FUTURE OF NEWS By 2030, if not sooner, print in Nepal will sell only as an artifact.
In my last column (Media Are Asian, Dec 5) I suggested that there are now credible assessments showing that the American media are in a decline and increasingly Asian media are emerging as major players on the world stage.
The buoyancy of Asian print industry and the rise of online media point to the region’s potential for growth and consolidation in the future. However, Asian media’s increasing edge has been acknowledged more for improved business prospects than for quality of journalism. Both India and China have been plagued recently by an excessively market-driven journalism.
For many in Nepal, this debate over quantity vs quality of media does not sound unfamiliar. Sure, some will be quick to acknowledge our media’s hallowed role in reinstating democracy via political activism, or heralding federalism. Others may rightfully take pride in the expansion of print as well as broadcast (radio) outlets. But soon, they unequivocally shift their focus to the many ills that plague our media.
Predictably, these critics often charge that overall our media are partisan and biased; they are shoddy and shallow in their journalism, utterly source- and market-driven, and self-serving. They see these media today playing lapdogs to various interest groups, and the audience being shortchanged by content recycled from other media (mostly the Internet), and by propaganda presented as news.
Besides the form of content, the owners’ or publishers’ motives are held suspect. A newspaper editor recently confided that publishers are generally apathetic to news professionals´ concerns mainly because economic logic reigns over editorial rigor or independence. Rather than hiring or retaining skilled reporters, they often capitalize on yet another new batch of rookies who cost them less.
And, finally, audience perceptions often serve as clear indicators of media quality in a democracy. In a couple of recent surveys, the public perceived the media to be the most credible sector among public institutions including the government and the courts. However, assessed against itself, the institution of media was found to be deficient in research, verification, language quality, balance, independence, etc.
In spite of these perceptions, it is still not clear in our literature what constitutes media quality in Nepal. A shared understanding is lacking, although generally it includes several of the concepts discussed above as well as universal access to information, freedom of press and speech, and professional development.
In practice, priorities vary. The government’s Long-term Policy of Information and Communication Sector 2059 (2003) emphasizes socio-economic development, identifying the media sector as “indispensable” for economic prosperity and social progress. There is no record of an individual media outlet laying out its journalism policy for the public to see or to assess performance against stated standards.
Despite these shortcomings, the media sector is expanding fast, hand in hand with the extraordinary political and socio-economic changes in the past two decades. Only a decade ago, investments were meager. Currently, official figures show that investment in the media sector totals Rs 1.8 billion, dispersed among 1,961 media related registered companies (Tikaswari Rai, September 21, nepalmonitor.com).
A revolutionary feature of Nepal’s media development is the expansion of radio broadcasting, a remarkable achievement even at the Asian or world sphere. The frequency modulation (FM) community-based broadcasting has a wide coverage, with around 327 FM radio stations currently operating across the country.
Another globally outstanding feature of Nepal relates to our new media (mobile telephony and Internet) use habits. Nepalis have proven repeatedly that they are one of the most digitally active citizens of the world. This has been demonstrated by our triumphant participation in a series of globally competitive online voting campaigns in recent years. Are we that public-spirited? This question offers media anthropologists the opportunity to undertake some ground-breaking studies on media use habits.
Other undeniably remarkable achievements include freedom of the press that we regained, adoption of new technologies, both hardware and software, and the progress made in formal media education. New technologies have helped spruce up the forms our media products, in print or online. More than 200 journalism and media-related programs in high schools and colleges are already nurturing the next generation of media-wise citizens.
While our neighbors China and India may increasingly embody the future of news, let’s not forget the positives of our media landscape on a practical level. Our emerging media paradigm may echo regional trends, profit-making may increasingly trump change-making, or news-making, but the fact remains that the contours of our emerging media structure already reflect a rich and complex intertwining of local, provincial, regional and international cultural systems.
A long-term vision offers clear perspectives. Diversity in terms of languages, ethnicities, and cultural practices in a polyglot, secularizing and federalizing nation will define a largely plural and hybrid mediascape. Until we achieve high rates of literacy, full access to mobile, internet and other new media (which will happen in over a decade), quality will be overlooked. Mediocrity is a mutually self-serving condition for the largely uneducated or illiterate audience and a profit-driven media system that aims for the common denominator.
Assuming that in the next two decades we will (continue to) have a democratic system or a market-economy with media freedoms intact for pluralism and diversity, we can foresee the emergence of a more self-referential society, accelerated by ease of access and personalized applications catering to individual tastes.
The social, legal, organizational and individual boundaries of media practices will expand mainly as a result of indigenous adaptations of new technologies, including the development of local applications, standardizing digital broadcasting, launching Nepal’s own communication satellite in orbit, etc. Look out also for the emergence of new media barons who produce more than just news content.
Another is the viability of establishing transnational media corporations in Nepal. Already we can see some small initiatives by mainstream media in the Gulf region. More such outlets could simultaneously serve audiences in India, Bhutan, Myanmar, Tibet, Hong Kong and other disaporas around the world.
With proper legislation and private sector investment, Kathmandu could emerge as a regional media capital. A truly South Asian news channel (like the Al-Jazeera brand from the Doha) is long overdue. As a neutral territory for the region with the SAARC headquarters, we offer an ideal location. This will not only enhance Nepal’s image internationally, but also help stimulate the media sector, promote innovation and leadership in the news business, and create jobs locally.
Regional media hubs like Hong Kong, Singapore and Manila have shown that industry’s expansion and growth goes hand in hand with research, academic practices and innovation. With a little vision and planning, and by establishing some centers of incubation, we can expect that in the long run our media institutions and academia could promote excellence regionally.
By 2030, if not sooner, print in Nepal will sell only as an artifact. Nepal’s indigenous digital path can perhaps be rooted on a “Participation Model” informed by our deeply held habits of the mind and the mouse. If participation is in our DNA, then perhaps this is where our focus must be in defining not only a high quality journalism of the future but also ensuring a steady flow of the needed revenues to subsist in the business. Simply put, our next big question should be: What kind of news makes people grant that “Nepali-style” digital participation?
In a federal set up in the future, media legislation, especially concerning ownership, association, jurisdiction, subsidies, prohibitions and control of broadcast and online media will be worked out, reconciling provincial and local needs with national concerns. The interlocking of media structures will be a complex process, requiring us to re-examine our inter-state and international ties.