Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Wholesale News Again

When it started, the RSS symbolized the country's sovereignty, Nepal's bridge to the world in an era of post-colonial awakening

In my last column (Wholesale news, August 25) I wrote that Rastriya Samachar Samiti is sometimes mistaken for a newspaper. There are more reasons for RSS identity crisis.

The news agency is battling the eroding effects of a new media environment. Though "national" in its assertion, it remains subservient to the government in power and hasn't been able to project an independent, national image. Its legal constraints and financial overdependence on the government leave little room to pursue innovation, take business risks and achieve work efficiency.

When it started, the agency symbolized the country's sovereignty, Nepal's bridge to the world in an era of post-colonial awakening. As part of King Mahendra's social engineering of the 1960s, it served to foster the Panchayati ideology of a unified national identity. Other avowed objectives included improving the wellbeing of people, impartial and authoritative news, and public opinion formation.

Former RSS-ers accept that there were political constraints in what they could do to meet the stated organizational objectives, but the agency did reflect an overriding "national character" when it came to reporting on issues of national importance, such as elections and foreign affairs. "It's non-national now", says Ram Krishna Regmee, who worked with RSS for two decades, part of it as the chief reporter, "the problem is we have a government agency that is not adapting to the changing definition of news and style of reporting".

 RSS journalists felt they had a strong sense of a national mission. They enjoyed the confidence of officialdom in their pursuit of stories and took every opportunity to directly interact with foreign dignitaries and heads of states on important issues of the day, thus producing first-hand interviews and reports. That's not the case anymore, says one former RSS veteran, "they only run after local politicians for reaction stories; we only react, and foreign leaders make the decisions". With fragmented national leadership and divided political loyalties, RSS is now best perceived as a source-driven journalism.

Others observe that a climate of self-censorship prevails at RSS. Partisan political influence, a culture of sycophancy, and spoil-sharing of leadership positions has stifled creativity and meritocracy. They emphasize on the need for strong leadership at RSS "to make their presence felt", to rise above jagire mentality, to adapt to emerging changes, and to create a space for everyone to flourish professionally.

The recent appointment of Nirmala Acharya as general manager earned some positive vive for RSS. She is the first woman to hold that position, usually filled by political appointees outside the organization. She climbed the professional ladder beginning as a rank and file reporter, and then as chief reporter. This is an "encouraging" development, in the words of Regmee, "she brings a new perspective that others could miss".

Media reporters' overriding attitude towards the agency is one of dismissal: "we have bought it, will use in whatever way we like." Unavoidable for official or "burning" news, RSS is merely used as "filler"; editors prefer to run stories by staff reporters. "News patterns have changed," observes Guna Raj Luitel, editor of Nagarik, "formal speeches are not news anymore."

Some news editors prefer silence over the downsides of RSS saying it's unprofessional to criticize another media institution. Others cite "too much bland news" or examples of its credibility problem, as in its May story on a volcanic eruption rumor from Rautahat.

But generally, news editors value RSS news leads and envy their official access. Luintel says the wire produces better quality photographs, and earlier, they used to be good with facts and copy writing. He also cites the agency's network of reporters, its public service, and the paycheck security as their strengths.

Subscribers see (charges of) rehashing and copy-pasting without credits as individual and not institutional sins. What irks agency reporters is when they are declined space by editors even for their significant stories. Few of their reports on violence in Kailali or mid-Madhesh could make it to the news holes. RSS bulletins, however, serve as the safety net for many outlets in verifying facts on important events. Even significant feature stories are ignored by editors. That's when some of them receive emails from RSS reporters requesting them to publish their articles with bylines.

RSS best serves as a news radar. Shreesha Bhandari, the news desk coordinator at Kantipur, says the agency could improve its stories' odds of being lifted with "newness" and a "distinct identity of its own".


Novelty and distinctiveness mean any number of things. At least three areas need attention: professional development, business model, and institutional reform.

For their rigor, speed, attention to facts and sources, news agency journalists are supposed to be the best in the industry. By their own account, training opportunities are rare. Staff grievances over low wages, and institutional distress over poaching of trained RSS journalists by competing media houses is also invariably linked to financial health of the organization. There is no talent retention strategy. Financial incentives are meager. Compare an extreme: sometimes leading private media houses pay as much as Rs 5,000 for a photo that fetches only Rs 100 from RSS. The only news agency can't compete with retail outlets.

Professionalism and growth require investments that are in short supply. The global trend is toward diversification. For instance, Reuters earns over 90 percent revenues from non-news niche products and services. The Associated Press still relies on subscriptions, but it is gradually on the path of diversification.

With increased mobile and internet penetration, RSS reach and visibility is also becoming a possibility. The agency has introduced its customer portal, but is far from adopting its full potentials. Now this newswire is entering the wired world. Will it engage with users, demonstrate entrepreneurship and tap on new sources of revenues from non-traditional clients? Will it sell specialty, customized contents, multimedia, and links, including in regional languages? Those are for the future.

It currently has around 200 subscribers, mostly small outlets, and some non-media organizations. The internet is emerging as a new client base. More than 30 news portals bought subscriptions immediately following the recent earthquakes. Most small subscribers seek discounts and pay around Rs 25,000 a year and the agency charges a couple of big media houses up to Rs 1 million. But earnings from sale of services comprise less than 13 percent of total annual expenses, hence, the need for a business plan.

Diversification, however, is not entirely an untried experiment for RSS. During the 1990s, it operated RSS TV in three districts, as an audiovisual service for NTV, until the only television station opened its own offices there. In 1992, it registered an ad agency but the government ordered it closed following complaint by ad fraternity of market encroachment. And in 2010, it was again the government that denied it a license to operate a radio station.

The mood at RSS is one of uncertainty. "Institutional constraints" inhibit editorial decisions and management in spite of the "autonomous" provision in paper (RSS Act 1962). The agency subsists on government funding, and its editorial independence and accountability are in question.

Emerging financial and technological forces have pushed many news agencies towards commercialization or privatation. Nepal is not behind. The government has developed a proposal to operate RSS as a public-private partnership (PPP) company. The PPP model, first introduced in the 1990s, hasn't always been successful. But it is a positive start at reform.

There are few examples of private agencies that are doing well and these are usually large corporations, such as Reuters and Bloomberg with many subsidiary interests. RSS itself began with the merger of two privately operated agencies over 50 years back. Except for a couple of unsuccessful attempts, no private investor has seriously considered investing in a news agency.

A cooperative is the best way, but only until it works. Right now most outlets are too small to become financially meaningful partners. And it is true that we now have an incredibly diverse private media environment today, but it is subject to special, commercial interests. Ideally, having a genuinely free, fair, inclusive, autonomous and quality national public service agency would serve the nation best.

With the public-private approach, the challenge will be to constantly ensure we balance greed with responsibility. And that is the everyday reality.

Read Part I of this article hereWholsale News Again 

Published in Republica, 8 September, 2015


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