Interview with Dharma Adhikari - “Digital Journalism is the future”
Dharma Adhikari has been working as a journalist since the mid-1980s, starting as a freelance writer, reporter and working as an editor. In 1997, he won the Fulbright scholarship to study Master’s in Journalism at the University of Missouri, School of Journalism at Columbia. He further decided to continue his higher education and completed his Ph.D. in journalism from the same university in 2004.
Adhikari has pursued journalism and academic interests side by side, writing for local and international outlets and for his own online platform, teaching at Georgia Southern University and the University of Missouri in the US as well as universities in Nepal.
Upon returning to Nepal, he has continued varied interests in journalism and communications, writing a regular media column for Republica (Media Sutra, formerly Me Publica) since 2010, teaching at various universities, researching, and serving on the board of Media Foundation, among others.
Arun Budhathoki had a chit-chat with Dharma Adhikari. Here are the excerpts:
How did you start your career in journalism? You are credited for starting the first online newspaper in Nepal – can you tell us about it?
Like many Nepali writers, I started off with an interest in Sahitya (literature), occasionally penning poetry and short stories in my personal diaries. In college, out of social pressure, I did enroll in the science stream. But since I had to reconcile with my true calling, I switched to humanities and social sciences, taking English literature and soon publishing my first poem in Gorkhapatra. I had studied in an English-language school in India and always thought I was pretty good in the English language but inadequate in the Nepali language. So even as I was occasionally writing for the Rising Nepal and later for the Kathmandu Post, I worked for the Nepali-language press as a reporter, writer and editor for a number of years in the hope that I could improve my Nepali writing skills.
The technical and the-here-and-now style of journalism somehow helped to check my abstract and instinctive literary leanings, trading imagination for realism. It provided me with the much-needed focus and restraint in writing.
I would not call it an online newspaper but it was certainly the first website with exclusive online news content focused on Nepal. When I started, the other existing news site of the time was mostly doing shovelware. I had launched newslookmag.com as part of my class project in the US in 1999 but kept it going for many years. It curated online news about Nepal, 24/7, on the Web as well as published original content and was kind of a pre-blog era blog. It was blocked in Nepal during the royal takeover, and as a way to circumvent censorship, I continued to operate it under a different domain name, nepalmonitor.com. This website remains dormant since 2012. I have moved on. There is no dearth of online news in Nepal any longer, although its quality and diversity can definitely be an issue. In this age of crowdsourcing, there are many people today to take their turn and address the existing gaps.
What other ventures did you start? Did you face any challenges? Why did you discontinue your startups?
I would like to call them projects rather than ventures, since as an independent journalist and media academic, business was the least in my mind. I spent a major part of my youth in the formal study of journalism while at the same time putting my learning into practice by way of online writing and curating, teaching and doing research. Sometimes, the websites served as teaching platforms in my journalism classes. The Web at that time was a new frontier in communication and I was curious to explore this surreal space, learn how to write the HTML code, and build an archive of sorts of the formative age of online news about Nepal, among other things.
Other recent works, including Media Foundation (MF) and the Media Gufa Project (MGP), have been more of institutional and educational nature. MF began as an experimental initiative to explore ways to enhance media education and research, and MGP is a practical expression of that desire. As a research initiative, we have conducted a series of experiential reporting and writing sessions for working journalists who are kept in isolation for 72 hours.
Needless to say, the challenges are the lack of resources, often worsened by partisan political and corrupt I/NGO nexus. Teamwork and our passion for what we love to do have kept us going. But we don’t have to do this indefinitely.
Sure, the lifespan of institutions may be a little longer than that of humans. But nothing is permanent in this world. And someone’s end is always another’s beginning. I like new beginnings too.
How do you see the past and future of Nepali journalism, particularly, in English medium? What are the constraints that need fixing?
We are certainly doing better in terms of increase in the volume of journalistic content in English produced today. That is because we have more publications and platforms--radio, television and online—today that produce English journalism, even if this means that a lot of it is translated or recycled content. We have come a long way since the 1950s and 1960s when all we had were a couple of publications in English, such as the Commoner, Nepalese Perspec
For example, even the best of our newspapers are inconsistent in their style and their decidedly British English often gets muddled up with American English.
We haven’t even started discussing the need for standardization of English language in our press. Lexical, semantic or syntactic issues are easy to spot because English content is often translated from Nepali or mimicked from international publications. In terms of topics, there is little besides politics, sports, and in recent times, economy.
Compared to the Nepali press, long form of local journalism is almost non-existent in English.
One is often tempted to find fault with journalists: we don’t have enough trained journalists who can write good English. However, I believe that sometimes the market logic is more powerful. Although English literacy has improved over the decades, it is certainly much lower compared to the Nepali language, and the general lack of a reading culture leaves little room for English publications and outlets to flourish. With sufficient readership and consequently with more ad monies, we can always find ways to hire good journalists, like Hong Kong did. The erstwhile British colony newspapers recruited a number of Sri Lankan journalists for their English skills.
The English-language press is here largely because of the perceived prestige it brings to a media outlet. In spite of dismal financial returns, most so-called big media houses or established outlets publish or broadcast in English simply for this status factor.
The irony is that people who write in English are often criticized for their “elitism”, as removed from everyday lives of people. Consequently, and to attract more eyeballs and to be seen as relevant, some have started writing both in English and Nepali.
I think we need to nurture a genuine reading culture. It can help bring bigger investments in English language journalism. It can help develop competencies and compel good writing also.
What led you to write about media? Did your studies in the United States help you to move toward media criticism?
As many new entrants in the profession, I was full of idealism. I believed journalism offered the means to be of a great value to society. Soon I realized that journalism, despite its central mediating role in the society, is rather limited in its impact. So this flip side of journalism intrigued me. For instance, journalists, who rubbed their shoulders with the most powerful actors and who appeared too important or privileged, often complained of exploitation by their own publishers or manipulation by their own sources. How could that be possible? Journalists are helpless in more ways than we can think of. Even as a working journalist in the 1990s I was writing on media themes and my education in the US did certainly prepare me to do this in a more systematic way.
As a media critic, how do you see the state of media criticism in Nepal?
Recently, I have been writing a series on this issue in Republica. So far, we are doing media criticism willy-nilly. Historically, we focused on the institutional history of the press often cheering journalists for their press freedom activism or writing grand narratives on some individuals or institutions. We are still doing the same, although we have become more analytical about structural trends in media, including legislations and press freedom environment. Speculations abound, and advocacy on behalf of journalists or media managers receive more attention than actual industry trends, ownership issues, or social and cultural consequences of a free press or implications of new forms of media. Criticism, in the sense of independent assessment or appraisal, is still limited largely because of lack of adequate scientific data and knowledge about our fast-changing media ecology.
Media institutions are not as transparent as they urge other institutions of society to be. As our media matures, we will certainly have to move toward a deeper social-cultural criticism of varied aspects of our media, including new forms of media.
Can Nepali media in English grow and survive the technological revolution?
I believe it will and it will even thrive in the future as our English literacy improves. Sure, the forms of media or platforms will continue to evolve, but the fundamentals of journalism—gathering and sharing of verified, timely and relevant information--will be essential as ever. Not only technological, even the forces of globalization and economy are helping to foster our English press.
Do you think Nepali journalism in English is growing in a slow-pace? What should be changed to empower Nepali journalists working for English media?
Not in the sense that we produce more of it today; but the problem is we produce more of the same. Actually, with massive growth in outlets, we have seen a sudden surge in English journalism in the past decade, in radio and TV programs, and online. We have leapfrogged technologies. We needed a few decades to do what many developed countries took a few hundred years to accomplish.
And experiences elsewhere have shown that quality press is not necessarily dependent upon a developed press system. Just look at UK, India, or the USA and their recent scandals involving the press or their media failures. News media are among the least trusted institutions in those societies.
As I said before, we need to expand English readership base. To do this, newspapers and other platforms can introduce educational content on journalism and communication. Global industry leaders like the New York Times, BBC, NPR and the Guardian offer some form of educational or scholastic journalism to nurture the next generation of readers.
We like to talk a lot about legal and ethical issues but as a democracy with press freedom, we now have the basic condition to report and write without fear or favor. But persisting institutional controls, political and economic influences often force journalists to self-censor, constraining independent journalism.
At the professional level, journalists need more self-improvement opportunities such as regular in-house or external training, mentoring, fellowships, etc. Not everyone affords to go abroad and local opportunities are often inadequate. Media owners appear reluctant to invest in their journalists writing in English because many such journalists in the past have made journalism a stepping stone to more lucrative professions in I/NGOS or international institutions. Lack of a serious and long-term commitment to the profession is a real issue.
Will digital newspapers in Nepal overtake print media? What’s your view on English online newspapers in Nepal?
I think this is inevitable; the question is when. Some studies have predicted that digital media will supersede and even replace print press in Nepal in about two decades.
Digital journalism is the future.
I think it will happen sooner but print will continue to exist even if that means as an artifact. I see more room for a variety of niche digital publications in English.
What is writing to you? Can you describe your writing process? Do you have any plan to publish books?
My view of writing has changed over time, perhaps with my age. Initially, it was about creativity and changing the world, word by word. Later, I realized it was about gathering and sharing some vital, accurate and timely information with readers, and more importantly, rewriting the text again and again to ensure those attributes of information. These days, at least my opinion writing has become more of a habit; frankly, sometimes it is about asserting my ego; scribbling something even if I have nothing significant to say!
I do a lot of thinking about potential topics over time and maintain an IDEAS folder. This folder contains an endless number of files, many with nothing but a title. Any new, interesting and important information goes into the relevant file as I think and research about the most compelling topic in my folder for my next column. It is not a linear process; I do a lot of back and forth as I write and rewrite.
My first book, A Compassionate Journalist, the biography of senior journalist Bharat Dutta Koirala, was published in 2010. I have co-written and edited half a dozen other books, including university textbooks. Yes, I do have a plan to publish more research-based works and perhaps even some fiction someday!
What’s your suggestion for aspiring journalists? How can they sharpen their skills and craft? Are journalism schools anymore relevant these days?
The earlier generation of journalists had to spend much time in politics and press freedom advocacy. The new generation must focus on professionalism and on perfecting their craft. Ask yourself: are you attracted to journalism for its glamor or because it is your true calling?
There is no alternative to constant practice and hard work in journalism. Good writers are good listeners and readers. They accept the fact that much of what they write may not make it to print; editors can be ruthless. Learn different formats and styles, emulate great journalists, find a mentor to help you in need. Don’t limit yourself to Nepal-based media, contribute to international outlets. Over time, develop your own tricks of the trade, your own writing toolkit. Writing is an idiosyncratic process; what works best for others may not work for you.
Many journalists in the past never had formal journalism education but received some form of professional training as they worked. Language proficiency alone was considered enough for the job. Whether journalism schools are relevant or not depends on the type and level of competencies one may be able to acquire from them. Emerging topics like reporting with data, graphics, spreadsheet, digital journalism and teamwork are specialized enough to be taught by experts in some of the best journalism schools. The concern anywhere, including in Nepal, has always been that J-Schools often fail to address the workplace needs that change constantly. Schools that exemplify learning by doing are relevant indeed. This issue of relevance has become louder in the US as well and there some are proposing a new approach, something like a "teaching hospital model" of journalism. If our journalism colleges do not update their programs with relevant and useful curricula, journalists will have to depend on other alternatives to sharpen their skills.