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June 13, 2024, 12:44 p.m.
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How Newslaundry worked with its users to make its journalism more accessible

“If you’re doing it, do it properly. Don’t just add a few widgets, or overlay products and embeds, and call yourself accessible.”

In 2022, a subscriber wrote to the Indian news outlet Newslaundry. He said that he paid for his subscription, but was also blind, and found it unfair that he wasn’t always able to access it in a way that worked for him.

Another user reached out to saying she was preparing for exams and needed to use Newslaundry content in her studying, but found it inaccessible.

Those messages led Newslaundry’s director of product and revenue Chitranshu Tewari to start researching accessibility best practices. After nearly two years of development and product testing, and with some funding from the Google Innovation Challenge, the outlet launched NewsAble, a slate of features to make its journalism more accessible to users with disabilities.

“Because India is such a young country, a lot of the disabled population is young,” Tewari said. “The expectations of people who are disabled now is very different because they use the internet, compared to 20 years ago. They’re using screen reader apps on Apple products, [for example]. Earlier you would need a specific kind of laptop and software and a separate screen reader app on it. You would need to go to a library to access Braille script. The smartphone and the internet have completely changed that.”

Newslaundry is a subscription-based digital news outlet in India that covers politics, policy, and media in text, video, and audio. It first launched as a media critique platform in 2012, because coverage of the news media beat was virtually nonexistent in India at that time, Tewari said. Newslaundry has more than 50,000 paying subscribers (an annual subscription is about $120 a year) and around 8,500 unique users using the new features.

Newslaundry’s name and branding was inspired by dhobis — washermen and women who, in India, collect and wash people’s clothes in large pots where anyone walking by can see their neighbor’s clothes hanging on a line. (The app and browser icon is a clothespin.). They saw themselves, Tewari told me, as the dhobis of Indian media, cleaning up the soiled shirts of the big publications and hanging them out to dry where everyone could see. That’s partly why being accessible was so important for Newslaundry.

The features include: screen reader compatibility for multiple operating systems and story formats (including comics), color filters and contrast themes for easier readability, a special font for dyslexic readers, motion control for readers with ADHD, automatic podcasts transcripts, video subtitles, read-aloud options for text-based stories, voice search, and design-free reader modes. Accessibility features prominently in the Newslaundry app as one of the four main tabs, alongside Home, Podcasts, and Menu.

Digital accessibility is an ongoing development in India. In mid-May, the government amended the Rights of Persons with Disabilities law to require compliance with a list of accessibility standards for websites, communication technology, information sources, and more. Around 1% of India’s population (1.4 billion) has some kind of disability according to official estimates, though the actual number is likely higher, Tewari said.

Accessibility in the Indian news media landscape varies. Some news outlets aren’t accessible at all, Tewari said, while others are semi-accessible, meaning that web pages may technically be screen reader-compatible but ads and pop-ups get in the way. Accessibility, where available, also focuses heavily on text, but not necessarily multimedia products, like podcasts, videos, and illustrations.

As a subscription-based news outlet, Newslaundry relies heavily on reader support. It developed and launched its app in 2023 after asking users if they wanted an app and if they would help pay for it. The answer was yes, to the tune of 1,500,000 Indian rupees (more than $17,000) from over 500 subscribers. At the end of May, Newslaundry won the WAN-IFRA Digital Media award for the Best Digital Innovation Product for its app.

For an accessible Newslaundry — on desktop, mobile, and the app —  Tewari started researching best practices, and found a lot of guidance and inspiration in the BBC’s Johny Cassidy‘s research into making data visualizations accessible for blind users. Then, he and his team surveyed users and held focus groups to zero in on where Newslaundry had to improve its accessibility.

“This was a very different product roadmap and experience because if you are designing a product, you can just put yourself in the user’s shoes, but I couldn’t just do that here,” Tewari said. “We had to go back [to users] for what kind of stuff we should prioritize. In any kind of product design engineering, user research is very important but I think in this case even more so. I don’t think there is any way we could have done this without speaking with users and understanding them.”

Tewari opened the most direct line of communication with users in the testing phases: he gave them his phone number. More than 80 users sent him WhatsApp voice notes describing what they did and didn’t like, what did and didn’t work, and what could be improved.

“A lot of people told me that if you’re doing it, do it properly. Don’t just add a few widgets, or overlay products and embeds, and call yourself accessible,” Tewari said. The most challenging part was making the app and website compatible with screen readers like Apple Voiceover, Google Talkback, NVDA, JAWS, and Windows Narrator.

Since the features launched, screen reader compatibility has been the most used one, followed by podcast transcriptions. But making the outlet accessible isn’t a one-time engineering sprint either. Tewari said it took several meetings and trainings with editors, reporters, and other staff to teach people how to make accessibility part of the daily grind.

“We’ve laid out certain guidelines that if you’re making a new page, for example, [you have to factor in] the color choices,” Tewari said. “One of the things that we are working on right now is disabling autoplay in videos, because that’s a huge issue for disabled users.”

Trainings, updates, and tweaks are ongoing, and the effort is paying off, he said.

“There is a business case for accessibility,” Tewari said. “A lot of people who were not subscribers used the app and subscribed because they were quite happy with how the app is accessible. We’ve also seen success with subscribers because the app is now accessible and they weren’t able to access it before.”

Photo courtesy of Newslaundry

Hanaa' Tameez is a staff writer at Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email (hanaa@niemanlab.org) or Twitter DM (@HanaaTameez).
POSTED     June 13, 2024, 12:44 p.m.
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