Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Power with Grace

In these times of a globally enterprising media landscape, of the onslaught of new media, of newsprint’s obituary, it may read quaint to mention a newspaper editor. But in Nepal, where we do a lot of catching up on tested and tried out ideologies elsewhere or passing fads, the newspaper editor is actually appearing splashier than ever.

This was apparent in the capital Saturday during a session at the Ncell Nepal Literature Festival. The makeshift open hall at the backyard of the Nepal Academy building, with crowds packed to capacity, brought three of the country’s top newspaper editors to stage. Kishore Nepal (Nagarik), Sudheer Sharma (Kantipur) and Ajay Bhadra Khanal (The Himalayan Times)—moderated by Narayan Wagle, a former editor—dazzled the audience with their unconstrained public presence.

It was a rare occasion for the public to see the editors up-close, with the opportunity to directly ask them questions, to interact with them. Let’s accept that as newspapers expand and media houses grow in size and influence, there is a growing perception that our newspaper editors are becoming more and more insulated from the larger public, creating an “ivory tower” for themselves.

Now these editors from competing newspapers had assembled there in the open, debating on the state of media in the country. The topic (“How the media talks to us?”) itself opened the door on public interest wide open. At the same time, the event offered a peek into the editors’ minds, hearts, and characters as much as it provided an opening to their sounds, furies and blusters.


During the panel discussion Saturday, our editors were readily accessible, if not gracious throughout the event. Laced with anecdotes, puns, diatribes, wit and jibes, the debate hopped from editorial independence to news agenda, to quality of content.

The moderator’s question (“Who holds the [metaphorical] key to media?”) prodded the editors to testify to their actual powers in their news decision-making. Kishore Nepal cited publishers’ increasing interference in editorial works, arguing that they sometimes “try to squeeze in a way to almost break the hands” of editors. The other two editors did acknowledge the growing power of the publisher, with Khanal emphasizing an emerging partnership between editors and publishers while Sharma arguing that a larger share of the partnership lay with the publisher, and at the same time, today, “the key moves elsewhere too”.

While Sharma believed that Nepali media was gradually setting their agenda, their role so far was limited in adapting to political agenda or modifying it. He cited media’s advocacy on behalf of political reform during the royal regime. Khanal maintained that politicians depended on journalists for their objectives, and ironically the latter were not able to guide them to their goals. Nepal argued that media hadn’t set a single agenda; they were merely acting as tailpiece of politics. The agenda should be set for development and democracy, he stressed, and it should be set by the people themselves, and that requires strengthening public opinion.

The editors also covered the nature of media content, tone of coverage, ideological posturing, public impact etc. Nepal pointed out that there was lack of research and investigation in news reporting as well as adequate homework among journalists, who remain arrogant. Sharma argued that while the breath of information had expanded it was merely recycled, and there was the professional challenge to go beyond shallow coverage. Khanal pointed out that it was the responsibility of media to portray society in a meaningful way, but coverage lacked logic, facts and evidence, and it was overtly opinionated. Despite a good environment of freedom of expression, he said, the media have not been able to use freedom on behalf of the people, mainly because they lack credibility.

Nepal stressed that Nepali journalism has not been able to impact policies or the society in the way it should have impacted them. He added that lacking research or audience analysis, the talk of “editorial impact” has become merely a ritual. Khanal believed that our media is amidst a fluid transitional political context that continues to feed ideological conflict.

Overall, editors expressed mixed views, with Sharma emphasizing that there was no need to be too pessimistic about the future of Nepali media. Although our media is still Kathmandu-centric, he opined, readership is expanding, regional editions (symbolic at the moment) of national newspapers are appearing in the districts, and our media is treading a moderate way thus helping prevent further polarization in the country.

Apparently, the editors appeared carried away with their enthusiasm about their views on evolving structural issues in our country, which in itself is awaiting a restructuring. The topic promised something substantial about the relationship between the media and their audience.

In fact, it squarely invited the public to comment on how the media, including their editors, speak to “us”, the general public. And the public at the debate did not disappoint in that regards. They raised questions, from media economics to media practices to media ethics.

Today, the challenge before editors and managers of media is this: The “us” is amorphous, in the multitudes. The public, or its market variant “consumers”, is diverse and already segmented by demographics, outlets and niches. Its takes regular public opinion polls and surveys to pass reasonably sound judgments on public opinion, on the nebulous “us”.

In this column, I have often written about the gulf between the public and the media (See in particular, “Media & Public Agenda”, August 31, 2011). Direct contacts, dialogues and interaction between the two sides is not only democratically an ideal approach but also practically fruitful. Media credibility is not simply an issue related with quality of content; it equally concerns public outreach by media leaders. More of such open debates like the one on Saturday are required to deliberate on the long-term, shared vision or agenda of our media in Nepal.

Traditionally, the “Editorial” and the “Letters to the Editor”—two of the most overlooked columns of a newspaper today, served as the formal means of communication between the editor and his or her audience. They still do, especially for those editors and the readers who have not embraced social media like the Facebook or Twitter.

In the print format, newspapers possibly cannot accommodate all the barrage of comments and letters from the public. And in Nepal, their online operations are still far from being fully interactive or moderated for public input. Many editors who are on social media networks merely use them as display boards of likes and shares. Moreover, they remain generally uncommunicative, and ghettoized in their limited circle of friends and colleagues, shielded from their diverse communities of readers or media users.

For whatever reasons, heavy work-loads or tight deadlines, editors remain largely reticent about speaking even on topics related with their profession. No doubt, the distance between the editors and their audience or the public in general has been increasingly bridged by new media or mobile telephony. But the bridge created thus has seldom been crossed or used.

It is about time we balanced skepticism with trust in public reason, indignation with passion, and power with grace. It is about time we abandoned cynicism, and the ivory towers that isolate us from those whom we purport to serve.

Published in Republica, Sept 26, 2012.