Devadas Rajaram: Tweeting/Texting News since the 1990s

Devadas Rajaram, the newest addition to the Journalism faculty at AUBG, was among the first people to recognize the potential of technology and social media to advance storytelling. In 1999 he became part of Info2Cell, a Dubai based company that operated in all six countries of the Middle East to provide breaking news via text message.

“Very few people had mobile phones then … I’m talking pre-Facebook, pre-Twitter,” Rajaram said.

For a monthly fee, Info2Cell provided its subscribers with breaking news, sports news, and business news, as well as the latest happenings in show business.

“We got lucky with the war in 2003” Rajaram said. “We started sourcing information from the invasion of Iraq, (…) then the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Israeli invasion of Lebanon.”

One of Rajaram’s jobs was to verify the stories before they got sent out. This was a difficult task, given that he often had to depend on erratic wartime phone lines to access information. With their headquarters located in Dubai, Info2Cell sourced information from their offices in Jordan and Palestine. But most importantly, through a network of bloggers – reliable citizen journalists, who would report news in real time through text messages.

As technology developed, they graduated from text to MMS, which allowed for limited multimedia content. By the time Rajaram moved on from the company in 2006, it had over 110, 000 paid subscribers. That number has grown to 1.5 million.

He began his career in the Middle East in 1995 working for the Emirates News Agency, and print paper Gulf Today, before becoming one of the pioneers of mobile journalism.

In 2006, he relocated to England, where he was a blogger and freelance trainer, working with news organizations like the BBC and Al Jazeera to train journalists in reporting news and even producing documentaries with their phones.

Before moving back to his native India in 2012, he earned a master’s degree in International Multimedia Journalism from Newcastle University.

Once in India, he had a realization.

“Rather than try to change the world alone,” Rajaram said, “you can get into teaching and send out a bunch of people instead of you going out alone.”

He began his teaching career at the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai, India, where he successfully oversaw three batches of trainees.

“I’m very proud of them,” Rajaram said. “They introduce digital age, digital way of thinking into traditional newsrooms in India, which I believe are quite behind us [in the West].”

Based on his experience with both American and British journalism, Rajaram said that in the UK change happens in the newsrooms, whereas in the U.S. it is usually the result of classroom experimentation. He strongly favors the latter, which is what attracted him to the liberal arts style of education at AUBG.

This semester he’s teaching Multimedia Journalism and Social Media Journalism. He believes journalism – particularly in the digital age – is taught through practice, rather than lectures so he tries to organize his classes into labs.

“In America they call it the hospital model of teaching,” Rajaram said. “You can’t teach a doctor from books.”

According to Rajaram, most stories are now broken on social media and the majority of people access news on their mobile devices. His personal Facebook page, he says, is an extension of his classroom.

“What I don’t have a chance to teach them in class, I share with them on my Facebook page, and I like to keep them interacting,” he said.

His students’ current assignment is to report for the Pop-up Newsroom, a collaborative project between 10 universities from Australia to California. On Nov. 4-6, they are tasked with going out to find and produce multimedia stories on the topic of the refugee/migrant crisis. The students will then share those stories on social media with hashtags #refugeespopup and #humanrightspopup.

“I don’t believe in one person talking and 20 people listening,” Rajaram said. “Journalism is a conversation.”

His chief goal is to train his students to be able to tell stories in a variety of ways on a multitude of platforms so that they’re ready to take on real world responsibilities once they step out of the university and into a newsroom.

Story by Ana Devdariani
Photography by Ana Devdariani

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