Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Wholesale News

There were complaints about the trend of unattributed copy-pasting of RSS stories by news portals and other outlets, or "hubahu journalism"

Sometimes, journalists working at the Rastriya Samarchar Samiti have had a hard time explaining their job to members of the public and even to professionals. "I work at the RSS"— that is simply not enough. Often, pat comes the reply: What newspaper is that?

This news behemoth has been in the business for more than five decades and yet it remains little understood. Unless you are a detailed-oriented news reader, sharp enough to identify the credit line, or a news professional familiar with the nuts and bolts of the trade, you are likely to mistake a RSS story for a newspaper exclusive.

Though ubiquitous in content, RSS remains largely invisible. The brand itself is anything but glamorous. News agency journalism has always been about the wholesale, about breaking news for client outlets, gate-keeping behind the veil of semi-anonymity. Thus the cryptic three-lettered "RSS". This invisibility becomes even more profound for the general lack of reporting on news media, least of all, on a news agency.

So, it came as a pleasant surprise recently to read one headline after another on RSS.

One cheery news announced the appointment of Nirmala Acharya to the post of General Manager of RSS, a first for a woman to hold that leadership post. Another positive for the agency, though not a headline, was the sudden burst of RSS-credited stories in many online news portals, especially following the April and May earthquakes. Grievances over staff appointment procedures, and the resulting writ petition filed to the Supreme Court, also made some headlines in June.

On the professional front, stories involved complaints about the increasing trend of unattributed copy-pasting of RSS stories by news portals and other outlets, in a practice dubbed "hubahu journalism". Others were references to the proposed institutional reform of RSS in the model of a public-private partnership company, as outlined in the Budget Speech of 2015/2016.

I was reading these stories on RSS via links on my Facebook and Twitter timelines, which have seemingly superseded, if not wholly replaced news agency journalism in their dispatch of rapid news leads on any topic. Yet, you guessed it, I was not fully confident about the veracity of stories on social media.

The question today is not so much whether RSS is still relevant—as long as it maintains an edge on gathering, sorting and journalistically verifying information for accuracy and reliability—but whether and how it is adapting to the changing times and tastes. And, is it worth the taxpayer money? The government-owned agency generates little revenues on its own, and relies on public funds to cover 87 percent of its Rs 90 million in annual expenditures.

The banda this previous Sunday worked to my advantage. I walked to Bhadrakali Plaza and had a lively chat with the RSS leadership and key staff members, including the Chair Kul Chandra Wagle, General Manager Acharya, Admin Officer Uttam Silwal, and Chief Reporter Surya Chandra Basnet on a host of issues about the newswire. I sensed a crossroads of reflection and apprehension at RSS.

Professional issues were mentioned far more frequently than other issues. In this piece, I share some nuggets, to be continued with more observations and comments in the next column.


Author with Uttam Silwal and Nirmala Acharya of RSS
RSS news bulletin compilations
RSS audio studio
RSS customer portal (rss.com.np)

RSS's event-focused, political 'run-of-the-mill' type of coverage leaves little room for features, analyses, editorial write-ups, and investigative stories. The agency runs 140 stories a day—80 in Nepali language, 45 English translations, and 15 translated from international wires such as AP, AFP, Xinhua, PTI, and Kyodo, with whom it has news exchange agreements. It produces 40 photographs a day, and for their high quality, RSS images are becoming increasingly popular among subscribers.

In addition, RSS began its audio service of 1- to 2-min clips about one and half years ago. It produces and distributes eight to 10 clips a day. Now the focus has been on improving the visual and audio content. Acharya, who introduced and oversaw the audio services, is also planning to transform the English news service, until now operating "merely as a translation desk", into a department that will independently report and produce original stories.

Few media outlets match the reach and coverage of RSS, which has 150 stringers spread across all 75 districts. And the last journalist left working in the parliament hall is often a RSS reporter. Still, RSS stories often do not find space in subscribing outlets. Much of the news has to be dumped without use, one reason that in 2010 the agency tried, unsuccessfully, to set up Radio RSS to share stories with the wider audience.

RSS indispensability lies in its news leads and its value as the prime means of verification for subscribing media outlets. It is not uncommon to see journalists in the field not writing any notes; they just count on RSS to later provide accurate quotes and facts on events. A server down at RSS results in floods of calls from subscribers. The agency is also valued for its sustained coverage of issues of national magnitude, such as the elections, international summits, and disasters like the recent earthquake.

In a more corrupt form of dependence on RSS, some media outlets have taken to piracy and plagiarism: they copy-paste, rehash or rephrase content from RSS and even change the byline. The agency reporters complain that this chronic problem is evident even in major newspapers. In the districts, several newspapers depend on a single "desktop" publishing service to develop story copies, and those without subscription end up lifting wire stories from the desktop hard drive, without credits.

Of course, outlets credit the agency for most of their stories, but to the dismay of the RSS reporters, they are inconsistent and often obscure in their acknowledgement. But when the story appears in several outlets, it compensates for the wire reporter's feeling of violation.

In terms of adopting new media technology, RSS appears a laggard, although unlike many other organizations, its reporters are usually equipped with a camera and a recorder. Until January, when it launched the customer news portal to improve the speed of news and its access, RSS issued hourly bulletins via the primitive FTP transfer. For their "slow process", the agency is not yet on Facebook or Twitter, but, yes, there is the pressure now, and they will join social media soon.

One recurrent concern—just as in any public organization—is the political influence in the appointment of staff. Thus, there are journalists who lack adequate professional training and understanding of work culture, and possibly journalistic independence. Inclusive, professional growth prospects appear limited. Almost all district correspondents are on annual contracts and barely 10 percent are women journalists. Of the 161 staff members, 50 work on temporary appointments.

Working conditions have deteriorated recently. RSS infrastructure needs upgrade and maintenance. The recent quake rendered half the central office building unusable, and it will require an estimated Rs 30 million in retrofitting. Many of its district offices, some from the 1930s, and standing in prime locations, also require renovation.


We talked about other related issues, about leadership, the revenue model, and legal and structural reform of the agency. And then I spoke to some journalists and former RSS journalists. They all say adaptation is the key.

An overwhelming number of the estimated 150 news agencies in the world today are government-owned. However, only a few independent agencies have had professional and financial success. This seems to indicate that the government plan to develop and operate RSS as public-private partnership cooperative company is the right move towards broader ownership, good journalism and profitability.

Any work on it should begin by defining the job clearly: What newspaper is that?

Read Part II of this article here: Wholsale News Again

Published in Republica, 25 August, 2015