Of Endings and Beginnings

Pragati ceases to be an online magazine as of today. Thank you for reading.

Beginnings and endings go together. When I wrote my first editorial over two years ago, while relaunching Pragati, I knew a time would come when I would write my last one. This is it. Pragati is winding up as an online magazine today.

The last beginning came after an earlier ending. Pragati began as a magazine in 2007, ran for nine years, and went on a hiatus. It was started by Nitin Pai and run by his Takshashila Institution, and gained a reputation for its expertise on public policy, particularly foreign policy. Nitin asked me to relaunch it in late 2016 – and in deciding what the new Pragati should be, we were responding to a need both of us felt as readers.

Political discourse had become shrill and polarised – as it remains. People had dug themselves into tribal echo chambers, and all sides were shouting past each other. It seemed that in every disagreement, the focus would shift from the argument to the person making it. We felt that there needed to be a space apart from this, where we would shun binaries, embrace nuances, and privilege reason over resentment.

Policies and Ideas, Not Parties and People

Pragati, we decided, would avoid heated chatter about people and parties, and instead focus dispassionately on policies and ideas. We would also broaden our intended audience from those already interested in policy to any intelligent layperson who is curious about the world. We would only do commentary and not reportage. We would come at issues through our prism of individual liberties and foreign policy realism. And we would not have word counts: we believe in readability more than length, and it is the great advantage of this medium that we have the space to go as deep as we wish.

I imagined the site from scratch when we started. We created sections for timeless essays on ideas (Think), timely responses to current affairs (Opinion), leisurely discussions between experts (Brainstorm, such as on Indian agriculture and the nature of our republic), analysis of global affairs (World, with an emphasis on China), 101 explainers on economics, foreign affairs and philosophy through the lens of popular culture, a stimulating weekly quiz, and a section where we highlighted classic essays from the past (Historia, including classics from Ambedkar, Orwell, Hayek and Bastiat.)

I am proud enough of it that I’ve taken a screenshot of how the page looks now:

The Sound of Thought

What I am most pleased with, though, is the fact that we quickly became a platform for podcasts. I brought my personal weekly show, The Seen and the Unseen, which I co-own with IVM Podcasts, onto Pragati. We then kicked off our inhouse show, The Pragati Podcast, hosted now by Pavan Srinath, and earlier by Pavan and Hamsini Hariharan. We added a Hindi podcast, Puliyabaazi. Then a Kannada podcast, Thalé-Haraté. And then a podcast on international affairs, States of Anarchy.

Podcasts aren’t just written words said aloud. For one, a leisurely, discursive conversation can go in unexpected directions, plumbing depths and yielding insights that you would not get from a piece of writing. Secondly, podcasts have a unique use-case, as the lingo goes. An article online competes with everything else, including Netflix and games and television and yada yada yada. But podcasts don’t, because people typically listen to them while doing one of three things: commuting, exercising or doing mundane errands. They are a captive audience, less likely to click on a link or just shift to some other activity. The quality of engagement, thus, is different.

The Pivot

One of the important things that both Takshashila and Pragati set out to do was make complex ideas easy to understand and discuss. So no wonder podcasts excited us. They became the most popular part of Pragati, and it became a logical progression to decide to go all in on audio, and leave aside the whole exercise of the online magazine. That is the direction Takshashila has decided to go in, with the backing of our funders, IPSMF, who have been remarkably supportive throughout this entire period.

“The intention behind Pragati doesn’t change,” said Nitin, when I asked him to clarify this pivot for our readers, “but the format has often done. Since we started the publication in 2007 we have been on the web, distributed in PDF format, had a print run and an iPad edition — almost always being ahead of the curve. The pivot to audio is our latest format, driven by our desire to reach thoughtful people around the world.”

No magazine, no editor or editorial team, so I am also moving on from this role, as is my colleague Hamsini Hariharan. (The two of us were the entire editorial team throughout this period.) We thank all those readers who supported and encouraged us.

My podcast, The Seen and the Unseen, will continue to be on this platform, and will now be supported by the Takshashila Institution. Also, I remain in spirit a part of this family, and Pragati will always have some of my DNA.

I should also say that through the two years I ran Pragati, there was zero editorial interference from either Takshashila or IPSMF. (I would not have been here otherwise.) There was also no pressure on me to tailor our content to maximise traffic. I was clear from the start that given our bipartisan, dispassionate direction, we would do very little that would go viral. Everyone was on board with this; our being a not-for-profit helped.

Online Journalism: Hope and Despair

I often end my podcast by asking my guests what gives them hope and brings them despair about the subject under discussion. I shall answer that question myself about online journalism in India. It gives me great hope that even in these difficult times, when critics of the establishment are reflexively considered anti-national, there are principled outlets doing the job of, as the saying goes, afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted. If anything, online outlets are doing this far better, and more fearlessly, than mainstream media. We are blessed to have organisations like Alt News, Scroll, The Wire, The Print, The Ken, The India Forum and so many others around us. May their tribe increase.

But it worries me that profitability is so elusive for everyone in this space. It is not that readers are unwilling to pay for content. Time is money, and there is a huge opportunity cost to spending time reading articles online. And yet, people do it. Their act of spending that time shows that they value the content – but there is no way for the creator of that content to capture some of that value.

Traditionally, advertising was one way. It no longer works. Subscriptions aren’t there yet – there is the friction of payment, plus the entitlement readers feel of getting everything free on the internet. Voluntary donations don’t cut it yet. This is not a problem of the product not being valued. Readers are spending their valuable time reading because they value it. It is a problem of how to capture that value.

I hope some young disrupter reading this sorts it out. I also think journalists themselves need to go beyond lamentations to thinking about the changed ways in which readers discover, consume and filter content. It is not a problem that we had to worry about at Pragati, as we were a non-profit, and I explicitly chose to follow our editorial direction without looking at traffic. But it is a problem we must solve, not just for the sake of journalism, but for the sake of our democracy.

About the author

Amit Varma

Amit Varma is a writer based in Mumbai. A journalist for a decade-and-a-half, he won the Bastiat Prize for Journalism in 2007 and 2015. He writes the blog India Uncut, and hosts the podcast, The Seen and the Unseen. He is the editor of Pragati.