Monday, August 14, 2023

Where do we go from here?

Print publications have lost a large number of subscribers as digital media proliferates.  

By Dharma Adhikari

Within sections of the news industry, the question is increasingly tinged by an overwhelming sense of hopelessness, even pessimism, about the existential risk for journalists amidst the ongoing digital disruption. A recent meeting with a group of journalists in Kathmandu culminated in an intense exchange, covering issues ranging from declining subscriptions and quality to low pay or no pay for news workers.

These issues serve as a portent of tougher times ahead for the media and even more so to the already underpaid news professionals in what increasingly looks like a thankless but crucial work. Underpaid: Especially as advertising revenues plummet, thanks to Covid-19 and the ongoing economic slowdown. Thankless: More so in this age of content deluge and misinformation. Crucial: Because we wish to believe that journalism is indispensable for any progressive society (how could it not be, given our agragami goal).

To the original question, my response is something like this: Institutional journalism or journalists may be fast turning redundant (and going broke), but journalism’s heyday is yet to come. Compared with other informational and raw content in the world today, the proportion of quality news may be infinitesimal, but journalistic content has never seen so much growth and diversity. It’s about where to look for it because of the overabundance of non-news and unvariegated contents.

In a democracy, the task is to bring back journalism to the centre stage of the public sphere. We not only have the financial imperative but also a moral obligation to salvage independent journalism—for its core commitment to truth telling—from being swallowed by monopoly digital platforms that have become synonymous with excessive commercialisation, user manipulation and propaganda.

But some might ask if journalism is any different in its flirtation with exaggerations, lies or disinformation. And what about the ideologically stubborn outlets funded by politically partisan interests? They appear unceasingly resilient in their updates and perplexingly undeterred by the ongoing market convulsions. A more relevant question is what type of journalism or journalists do we want to sustain and how?

Revenue conundrum

Of course, we are talking about independent journalism, committed, above all, to the public good. That’s the type of journalism worth saving, not the partisan or market-driven or sensationalist type, funded by certain political parties or interest groups with dubious financial ethics. But to keep the citizenry well-informed (not just informed), much money and resources are required. Quality journalism depends on hiring and retaining professional journalists and ensuring their self-development and career prospects. Woefully, newsrooms are increasingly staffed by overworked amateurs and part-timers, who hop to another place in no time.

Reports say that the advertising market has shrunk by over 50 percent because of the economic slowdown that followed the pandemic. Print publications also have lost a large number of subscribers. Advertisers are flocking to digital platforms which have emerged as the dominant medium for advertising. As one would expect, the impact on individual journalists working for news outlets has been severe.

Nepali digital journalism, comprising an estimated 2,500 registered news sites, continue to scrape by on a meagre diet of ad placements by businesses or third-party social media ads, and remain reliant on the patronage of owners or investors. In Nepal, the print model of revenue generation persists online. A few notable sites with high traffic considered putting up paywalls, but the idea failed to see the light of day.

Membership, another approach tried by some independent sites, didn’t gather steam either. Culturally, cooperatives, as in the guthi system, is not an alien idea to us. Engagement and service, valuable assets for independent journalism in the digital age, are at the heart of this tradition. But the viability of news guthis is something that perhaps we have overlooked.

Non-profits have proliferated in other sectors with only a tiny fraction of funding coming to independent news initiatives, mostly from foreign donors, including some foundations and tech giants (with their agenda, altruistic or otherwise) based in the West. Nepali donors do not seem to be enthusiastic about giving to journalism, and lacking stable funding, such initiatives have gone dormant or collapsed. Even the broader media sector involving advocacy and content production non-governmental organisations (NGOs), including community radio, where donor monies used to pour, are facing a drastic low in funding.

News organisations around the world are experimenting with offering ancillary products and services, from selling merchandise and data brokering to event management, in order to sustain their core journalistic missions. Such practices are rare, if not totally absent, among news outlets in Nepal. Advertising and PR firms are ahead in this game.

Government funding

The other approach, which looks more and more inescapable, is government intervention in the form of funding for worthy public interest contents across the media, tax credits for users toward supporting their favoured news outlets, and revenue sharing arrangements with tech giants that have penetrated the local news landscape. Proper policies and an independent mechanism to oversee the funding process would be required.

The established media in general is shy about drastic change; innovation can be counterproductive. Diversifying revenue streams (and improving journalism quality) will require open debates on viable options and bold experimentations.

The first wave of online journalism in Nepal in the 1990s fizzled out. There were few risk takers. The hubbub over the AI tide, with more sinister implications for the future of jobs and revenues, already forces us to shift our focus, even before our media can maximise the use of Web 2.0. 

Published in the Kathmandu Post, 14 August 2023.