In conversation with Karla Bookman, Founder of India’s most disruptive independent publication, The Swaddle. We talk about the future of independent media, what happens when women take the reins on storytelling and how the COVID-19 pandemic is forcing us all to pay attention to health and social justice issues.
What led you to start The Swaddle? What has your journey into publishing looked like?
This journey is really the tale of two almost completely different businesses. I first started The Swaddle for it to be a static digital resource for women’s health issues, with a focus on maternal, sexual, and mental health. As a woman living in India, I felt we weren’t getting access to the resources we need because of the stigma and taboo surrounding women’s health.
It quickly became clear to me that when you lay out objective information, you’re not actually working to challenge and change the status quo. Two years ago, we changed course, and became a multimedia publication, very much rooted in the principles that transparency and inclusivity can change a lot of the social biases and taboos that pervade our cultures. But I wanted it to be a publication with a very strong point of view. I don’t subscribe to the traditional notion that journalism has to pretend to be objective; we have to accept that our own experiences, backgrounds, and perspectives deeply influence the stories we choose to tell and how we tell them. The Swaddle is a publication where we are telling different stories, through a different lens, in an effort to reshape some of the traditional narratives.
What are some of the challenges you faced as you built the The Swaddle?
When I first started pitching to corporates for sponsorships, people would say, “Oh but this is for women — it’s too niche.” I reject the notion that reframing the narratives we read, to make them more equitable, is somehow a niche endeavour. The issues we cover impact everyone, and should be important and interesting to everyone.
I’ve also heard the critique, from well-meaning people, that what we do is somehow not light or fun enough, or that it requires too much work or discomfort to engage with. To that I say: we don’t exist to make you comfortable. The reason The Swaddle exists is to get you out of your comfort zone, to challenge your assumptions, to push you to think differently about deeply held assumptions or biases.
Our ultimate goal is to make viewing the world through a social justice lens entirely mainstream.
I love that about The Swaddle, it personally gives me hope, as a woman and writer, myself, who believes in provoking through this space of discomfort, I think the work you do is necessary and for India, new. It’s not uncommon to be one of the few women in the room, watching silently as two men take over the conversation. I have trained myself to take up space. I’m curious to hear how conversations go, in your editor’s meetings where it’s just women in the room.
I think the situation that you described happens not just in media, but in most workplaces around the world. Because of gender bias, women don’t get promoted as much, we don’t get pay raises at the same rates as men. Or because women drop out of the workforce, usually because of family or social pressure, less women are rising up to the upper ranks of these organisations than men, meaning that frequently, the people guiding strategy and making decisions are men.
Why is it relevant that we have an all-woman newsroom? Well, as women, we have all experienced being sidelined at some point. When we say that other people need to have an opportunity to frame the narrative, what we mean is not that our content is necessarily about women. It’s that when someone has experienced being sidelined or marginalised, they are automatically more sensitive to presenting that marginalized perspective, or giving someone else an opportunity to tell their story. A small sliver of people (your average privileged man) has had a monopoly over the narrative for too long, and we think it’s important to see the world through other perspectives. Those are the narratives we present.
In India, independent media is a challenging space to be in, globally, media companies are struggling, we’re having a moment. How do you maintain that independence?
We’ve been self-funded because editorial independence has been absolutely paramount to me; I didn’t want to be asked to compromise on my vision before we established ourselves as a media company with a unique voice. But the downside to that is that we’ve always run on a shoe-string budget. But in a downturn like right now, that gives us two advantages: 1) we don’t have a bloated team. 2) We’ve learned to be resourceful and scrappy; we’ve learned to do more with less.
What advice would you give to someone else trying to go independent?
People shouldn’t get into digital media unless they have a point of view and the patience to stick with it for a long time.
I’ll tell you what advice I wouldn’t give: do exactly what everyone else has done before you. I’ll give you a great example of this. Over the years, I’ve gone to so many digital media experts to listen and learn. And so many have given me the same advice: “Do more Bollywood, that’s what gets the eyeballs.”
But to disrupt an existing and institutionalized media ecosystem, you can’t follow the same roadmap as everyone else. I trust our audience to recognize that authenticity and value the originality of what we’re trying to do.
Has the pandemic changed your approach as a publication in terms of how you engage with your audience?
At our core, we’re a women’s health publication. People are paying attention to health journalism more because of COVID-19. But also, globally and in India, we’re beginning to understand how deeply social inequality affects health. People are dying at higher rates when they come from marginalized backgrounds, because they’re eating less healthy food, or because they have less access to healthcare overall. This intersection between health and social justice is becoming much more sharpened in people’s minds. People maybe get what we do now, in a way they didn’t before.
How do you think the pandemic has changed how we work in general in the Media world?
We’re a digital business, so we don’t struggle because in person presence is not required for us. As a small independent business, it’s acted as a leveller between us and the bigger media companies. Everyone’s doing these interviews from their homes. Now our bootstraped production looks the same as what’s coming from a bigger media house.
Yeah, you’re adaptable so you have the advantage whereas a bigger media house doesn’t necessarily know how to adapt to fewer resources.
Do you think this moment from an Indian audience’s perspective, will encourage more independent journalism publications?
Hmm, I think the desire for independent media will increase, but in this economic environment, I don’t know if it’s possible. Indian media is heavily consolidated into a few very powerful media houses. The smaller ones will have a very hard time. I’m concerned about independent media both in India and beyond. Publishers may end up under pressure and doing things that are most commercially viable in the short term, which are not always synonymous with what’s best strategically.
That said, this situation will force everyone in the business to get creative, and we may ultimately end up with new business models that are more equitable and sustainable.
For people who are tied to this mission, and want to spearhead this revolution and change. How can you or a publication or people in this space, help build a collective and support each other and make independent voices heard?
To my knowledge, a formal collective like that doesn’t exist yet. But we need to recognize there is elitism within the journalism and creative community. The people who have already established themselves will be fine, because they have institutional power and their voices are amplified. It falls on these people to lift younger or marginalised voices.
It seems like a small thing, but supporting independent platforms by forwarding, sharing and spreading the work of independent writers and artists helps. When people support our values as an independent media company, or those of independent voices, it makes a big difference.
Thank you for speaking with us Karla, support The Swaddle, support women, support independent journalism, support independent writers and voices and demand challenging narratives that are behind your values. We have the power to change the landscape.