So it was mostly … I never focussed on it. Once I was … commercially it started, not exactly commercially but when I gave it a commercial form, and it started doing well then GoogleAdspace was only what I was using. I could have tried other tools, but frankly, they are not that great. The ones that really started paying me so that it can become a venture was branded content, basically advertorials. And we would always run that this is a sponsored article. So if a new product is coming or some brand wants to talk about an ad and amplify it through well satirical articles, we would do that, and that gave us good money. So, we had GoogleAdspace, we had branded content and these are … and then we had first party banner ads also. Through some contacts, I could reach people that would be willing to give first party ads so I don’t have to go through an ad network and in that way you are far better than AdSpace. So, these were the tools employed.
Ar: Okay, so talking about writing, there’s this age-old dilemma that an eye-catching article with a good heading will attract a lot of readership. But on the other hand, if there’s a heading that is not as eye-catching at a glance but better serves the content, it helps to justify that article. So, what is your view? Should a heading be eye-catching or click-bait or should it help justify the content better?
Rahul: No, because … I won’t really say the end justifies the means but you do need… your headlines shouldn’t be misleading, that’s for sure. But it definitely should be eye-catching because especially in the modern times when people have a ten-second attention span, very short, you do need to catch their retention and there is oversupply – a bombardment – of content. So, definitely, in the current scenario, headlines are very important and not only currently, in fact, I would claim and people who have “Faking News” can definitely say that my USP was my headlines actually. So, the first thing that I would write would be the headline and then I would build the story. I mean, obviously I had the luxury of creating content so I can do that but often you know even if you are in serious journalism, you have to think of a headline that’s catchy, that can attract attention. You cannot assume that the readers are captive, that you can assume that you can write a literary headline and people would read it. Unless you are a campus magazine, where the readers actually are captive. Very difficult these days to have a captive audience, so the headlines are definitely crucial.
A: Has “Faking News” faced any criticism from media or officials?
Rahul: Yeah, it had offended almost everyone. So, there have been supporters of leaders, political parties, almost across every party, who had written that this is defamatory or objectionable. You should remove it. On occasions, some religious people or cast sentiments get hurt and especially, when we started commercialising it and we were in touch with different companies there is a lot of pressure from companies as well that when you make fun of any product or any brand many companies are very sensitive about it. They try to argue that we won’t give you ads or sponsored content. So, in that sense obviously, all kinds of people … no one has seriously tried to hurt me, either physically or legally, mostly because ai knew that there is this line that I should not cross and there would be many things that I would want to write but wouldn’t write precisely because most of the times that line would be the legal line and in India, unfortunately, it’s very bad you know. For example, I said that “faking news’ was modelled on the onion which is US-based. Now in the US the first amendment is to protect free speech and in India the first amendment is to curb free speech. So, this is very different. You definitely cannot think that things will be very easy like in others countries like us. So there is that law and constitution that we have to follow.
Interviewers: Aryan Agarwal, Arshika Lalan from DoJMA, BITS Goa
Picture Credits: DoPy, BITS Goa