Thursday, August 29, 2013

Just Getting Started

Fifteen years ago, when I embraced online journalism, the question of the day used to be: what is this all about? Less than 0.14 percent of Nepal’s population had access to the internet then.

Even in the US, online journalism was a novelty. On July 4, 1999, as a graduate student at the University of Missouri in the US, I had launched, a news website, as part of my class project on online journalism. For several years it covered many issues about a country in conflict. In 2006, when the site was blocked in Nepal, the domain name was changed to circumvent the royal censorship.

In the fading years of the 20th century, technology was still evolving in the Web 1.0 stage, and it required a special set of technical skills to work as an online (some wrote “on-line”) journalist then. I had to start from scratch, building the site on my own, writing html codes for every sentence or image I posted on the site. It was only later that I came to know that in my university apartment room, on July 4, 1999, I had started Nepal’s first exclusively online news site.

Until then, a couple of news portals in Nepal, such as (1997) and (1998) served as platforms for shovelware, as dumping sites for print publications. was different; it carried web-only content, and focused on link-journalism, curating news related to Nepal from around the web. Since Google News did not exist then, I used to rely on, Yahoo! and other sites to manually curate news stories and hyperlink them to my site.

Awed by the interactive and instantaneous communication potential of the web, I covered many issues throughout the conflict period, including the royal massacre. was truly a “one-stop news site” for many early web surfers interested in Nepal, and the website was cited in Kathmandu’s leading magazines and newspapers.

It was neither a commercial site, nor an attention-seeking platform; for the most part I worked anonymously making many people inquisitive: who’s behind this site? The Himal magazine (Nepali), for instance, asked a similar question in a page-long article featuring the site in one of its 2002 issues. I was happy that way, connecting with my home country by way of news that I curated on my site. (then was launched on February 20, 2000. At the turn of the century, a few Nepal-related websites began to pop up, for example, the Washington DC-based (2001). Online journalism, in a literal sense, began in Nepal following the proliferation of easy-to-use blogging platforms, in the Web 2.0 era. In addition, the royal coup in 2005 forced many journalists and media outlets to rely on online channels. I was no longer among a few parochial techies doing “their thing online”.

I ran the site until a few years back when it went dormant. It was time to move on. There are indeed many choices available today, and we do have a breed of online journalists inside the country, specializing on digital news. Personal branding opportunities offered by social media have greatly helped some of these online news people to augment their professional stature.

I am sharing this story only because many instances of early online journalism began largely through the passion and efforts of individuals. In most cases, traditional media were reluctant to go online, and they have always been laggards in terms of adopting new technologies.

Where are we today? Certainly, we have come a long way, but nobody seems to know for sure exactly how far, or where we are headed.

We are certainly becoming vibrant in online news. The expanding telecom services have widened audience access. Mobile telephony service is close to 70 percent, and Internet penetration is over 26 percent. These developments have boosted the confidence of entrepreneurs and investors. Real-time news is also possible; a critical mass of Nepalis are active on social media networks, with over 2 million Facebookers, and an increasing number of Twitter users.

These media have helped to extend interactivity and reciprocity across platforms and even to bypass traditional news gatekeepers, turning any prolific blogger or tweeple into a journalist or commentator.

Blogdai, the anonymous blogger I have known since the early days of, is one example. I find him incisive, and at times scooping our media on certain topics. But he is not a journalist. He agrees that any part of his writing that stimulates argument and discussion is the genus of effective journalism.

Similarly, Ushaft, another perceptive anonymous blogger known to many in social media networks, says the definition of journalism will change slowly, and in the future data analysts, internet specialists, fact-checkers and writers will work together to produce content online.

Both offer a detached perspective, looking from the outside of the profession. Blogdai says Nepali online journalism is “awakening”, and Ushaft describes it as still based on “subsistence use of online potential”.

Indeed, in terms of using the Web 2.0 multi-media potentials, we are still in the innovation and penetration phase. A few big operations, trying to survive competition, are in the institutionalization or self-defense phase. Though largely archives of their print content, websites of major outlets have intensified their hold on new media. However, in their click-throughs or metrics, these sites lag behind news portals operated by individuals or small groups, such as or

The latter sites seem more conscious about audience usability. Their design and format, including mobile applications, are also more focused on “inbound” marketing than their traditional brethren.

These sites also offer alternative news ignored by traditional media, widely perceived as hegemonic in their news agenda.

During my recent conversations with some publishers I gathered that the managers of media are keenly aware of the digital shift in the news business, but they have mixed opinion about making money out of their online editions. Kailash Sirohiya of Kantipur, for example, is certain that print will survive for at least fifteen more years until he retires, and wonders how the next generation will deal with the digital deluge.

Nepali Times, whose online edition has four times more readers than the print, has adopted a “digital first policy”. Kunda Dixit, its publisher, says they are hoping that in five years 25 percent of all revenues will be earned online. Ad agencies are drawn to television and they are not realizing the eyeballs are already online, he observes.

The online revenue issue is a global one, and this will certainly require some strategies. Right now, Nepali online journalism is too generalist. Specialty reporting with unique branding could be a sustainable way. A multipronged approach is imperative, with options in ad revenues, pay-wall, grants, community funds, or endowments.

Credibility of online news is another topic of concern. Critics charge that digital news encourages vitriol and emotions, distorts information, is defamatory and insensitive to privacy issues, etc. This has been a serious issue, even with the mainstream media. Steps in self-improvement and ethical practices are essential. As online journalism matures, professionals have begun to collaborate in writing a code of conduct.

Audience fidelity in the end rests largely on the choice of content and the crusading spirit of an individual journalist. For example, Umesh Shrestha’s (Salokaya’s) often breaks news the mainstream media ignores. The recent Belbari barbarism is a case in point. The “salokya effect” will only increase in the massified and competitive online news.

Likewise, in recent months, the startup has created quite a buzz in the online community. However, it is too early to judge their work. They seem to be offering a variety of content, including social issues. But there is much to expect in terms of its motto, “Nepalko Digital Patrika”.

“Digital” may be the signpost from the future. There are scarcely any sites that have reached adaptation, the final phase of online media development. Nonetheless, today, online journalism has struck our socio-psychological chord deeper. The mainstream media is also no longer overlooking online journalism as just another fad.

Some of these issues will be discussed at New Media Gufa 2013 from Sept. 8-11 at Hotel Mandap, Thamel, Kathmandu.

Published in Republica, Aug 28, 2013