Left to right: Sruthin Lal, Nidheesh MK, Nevin Thomas and Amal Sathyan

Credit: Happy Aano Instagram

During an election campaign, journalists quiz politicians and the public about a million and one things. One question that is not often asked is: "Are you happy?"

But that is how four Indian journalists in Kerala chose to cover their local state election last month. The news project 'Happy Aano', which means "are you happy" in the local tongue Malayalam, used this question to elicit wider social commentary.

"Sometimes we just talk to politicians and businessmen about what the issues are," says Nevin Thomas, the video journalist on the project. "But that’s not the real concern for some people."

Inspired in part by the 1960s documentary 'Chronicle of a Summer' by Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin, which looked at the everyday lives of Parisians, Happy Aano decided to examine the state election through the eyes of voters, but with a twist. The crew went on a road trip and produced a series of social-first videos posted to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube, using a mixture of mobile phone and professional camera equipment, including two Sony Alpha a7iii mirrorless cameras, gimbals, iPhones, Rode microphones and Zoom recorders.

Founder of the project and journalist Nidheesh MK teamed up, at first, with Thomas, and fellow journalist Sruthin Lal. A fourth member, Amal Sathyan, joined later.

None of the journalists were employed by a media organisation when the election season came around. This meant the trip was self-funded but they were also unshackled from reporting conventions.

"The mainstream media demands you cover [elections] in a certain way; in a way that has been seen before and in a way that is palatable for editors," says MK.

He wanted to avoid parachute journalism that sees reporters nip in and out of a region covering the event without fully understanding local concerns. The team covered 14 local districts in the space of three weeks, stopping to ask people the simple but personal question: are they happy with the state of affairs in their local community?

This meant they were delivering stories that would normally go under the radar in election season, like why tea plantation workers are not interested in voting. Plus, their coverage on coastal community issues prompted wider media attention from Reuters.

"There’s a lot of marginalised sections in this state who do not care at all about the political parties or the media," says Lal. "We came across many communities who were in the peripheries and their issues are just not heard.

"Many such communities are out there and this kind of reporting has a lot of potential to go even further and bring their voices out."

Lal is no stranger to road trips; he embarked on a similar project back in October 2020 documenting India’s migrant crisis with a colleague using bicycles and mobile phones.

Happy Aano had also set up co-publishing agreements with other newsrooms to give their content a wider reach. Initially, this was done with digital news platform The News Minute, then mobile-first platform Quint and news website Firstpost followed. On their own social platforms, Happy Aano captured some 200,000 views.

Despite their success, the crew just about broke even, so future iterations would need to focus harder on revenue potential. But the team is upbeat about the engagement.

"Our capital is the satisfaction amongst the audience or the feeling that when four guys come together, they can create quality stories," says MK.

We didn't get a single negative comment throughout the trip which is amazing for something as polarising as an election.Nevin Thomas

Future road trips will be similarly pegged to large events and topics, such as the monsoon season and climate change. The team has also learned not to underestimate the workload as editing and uploading the mountain of clips proved too time-consuming. What else could they have done differently?

"Plan," admits Nevin. "It might help, but I also have to accept that because we didn't plan, we stumbled across a lot of stories along the way. That was the beauty of the trip.

"The quality of the videos stand out, and if we look at the comments, we didn't get a single negative comment throughout the trip which is amazing for something as polarising as an election."

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