Journalism is all about storytelling (and money)Himal Media Mela 2023 continues, delves into good storytelling, digital reader revenues and covering the climate crisis
Bidhya Chapagain left a secure job in journalism in which she has already become a household name in Nepal to venture out to fulfil her passion in journalism -- to give a voice to those who have been deprived of it.
She started her own video production group to go around the country to talk to people whom journalists never bothered to report about. The stories she brought out were so important in shining the light on a Nepal that was invisible to Kathmandu that it became most-seen on YouTube and other social media.
“I was living my journalism dream at the BBC, but as I travelled for work and saw that we were telling the same stories of the same people, I realised that this was not my dream," said Chapagain during her conversation with Rajneesh Bahndari of Nepal Investigative Multimedia Journalism Network (NIMJN) at the HImal Media Mela 2023.
So Chapagain and her colleague Kamal Kumar set out to find those extraordinary stories of ordinary people across Nepal largely ignored by mainstream media. They knew that these stories needed to be told through video since it is the medium most suited to the stories, but also because they had some expertise in it.
Five years down the line, Herne Katha has broadcast 104 episodes and is one of the most popular and credible Nepali shows known for bringing impactful and extraordinary stories from some of the remotest parts of the country. The team was recently in Accham and locals easily recognised them as ‘Herne Katha’.
“It is not as difficult to find the subject matter or stories, we have to want to find them in the first place,” said Chapagain, recounting some of the risky trips she had taken to document her characters for Herne Katha.
But while new age digital shows like Herne Katha have the audience, sustainability continues to be a challenge. Chapagain revealed that YouTube revenue is not as significant and the team also relies on advertisement, membership and donations.
Said Chapagain: “It has been five years but we still have not figured out a business model best suited to us. But if we want to sustain and continue telling the stories, we must figure it out.”
The business side of news
Across the world and in Nepal, eyeballs have moved online but advertisers have not. This has made the sustainability of legacy media increasingly difficult at a time when even online portals are competing with the new age mass media like TikTok, YouTube and Facebook for both audience and revenue.
How readers consume news have also changed media’s traditional business model but the print still brings in the money, said Sambridhi Gyawali of Nepal Republic Media which publishes Nagarik Daily. “We haven’t been able to monetise digital platforms, paywalls have not worked in Nepal,” she added during the panel Digital Reader Revenue.
Ameet Dhakal, editor of Setopati which pioneered long-form online portal in Nepal shared the humble beginnings of the digital platform, and financial challenges they faced in the early days while also the crisis Nepali media as a whole is undergoing.
“It used to be cheaper to advertise in online portals because they didn’t have high operating costs of printing but now advertisers have even cheaper platforms like Facebook and Google who don't even need to pay people in Nepal,” added Dhakal. “We are now facing the same problem that print media has been facing for a while now.”
Traditional media has always relied on advertisements but it is also known to interface with editorial decision-making. Recently, there has been a new model entirely based on contributions from readers.
Pranaya Rana was with an independent online portal The Record Nepal (TRN) before it closed down last year, unable to sustain itself financially. “The idea was to get the grant and eventually move on to the membership model but we failed. Maybe Nepal is not ready for it yet, the fact that we are an English publication didn’t help matters,” said Rana who now publishes Off the Record, a weekly newsletter every Friday.
He added: “But we have realised that we need a business plan and we cannot ignore the market, we are trying to figure out how we can bring in the advertisements without compromising our journalism.”
Much like the TRN, Ukaalo has joined Nepal's cybersphere as an independent digital platform that relies entirely on contributions. Said co-funder Amod Pyakuryal: “Public supported media have worked elsewhere so why not in Nepal? We have people who are well educated and informed, they can pay us for unbiased agenda setting content.”
Meanwhile Gyawali noted that it might be time for an internal reflection for Nepali media and the kind of content that is being dished out. To that effect, Rana added that the media should be writing and developing content for the younger generation.
“But our young generation are hooked into TikTok. First, we have to find ways to get the content they want and only then we can think about monitisation,” he added.
But interestingly, while audiences are consuming content on social media and on online portals, the general public do not trust them, they still trust mainstream media over others, noted moderator Madhu Acharya of the Sharecast Initiative quoting the recent survey conducted by his organisation as he concluded the panel.
Climate change in media
The climate emergency is arguably the biggest crisis of our times. How the media cover it can define the actions to be taken for adaptation and mitigation, and how soon.
“Europe realised the impacts of climate change early on and began to take action. It took 25 or so more years for the US to catch-up. This was because of the coverage in he European media,” noted Kunda Dixit, author of Dateline Earth: As If the Planet Mattered during the panel on covering the climate crisis. “European media had a more global outlook, published news from around the world, and pressured their governments.”
But for the media to inform the public and the policymakers alike they need to understand the science themselves. Also speaking at the panel, atmospheric scientist Arnico Panday said that Nepali media has been focusing on weather, not so much climate which is measured over a longer period. Panday is now a meber of the RSP, wch is the fourth largest party in Parliament.
Nitu Ghale who is with the Annapurna Post shared her experience of trying to highlight stories on climate change while also tackling inherent challenges. “There is just not enough data and even when there is data, they are not managed properly. It is also not easy to get the right experts to talk to,” she added.
But either way, climate change often does not get the prominence it deserves in Nepali media, often sidelined by the political and economic issues. But panellists stressed that climate change is not an environmental issue for us but rather economic and political.
Nepal’s import of petroleum is polluting the air and worsening public health but it is also emptying our foreign reserves. Petroleum accounts for over 20% of Nepal’s import. Switching to electric mass transit would save billions.
“What Nepal does or does not won’t save the planet but will save our economy from collapsing and maintain our political independence by reducing our trade deficit, so they should be given the prominence they deserve in our coverage,” explained Dixit. “But having said that, climate change is becoming more of an excuse for leaders to blame their inaction and the discount governance failures and historical state neglect.”
But not everything is lost. China is developing itself as the centre of green energy whereas the United States under Biden has committed to convert 35% of all the automobiles into battery operated vehicles in eight years.
Arnico Panday admitted that he entered politics after realising that science is not enough to bring urgent change to problems like air pollution and climate crisis. He asked the audience to vote for the party that actually works to resolve the climate emergency, among others, in the next election -- amidst much applause from the rapt audience.
Nepali translation of Dixit’s Dateline Earth: As If the Planet Mattered and the third edition of the English version were launched following the panel discussion. The book has now been translated into five Asian languages.