When the second wave of covid-19 hit the country in March 2021, long-term residents of Kodaikanal had no idea of the situation in their part of the world. “We were all going through something as a community but with little verified information at the local level,” says writer and editor Rajni George, who moved back home to this Tamil Nadu hill town in the Western Ghats from Bengaluru when the pandemic began. “At a very local level, we realised how important this was.”
This triggered the idea for The Kodai Chronicle, a community-run bimonthly publication that aims, according to its website, “to celebrate the diversity of this landscape, explore the challenges that are unique to mountain ecosystems, and inspire a sense of community that encompasses humans as well as the flora and fauna around us”. By May, George, the publication’s editor-in-chief, had put together an editorial team; the pilot issue of The Kodai Chronicle, a digital one, was launched in June. Issue 1 came a month later. In a letter published on The Kodai Chronicle’s website on 6 June 2021, George writes: “We made time to create The Kodai Chronicle even as many certainties shifted around us. Perhaps this made the need to communicate and set things down for posterity even more profound.”
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Given that the Western Ghats are a biodiversity hot spot, the publication has a strong environmental focus, apart from stories on the local communities, culture, food, events, nostalgia—and children. Its website has so far had close to 100,000 visitors from across the country and the world, many of whom have links with Kodaikanal.
In October, on popular demand, it came out with a 32-page, full-colour print edition priced at ₹140, with many of the stories it had used in its digital editions. “It was an eventful and exciting year which surprised us at every turn,” recalls George, who is considering a regular print edition. She is also keen on more reportage in the Tamil language and hopes to pay better salaries and expand gradually to other parts of the Western Ghats and further.
Currently, most of the dozen-strong editorial team gets nominal retainerships of ₹5,000 for each issue, while writers get contributor payments of ₹2,000-10,000; George and the editorial consultant, Nitin Padte, work pro bono. “There is no easy road map. There has never been something like this before,” says George.
That may be true. For, stories about Adivasi residents rub shoulders with those about waste management, elephants, fungi and snakes, the Kodai Music festival, the Virupakshi Hill banana, the pines of Kodaikanal, and summers gone by. As George points out, this is one of the biggest advantages of a hyperlocal publication—it covers ground that no national publication can hope to achieve. “We will be getting to amplify the voices of people who haven’t received this kind of consideration and space before,” she says.
Many of the people writing for The Kodai Chronicle, though not reporters, offer unusual perspectives, often because of a lived experience. Take, for instance, an essay, translated from Tamil, by Murugeshwari, who comes from the Paliyar Adivasi community, which offers an unusual perspective on the pandemic. Or a charming essay written by chef Pratap Chahal on his Kodai food memories.
“It was an eye-opener even for me,” says Sunayana Choudhry, a resident and convenor of the Kodaikanal chapter of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage. “I have been living here for 16 years but there was so much that I didn’t know (about Kodaikanal),” she says.
The Kodai Chronicle even has a section devoted to nostalgia. “We have large groups of people who have lived at Kodai at some point—have moved away—and their connection to this place is strong,” says the publication’s food editor, Neha Sumitran. Bengaluru-based Aneesh Babu, who grew up in Kodaikanal, agrees. “I don’t go home very often but it is always nice to hear about Kodai,” says Babu. “It (The Kodai Chronicle) is a piece of home.”
Nine months in, with four digital issues, one print edition and another, both print and digital, on its way, The Kodai Chronicle’s editorial team, which has been running with the support of friends, family and well-wishers, is moving to make its “pandemic baby” economically viable. As the editor of the newspaper’s environment and wildlife section, Jacob Cherian, points out, it is a difficult time to launch a print publication, particularly from Kodaikanal, which has approximately 35,000 inhabitants and no business house large enough to ensure consistent advertisement revenue. “The traditional media business model would not work here,” says Cherian.
So, they turned to crowdfunding. The campaign, which ran through February, aimed at raising ₹15 lakh, to bring out a bi-monthly print issue, hire a dedicated salesperson, and pay better. “It is a well-practised model of raising funds nowadays,” says Cherian, adding that he has done it frequently as part of his day job—he runs the content and event company TerreGeneration.com, which designed the campaign. “The investor community often says, ‘don’t show me your business plan, show me your crowdfunding campaign,’” he says. “This is an indicator that there is a community behind you.”
The plan worked. The Kodai Chronicle has raised around ₹19.65 lakh, crossing its target and is all set to make the print issue a permanent offering. “We are scaling up...now that we have funding,” says George