Monopoly on information

More than ever before, the medium is the message

Us journalists have always believed that informing the public is our job and it is the editors who decide what the public needs to know. 

In the past, the modes for sharing information were limited: when something happened, a reporter would go interview witnesses or experts, write up the story, and news agencies distributed the news. This monopoly over selection, production and dissemination convinced media owners that they owned and controlled content, and defined its price. 

The media business is about mass producing news and getting revenue from subscriptions and advertisements to pay for it. It was any other product and media companies believed the public should pay for news because it cost them to cover it. 

Till recently, we were forced to consume whatever the mainstream media dished out. Gatekeepers at radio, tv and newspapers gave the audience what they thought they wanted, not what they needed.  

This left the media ill-prepared for the Internet era when competition became stiff and audiences had the freedom over format and a global reach. 

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While in a hurry to adopt the next shiny thing, publishers gave away for free what they previously sold. Readers anywhere could access the product, which was regularly updated and more conveniently available on their monitors, free of charge.

Audience habits had changed, but the Nepali media and its business model did not. The new online portals that emerged in the 2000s and 2010s followed the footsteps of legacy publishers, and they are now the legacy media — depending on advertising. 

Most users in Nepal are not paying for online news, many are not even going to new sites, but to YouTube and TikTok entertainment. Publishers rarely know how many are willing to pay or can be persuaded to pay.

While surviving on 100% paywalls, membership or subscriptions is still a far-fetched dream in Nepal, reader revenue can help increase accountability among publishers and, in turn, trust from the audience.

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Much of the digital boom in Nepali media happened alongside Facebook. Which is why many mainstream publishers did not think about establishing themselves as a destination, a homepage to come home to. They relied instead on traffic that Facebook, Twitter and other platforms brought in.

These same platforms allow people to communicate directly and have proven to be good at helping them to share information. They can now easily find what they need without relying on journalists.

But there is much Facebook users need to know beyond what they share among friends. That is where journalism comes in — to report and investigate, add context and explain, to fact check and debunk assumptions.

Recently social media platforms have been weaponised to deface media itself. This week, Twitter in Nepal has been abuzz with a leaked audio clip of a conversation between a noted tv anchor and an interviewee, in which the latter asks when the interview will be aired. The journalist is heard explaining that while the program is ready, the station was still waiting for sponsors. 

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Most comments on the thread attack the anchor, saying this is one more proof that the media is for sale and how news is not aired unless there is money involved. There were some journalists and others who defended the anchor, saying that is how tv functions anyway. But the damage was done. 

Public trust in the media is wavering. A 2022 survey by Sharecast Initiative showed that  for 76% of Nepalis, friends, family and neighbours were the primary source for local news and information: for national and international news it was 50%. Both were followed by Facebook, radio, YouTube and tv.

Media literacy in Nepal is low. Audiences confuse mainstream media for social media, opinion, or unfiltered content for news, and YouTubers for professional journalists. But pushing the accountability towards the audience is not the answer when the question is what can journalists do to change this.

Just when its role in safeguarding democracy and press freedom has become more important than ever before, journalism struggles to survive and retain its relevance. This ends up undermining the independent check-and-balance role of the fourth estate in defending democracy.

All this may look discouraging, but the internet, like all technologies, has always been a double edged sword. The only way out now is to compete with the entertainment-filled social channels and information pages masking as news sites, by focusing both on the content and the medium.

More than ever before, the medium is the message.

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