Wednesday, September 12, 2012

New Media Gufa

I have never slept so soundly, and profoundly. I am writing these lines, fresh out of the New Media Gufa 2012, an experiential newscave that kept you awake for most parts of the Sept 7-10 event.

During the four-day experiment held at Hotel Mandap in Thamel, five net-savvy journalists, nominated by their peers, were kept in seclusion from everything but computers with uninterrupted access to the Internet. The mission behind the closed door on the Internet for 72 hours: find out the actual value of new media and their content in the development of news stories on issues that matter to the everyday lives in rural Nepal.

 The event challenged journalists to restrict their sourcing and information gathering to new media while reporting and writing original stories on vital public issues. The Gufa team spent five hours in intensive discussion to select five important social issues out of the 17 news ideas suggested by participants. The selection of the final five stories was done by lot.

Thus began the Internet and social media-based news sourcing and reporting challenge, organized by Media Foundation in association with Hotel Mandap, the Himalayan Aid and Vision for Nepal Foundation, USA. The assignment: “Social Cost of Foreign Employment” (Rajneesh Bhandari, Kantipur TV), “Climate Change in the Mt. Everest Region” (Keshav Koirala, The Himalayan Times), “Internet Penetration in Rural Nepal” (Guna Raj Luitel, Nagarik), “Small Town Street Kids” (Arun Rai, Republica), and “Food Alternatives in Karnali” (Binu Subedi, Community Information Network/CIN).

Now we hear curious minds asking: So how did it go? What exactly did the lions do inside the den? As the convener and lead researcher of the media camp, here I try to share my thoughts on these questions as well as reflect on the import of the event.


No matter how much progress humans have made in technologies, communications, and community building, our civilization sprang from the cavemen. A cave symbolizes our ancient roots. It is a powerful metaphor for the reservoir of primeval knowledge, the wisdom of our sages.

Ironically, a cave also symbolizes ignorance and the unknown. This paradox is reflected today in our perceptions and understanding of new media like the Internet. While this new technology has dramatically extended our bounds of information or interaction, it has also increased the risk of misinformation and control of communication. This is apparent in the rift between techno-evangelists and techno-sceptics, and in the news business, between the print-blind paperwallahs and tech-savvy onlinewallahs.

The question is: how far have we come in transforming our storytelling; from the ancient oral or modern-age print to the evolving, futuristic online?

In Nepal, the Internet was introduced 19 years ago. Today, around 18 percent of Nepalis have access to it. With the advent of mobile Internet telephony, its penetration is increasing rapidly. More than a half of the population already has access to the mobile phone. Social media networks like Facebook and Twitter are also becoming popular among the youth and urban populations.

One major area that is in the process of transformation is the news gathering process. Today, most traditional publications or broadcast outlets have an online presence. Social media practices, like facebooking, blogging and tweeting have become more common among journalists. In a recent national survey of journalists conducted by Media Foundation, half of the over 800 respondents said that new media have helped them by enhancing access to subject matter, and around 30 percent said they have offered them access to sources, making it possible to contact them or interact with them.

Yet, the real extent of individual journalists’ interest in and reliance on new media to report and write socially significant stories remains unclear. Critics have charged that journalists hardly post anything of public importance in their social media networks, that they are merely used as display boards for likes and shares. The banning of social networks in workplace in some leading media houses on the pretext that employees steal away valuable workhours suggests that these networks have not always been used for sourcing or reporting.

Journalists report that their new media capacities are more the result of personal interest, initiative and dedication than institutional support or other incentives. Some critics have argued that the role of new media (or their extensions such as social media) in a largely rural Nepali media landscape has been over-hyped while others have said their contributions have been underappreciated.


So how did the new media practitioners, the net-savvy journalists themselves, come to terms with this reality? Kept in seclusion inside the Gufa for four days, with continuous net connectivity, was the group of journalists able to find out the actual value of new media? Could they restrict their sourcing and information gathering to new media while reporting and writing original stories on rural Nepal?

The journalists, chained to their computers, were strictly confined to the cave and the hotel. They fully abstained from using the telephone or reading print media. Participants were observed throughout their work by the research team. Their physical gestures, their modes of communication and Internet use habits were coded in observation sheets. Instances and issues relating to net connectivity, online content, sourcing variations and news attributions were also coded for analysis.

Participants were required to use at least three local (from village or district level) human sources directly relevant to the subject, along with two expert, one documentary, and three data related sources from off the Internet. They could only use authentic, relevant and highly credible websites with complete references as appendices.

It will take some time to analyze the data, which also includes extensive bodies of references, social media posts in course of participants’ efforts to reach sources, and relevant links. What is clear at the moment is that Internet today does help to directly reach sources and story subjects even in the most remote districts.

For example, the story on Internet penetration, which focused on Jumla as the setting, could make anyone apprehensive. Could a reporter reach three local sources directly via the Internet?

Surprisingly, as the story process unfolded, Guna Raj Luitel observed that the district center today has a faster Web connectivity than even in Kathmandu. Internet first arrived in Jumla in 1998. Binu Subedi was able to locate all three local sources from Karnali region to report on food alternatives there and to communicate with them directly on Facebook. Others were not as lucky in reaching all three sources.

Notably, the sourcing process forced participating journalists to go beyond taken-for-granted newsroom norms that rely on telephone to reach mostly the known or elite sources. One participant confided that unable to locate the human sources, he cried. He had to literally plead as many as 20 sources in social networks to help him find a relevant local source to write his story. It was so embarrassing, he said.

Most importantly, the event taught participants to collaborate on storytelling. They helped each other in their work, and this support reflected in the social network sites like Facebook and Twitter, instantly creating a community of engaged citizens around story topics of public importance.

I believe the experience will add to our continuing research in the area of new media and journalism. Innovation in news and technology use should not have to necessarily come out of Silicon Valley only. The Kathmandu Valley is also fertile enough to deliver its share in creative explorations on technology and media. Not to forget, it offered some of the most active journalists in our newsrooms a deserving break for a fun moment

Published in Republica, September 12, 2012