For The Love Of The Story: Barkha Dutt, Founder-Editor, Mojo Story The acclaimed Indian journalist discusses taking on an entrepreneurial persona as the Founder-Editor of Mojo Story.
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As a journalist who hails from India, I couldn't help but feel starstruck when I found myself face-to-face with Barkha Dutt, one of my native nation's foremost broadcast media personalities, on the sidelines of her participation in this year's Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in February in the UAE. I was a teenager when I first witnessed Dutt's prowess as she reported for Indian news media company NDTV from the frontlines of the Kargil War between India and Pakistan in 1999. And my respect and admiration for her has only grown in the years since, be it with her reportage on everything from the 26/11 terrorist attacks in Mumbai in 2008, to more recently the COVID-19 crisis that hit India in 2020. Today, Dutt is able to boast of a journalism career that has spanned more than 20 years, and has seen her win more than 50 national and international awards, including India's fourth highest civilian honor, the Padma Shri.
All of this should be enough to understand my awe when meeting this legendary journalist in Dubai, but I had to also keep reminding myself to put my fan moment aside, because I was there, on behalf of Entrepreneur Middle East, to interview Dutt in her role as the Founder-Editor of Mojo Story, an independent digital media platform that she had launched in India in 2019. To her credit, Dutt didn't miss a beat- as soon as we sat down to chat with each other, she leaned forward to tell me the three words a journalist would love to hear from whoever they are interviewing. "Ask me anything," she tells me- and that's exactly what I do in the 20 or so minutes I had with her.
My first question was focused on Dutt's reasons for launching Mojo Story- after all, she had spent more than two decades at NDTV when she left the enterprise in 2017, and one couldn't help but wonder why she'd leave all of the luxury and comfort she had there, to take on all of the entrepreneurial pains of starting something new from the ground up. "Mojo means magic, and I felt that I wanted to reclaim the magic of storytelling that I felt was diminishing in television as it was evolving in India," Dutt replies. "Television had become very loud, very talk-oriented. When it was talk-oriented, the conversations weren't meaningful. The emphasis was on the sound bite; the emphasis was on getting people to face off with each other. There was very little reporting, even in big newsrooms- money was not being used in sending people out. And then, frankly and finally, I felt that it was a 'now or never' moment for me in making the difference between being an employee and an entrepreneur, and I wanted to own my own corner of the sky. I felt that technology was moving, people were moving towards consumption on their phones, and I didn't want to be behind the curve. So, it was either me making up my mind and saying, okay, TV, with all its flaws, is what I'm going to do for pretty much the rest of my life, or jump, take a leap into the deep unknown- [I told myself ] you've often done that in your reporting; now, do it at the other end of it. And so was born Mojo Story."
Mojo Story Founder-Editor Barkha Dutt in conversation with The National Assistant Editor in Chief Mustafa Alrawi at the 2023 Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in February in the UAE. Source: Emirates Airline Festival of Literature
Dutt didn't know it then, but she had launched Mojo Story just three months before the coronavirus pandemic hit the world at large in 2020, and the ensuing COVID-19 crisis' effects in India would form the crux of the venture's reportage for the next two or so years. It all started, however, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi initiating in India what has since become known as the world's largest lockdown in response to the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic. That's when Dutt got into her car with three other Mojo Story personnel to report on how all of what was happening in India was affecting people on the ground in the country. And there were stories aplenty to be told- for instance, there were those of the migrant workers, who, after losing their livelihoods in the cities they worked in as a result of the lockdown, had to travel hundreds of kilometers (many by foot) back to their homes in their villages. There were also tales to be told of the beleaguered healthcare workers across the nation (many of whom lost their lives in the line of duty), or those of the gravediggers who, in their attempts to give victims of the COVID-19 virus dignity in death, had to prepare and dig graves with their own hands. All of these stories and more found an outlet in Mojo Story through its YouTube channel (@mojostory) and associated social media channels, and Dutt led the charge as she traversed across the length and breadth of the country to build these reports- note here that this was a journey of more than 30,000 kilometers, spread over the course of over 120 days, all of which was done amid the first wave of the pandemic in India.
The devastation that the COVID-19 crisis wrecked on India is now fairly well-documented, but in those early days, Dutt remembers that Mojo Story was among the few media entities on the ground reporting on the tragedy that was unfolding. Dutt herself went on to cover the coronavirus pandemic in India for the next two years (and counting), with her stories highlighting everything from the shortage of beds in the intensive care units (ICU) of hospitals, to the difficulties in finding funeral sites for victims of the COVID-19 disease. In this period, she also found herself being personally affected by the issues she was throwing the spotlight on when her father fell victim to -and later died from- COVID-19. She recounts this heart-wrenching experience in her book, To Hell and Back: Humans of COVID, which was published by Juggernaut Books in 2022- here's an excerpt: "As I travelled from the villages of Uttar Pradesh to the paddy fields of Kerala, from the mountains of Ladakh to the bastis of Mumbai, from the graves of the Ganga in Varanasi in which corpses floated, to documenting the pile-up of abandoned COVID bodies buried in the sandbanks of Prayagraj, one day, in April 2021, I became the news I was reporting. My father died from COVID, and in the fight to get him an ICU bed, an ambulance, an oxygen cylinder -and later, space at a crematorium- I literally became the same story I had chronicled."
The day Dutt cremated her father was also when she found out that she had -for the first time-contracted the COVID-19 virus. Dutt remembers staying in her basement, not knowing what to do with her grief, and so, she recalls, "I worked right through it." There's visceral proof of this in an op-ed she published for The Washington Post only a few days after her father's death- "I am haunted by unrelenting sorrow and doubts about what I could have done differently," she wrote in it. Dutt goes on to tell me that To Hell and Back -her second book after This Unquiet Land: Stories from India's Fault Lines- was also a way for her to process and deal with this loss that she had personally incurred, as well as everything else she had borne witness to. "The book was part of acknowledging everything I had seen and felt, but postponed feeling," she says. "The book was part of acknowledging my father and his role in bringing me and my sister up as a single father. (My mother died when I was 13; she was also a journalist.) And so, the book is not [just] about COVID. I would say the book is about India, the book is partly about me, the book is partly about media, [and] it's [also] about the people I met. It's about looking for hope in the midst of some of our bleakest times."
To Hell And Back: Humans Of COVID by Barkha Dutt.
In her book, Dutt declares the COVID-19 crisis in India to have been "the biggest news story" in her lifetime, and as if tackling that as a journalist weren't enough, it's worth noting that she was also then simultaneously embarking on her entrepreneurial career. Dutt readily admits that being the Founder- Editor of Mojo Story hasn't been a cakewalk. "I'm not going to lie and tell you that it's all been rosy," Dutt says. "That would just be an absolute lie. It's been very difficult at times; it's been very lonely and isolating at times. There are times when you ask yourself, 'Why did you do this?'"
While Dutt agrees that every entrepreneur out there must have had moments like these, the fact that she's running a business in the media industry means that she has to tackle challenges unique to it as well. For one, the manner in which people consume (and react to) media has changed by leaps and bounds, and Dutt had to make sure these variations were taken into account when building Mojo Story's offering. And while there was definitely a lot of learning through the process, Dutt acknowledges that there was also a fair bit of unlearning for her to do owing to her background in television journalism. "For example, I do a primetime show every evening called Bottomline with Barkha," she explains. "For that show, on television, I would've needed at least a 15- or 16-person crew, and, today, I do it with two people."
When Mojo Story started out in late 2019, Dutt remembers its YouTube channel having only around 30,000 subscribers; today, that number stands at 906,000. Dutt tells me that the company has a team of 21 people now, and when it comes to the matter of funds, she explains that Mojo Story currently has a few different sources of revenue. The first is from YouTube itself- besides being a monetized channel on the platform, Dutt points out that Mojo Story is now an official YouTube Partner channel, and that allows it to competitively bid for money from the enterprise as well. "We also have foundation grants that fund public interest journalism, [plus,] we have some high-net-worth individuals who've decided to put money to back this kind of content," Dutt continues. "We are also starting paid subscriptions, and while we will not paywall anything, we will have extra perks or extra features for those who do become our paid subscribers."
Mojo Story is also in the business of events- one of its offerings in this space is the very popular We The Women, which is described as "a community and space for women and their unfettered freedom," and is in its fifth year now. "We also do production- for example, we've designed public service video campaigns on public health messaging, and so, we have clients in that space," Dutt adds. "And we are hoping very much to get into the long-form production- movies, documentaries, etc. So, I think the way I'm seeing Mojo Story is not like a news channel; I'm seeing it as a content storytelling platform that will interface with different kinds of mediums and storytelling formats."
Barkha Dutt, Founder-Editor of Mojo Story, with Entrepreneur Middle East Editor in Chief Aby Sam Thomas at the 2023 Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in February in the UAE. Source: Entrepreneur Middle East.
With such aspirations in the picture, Dutt is clearly thinking big when it comes to the future of Mojo Story, and so, I ask her, if, despite the challenging road she has had, the entrepreneurial journey she has embarked on has been worth it. "I guess the honest answer would be that there have been really bad days, and then there have been really brilliant days, and it's been a rollercoaster ride, but it's one that I've never regretted," Dutt replies. "I'm very proud of what we've created. A lot of people told me, why don't you just do a 'Barkha.com,' you're the personality that's driving this, and I was like, I might be the personality that's driving this, but I have to build something that builds a team. I have to build a product that's beyond me. Many people have gone the way of individual-centric YouTube channels, and I'm not doing that. We are creating new personalities, we're creating new properties, we have a team of more than 20 people now, we are hiring a few more, and so, I think, all in all, I would say I'm proud of what we've done, but it hasn't been without its terrible days."
And powering Dutt through all of what the entrepreneurial journey throws at her is a drive to prove that she can build a venture that stands the test of time. "I think that every entrepreneur -or every employed person who wants to become an entrepreneur- would've been told, at some point, that they're taking a risk," Dutt notes. "They'd have been asked, 'Why would you leave your safety net?' And I think what keeps me going right now is the challenge of proving that we can make something special out of Mojo Story, and that it can prove that you can build something beyond an individual." At this point, I ask Dutt for tips she'd give her fellow entrepreneurs, and she replies, "My advice for entrepreneurs is [to know that] nothing is too small for you to do and learn as the owner of your company. I may have 23 years of journalism experience, and I may be an award-winning journalist, but if I have to pick up my lights and set them up myself, I will. If I have to learn how to design the graphic myself, I will, and I do. If I have to learn to edit by myself, I will. Nothing is beneath you. In fact, I think the best kind of leadership is show, don't tell. And I always think that if you can show that you can do it, you'd be a much better leader, and a much better entrepreneur."
But given all of the success that Dutt has experienced in her journalism career so far, one might wonder what is it that gets her to do what she does today, and to that, she replies that her motivation remains the same as it was when she started working in this field. "It's honestly the same impulse that sent me to Kargil in 1999, to report from the frontlines [of the war] between India and Pakistan," Dutt declares. "It's the same impulse that took me out on the streets during the COVID-19 crisis. I love reporting, and I love telling a story powerfully as much as I did 23 years ago. That passion has not dimmed one tiny bit, and if I were to bookend my life thus far, which doesn't mean that I'm in putting my boots up, but so far, if I were to bookend my life from Kargil to COVID, it is the same person. It's the person who can't, in a way, remain inside a studio if there's something enormous happening out there- I'm not saying I don't do any studio work; of course, no one can be out there permanently. But every time there's something cataclysmic or enormous in the life of a nation, or even in the life of the world, I feel like I can't be sitting behind a table telling this story. I genuinely love nothing more than to be out there reporting."