Interview with Deepak Adhikari – “Journalists should listen, not talk"
File: Deepak Adhikari by Arun Budhathoki/Anna Note.
Deepak Adhikari is an author and a journalist. He has worked for wire services including Agence France-Presse, Anadolu Agency. He has also worked as a reporter and editor for Nepal Weekly Magazine and Kantipur Daily. He has contributed to Time magazine, The Caravan, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Al Jazeera English, Outside Magazine, The New York Times, Himal Southasian, among others. He’s currently the Nepal correspondent for DPA, German Press Agency.
Adhikari started his journalism career from Dristi Weekly, had a stint with Nepal Weekly magazine, Hello Shukrabar (Kantipur) and then transitioned to English medium after winning a fellowship in the U.S.
Arun Budhathoki talked with Deepak Adhikari about his transition from Nepali journalism to English and how it has shaped his worldview and writings.
Can you tell us about your shift to English journalism from Nepali?
Although I started my journalism career in the mid-nineties, I started writing in English only in 2008. I worked for Nepal Weekly magazine between 2003 and 2008. It was working there towards the end of my stint in 2008 when I won the Alfred Friend Press Fellowship. I think that was my main transition because until then I used to write mostly in Nepali for Nepal Weekly magazine. I occasionally wrote short pieces for The Kathmandu Post and blogged for The United We Blog, one of Nepal’s pioneering blogs. After winning the fellowship, I realized that there are opportunities to write in English and that’s when I got started. Even now there aren’t enough reporters to cover the local and national news. I felt I had to capitalize on the gap and that’s how I made the transition to English journalism.
You started writing in English after you won the Alfred Friendly Press Fellowship in 2008. Did your six months in the US help you to sharpen your craft and skills?
That was a great opportunity for me. It was my first trip to the United States. But I was there not just as a visitor but to learn about American journalism and see how it could be replicated in Nepal. It was really helpful. We were altogether ten journalists from India, Pakistan, China, and other countries. We had a two-week boot camp. The orientation we had there was a good exposure to American journalism. Although I had done some groundbreaking investigative reporting in Nepali surrounding issues such as organ trafficking, human rights abuses and the crackdown on free media during Nepal’s insurgency, I got to learn new techniques and skills during the fellowship. I was given stipends to attend workshops and conferences in various places like New York and in Poynter Institute, Florida, where we were trained by Roy Peter Clark. The fellowship encouraged me to pursue journalism in English and write more about Nepal. It was an eye-opening experience.
How did you start your career in English journalism? Can you tell us about your stint at wire agencies like Agence France-Presse (AFP), Anadolu Agency and DPA?
I returned to Nepal in October 2008 and started working at Kantipur daily. I think it was in 2009 when I wrote for Time magazine for the first time on Somali refugees. I had written about it in Nepal Weekly magazine previously. I pitched the idea to Time magazine as I felt it had an international appeal. After my first break at the magazine, I started to contribute political stories for them. In 2010 I was offered the job of Nepal correspondent for AFP. Since I had already written few articles for Time and others, it was not hard for me to make the shift. It was my time at AFP that really pushed my career in international journalism because working for news wire is like working in a news factory where you churn out copies one after another. I used to write spot news, breaking news, and even features. Since the AFP is subscribed by leading newspapers across the world, I was widely read. There was a guy in Oman who used to send me an email with an attachment of my stories on PDF published there. I really honed my writing skills in AFP. It taught me to be really fast in reporting, writing and filing copies. Other times I gathered story ideas and talked with people for feature stories. I think we at AFP did some remarkable stories during my stint there. It was also politically turbulent times as the promulgation of the constitution was delayed. We got the opportunity to report on these issues. It also helped me build sources and relationships, which are a key to reporting out of Nepal.
A wire agency really helps you to find sources, verify the news and write it quickly. I worked for three years at AFP and that’s where I learned the tricks of the trade. Moreover, I developed the habit of voraciously reading wire news from across the globe. Then, I would think whether similar stories could be generated in the context of Nepal. Also, one should research a lot before writing to be 100 percent sure about the topic. Data journalism is another area that has attracted me of late. I depend on governmental and non-governmental data to write stories. Most importantly, I try to bring in nuances in my reporting. In wire service, there is what I call ‘Everest obsession’. Anything related to Everest is news. I have done my share of reporting on Everest and I continue to write about various aspects of mountaineering, but it is one of the cliché topics when it comes to covering Nepal. We must get rid of this and challenge ourselves. We must look for under-reported stories in Nepal. The foreign media has yet to expand its foothold in Nepal. For me, this is an opportunity to do under-covered stories. Or, even those widely covered stories which are better sourced and provide new insights. I have made it a point to search for such stories, and that’s what I’ve been doing for the past several years.
My term at AFP was a crash-course for me.
After leaving AFP, I joined Anadolu Agency and now I’m with DPA. I feel great to write for DPA, whose copies are widely read in many parts of the world including in Germany where the news wire is headquartered.
How to pitch to editors?
First, you need to believe in yourself because there are times when you get rejected, which can be followed by self-doubts and desperation. Second, you need to have a well-researched proposal. Third, you need to have an editor’s contacts. Fourth, you need to be persistent because editors can snub your ideas. It’s the task of editors to ask for a solid proposal from reporters and journalists or else they will ramble on and digress from the original idea.
The idea of writing one paragraph about the pitched idea exists in western newsrooms but not here. That’s why I spend most of my time in research and writing outline. At times I spend more time doing that than reporting and writing the story.
Why do you think English journalism in Nepal is treated as the shadow of Nepali press? How can English journalism in Nepal move ahead? Why do you think most mainstream media run English newspapers (print or online)?
Of course, Nepali journalism is far better than English journalism in Nepal. It is mainly because mainstream media publishes an English newspaper as a sister publication. But it’s not the case in Bhutan and India. I mean, I don’t understand media houses who start a Nepali newspaper feel it necessary to publish English version too. I feel the readership for English media is low in Nepal and the main problem is you don’t find good writers to write for English newspapers.
On the other hand, I can’t find people who can type in Nepali. In a decade or so, you will face difficulty in finding a good Nepali reporter because of the shift towards education in English medium. We are producing a generation which will not have good command over the Nepali language.
The problem also lies in our education system. We aren’t encouraged to write creatively; the culture of plagiarizing is massive. There’s no proper culture of reading and if you don’t read, then you can’t be a good writer. The other problem with English journalism is that those who can write good English get offers from donor agencies and companies abroad. So they feel reluctant to join English newspapers since the pay is low and they are soon discouraged by the ‘internal politics’ in an organization. There’s hardly a culture of professionalism in our mediascape. It suffers from mediocrity. I think unless the culture of ‘chakadi-chaplusi’ doesn’t go away, both English and Nepali journalism will be in the state of a limbo because those who are closer to their bosses are greatly benefited, while those who don’t, but work hard are often sidelined.
We are influenced by Indian journalism. It’s not really a great model to follow.
You will have to look elsewhere to train yourself in good writing. Although there are some excellent platforms such as The Caravan, online news sources such as The Wire and Scroll.in, but overall, Indian newspapers lack the kind of feature writing that is the hallmark at New York Times or The Guardian.
It’s funny, the way news is reported in some of the mainstream Indian newspapers. The thief always absconds in an Indian media, and reporters refrain from using the word ‘alleged’. The sad part is that there is a trial by media where the arrested person is described as ‘guilty’ and is termed as a criminal already. The journalists aren’t trained properly to report and write on the complex subjects that demand rigor and deep dives. This bad practice is mirrored in Nepali media. Like so much else, we learned professional journalism with the help of Indian media houses. So it’s natural to be influenced by them. But we need to find our own vocabulary. We need to emulate the likes of the industry leaders I mentioned earlier.
In-house training doesn’t exist in Nepali newsroom. There’s hardly any time for mentoring and grooming because reporters and a handful of editors they work with are pre-occupied with filling the space with their newspapers or online media.
Good stories cannot be found in English media because the workforce is limited compared to Nepali media. Only half human resource is allocated to the English newspapers in comparison to their Nepali counterpart.
I think most mainstream media run English newspapers (print or online) mainly due to Google ads because the Nepali language is not entitled to it. Also, more people are turning to English and there’s a whole lot of younger generation who are growing up in the English language. It’s about time the English press stopped being the second fiddle.
What is journalism to you? Where does it stand in Nepal compared to other South Asian countries? How far will it go?
I became a journalist by accident.
I grew up in Phidim where I was involved in poetry and writing. Books were a part of my life. I didn’t secure enough marks for science stream so I switched to journalism. But in a way, my upbringing had prepared me to be a journalist.
Professional journalism is quite vibrant in Nepal even though it started only in the early 1990s. Before that, we had ‘mission journalism’. The sole aim of the journalists during Panchayat years was to fight against autocracy. Then, journalists took sides and journalism wasn’t free from bias or freedom.
Currently, Nepal’s journalism has done a great deal to make authorities accountable. I would like to cite the case of Lokman Singh Karki. Although many civil rights activists fought against his authoritarian apparatus, it was journalists like Krishna Gyawali of Kantipur, whose relentless and dogged reporting led to his downfall. We still do not know how the bureaucrats were threatened by the parallel government created by Karki. He ran a deep state, didn’t he? That story was a big one in Nepal, but the fuller version of that terror apparatus is yet to see the light of the day. I think media really helped to expose him and dissolve the parallel government. Media, in that sense, has played a big role over the years in shaping Nepali democracy.
Nepal often sees India for media because they have old and vibrant one. Whereas in Bhutan they have just started doing it, and other South Asian countries are doing well, too.
Are you planning to publish a book? Can you tell us about your contribution for Garrisoned Minds and Caravan’s Book of Profiles?
‘Garrisoned Minds’ is a collection of twelve long-form stories published by Speaking Tiger. It was a result of Panos South Asia Fellowship on the militarization of women in South Asia. My contribution is a 5,000-word profile on Kushal Rakshya, a former commander of the Maoist People’s Liberation Army. It’s a counter-narrative which I think was long overdue since, like war, its narrative is also dominated by men. But contrary of the official versions, women have fought a lot in Nepal’s civil war and the Maoists even claimed that 40% of their recruits were women. The tendency to glamorize women fighters was rampant and I really thought that writing a profile piece would do justice to the remarkable story of the female fighters.
The Caravan Book of Profiles is a collection of twelve profiles published by Caravan magazine, India. It includes my profile of Prachanda and I have a foreword for my chapter. The book has just come out in India and it includes other South Asian personalities.
On my book, I’m thinking to work on it but the market for fiction and nonfiction books in Nepal is slim and English books aren’t well-read here. In Nepali, I haven’t found a story that grabs me but in English, I have a few ideas in my mind. But since I work full time as a wire reporter, I do not have enough time to write a book. Writing a book doesn’t entail random observations. You have to do a thorough work and spare a lot of time for the project. So for someone like me who works for a wire agency, time is a major factor to work on books.
What is lacking in English journalism in Nepal? Can you tell us about long-form writing?
There’s a lot of room to improve English journalism in Nepal. English language journalism is a window into the country since most foreigners who do not understand Nepali, rely on it to learn about Nepal. Therefore, for this group producing excellent writing with a strong editing really matters here, but which unfortunately is sorely lacking in our country. Also, our newsroom is still not diverse. This has to change in order to make the media dynamic and strong. Most journalists and reporters live in the bubble of Kathmandu. They quote the same bunch of a dozen or so experts. The onus is on journalists to find new voices and allow them spaces for their critical perspectives. That’s why critical thinking is a must and that’s where education comes to the rescue. Our education system needs to be fixed. Our English journalism needs to be flourished and strengthened.
As I said earlier, there are a lot of resources on the internet. You can search for western and South Asian media who publish long-form writing. The idea is to find a similar kind of story and pitch the idea to editors. The problem in English media in Nepal is that long-form writing is almost non-existent; however, Nepali media have encouraged this form of writing. On the other hand, the definition of long-form writing is ambiguous. If the reporting and writing are good, then the produced material will be a good one automatically. Even photo documentary can be a long-form genre. A journalist needs to spend a few weeks or months to produce a long-form feature and an editor should spend ample time to guide the journalist. Most importantly, an outlet should give space to long-form writing. The writing should be interesting because if the article can’t keep me hooked after reading 1,000 words then it is not substantial.
Writing long won’t make a piece worth reading, the reporting should be good. I feel that there are several stories to be written in Nepal but unfortunately, we lack resources and outlets. In Nepali, I would like to mention a few works. Sudheer Sharma’s Prayogshala, nonfiction on the role of India, palace and Maoists in Nepal’s political transition, Janak Raj Sapkota’s narrative on migrant workers, Kahar and reportages from India and Africa by ace reporter Devendra Bhattarai are some examples of good pieces of long-form in the format of the book or in newspapers. Also, I was impressed by Sudeep Shrestha’s work at Setopati on scientists researching on the historical evidence of Nepal’s earthquakes. He made such a complex subject very palatable to laymen readers, which every journalist should aspire to do.
How can English journalism improve in Nepal? Do you think the ‘profit’ mentality has constrained its growth? What is the role of the state, media conglomerates, and private companies towards English journalism?
State media is just propaganda and not a lot is happening there. I think it’s time that a quality niche media should come out dealing with topics like food, lifestyle, and architecture. We still have a few but the materials they publish are not up to the standard.
We lack a rigorous editing in Nepali media and this should be addressed immediately.
There’s a tendency in Nepal to assign a reporter for what they call ‘beat’ in which each one reporter covers a political party. It’s time we went thematic in the view of federalism and expansion of journalism. If you see western media outlets, then they have journalists who focus on just one theme. That really helps the journalist to produce qualitative write-ups. I think the traditional beats are overarching and editors need to rethink about it. There should be a bureau for refugees, minority issues, environment, earthquakes, and migrant workers. The topics can be extensive and that’s why bureaus should be created for thematic issues. But I don’t see this happening in Nepali journalism. The challenge is what the media in Nepal can do to work on this deficit. English journalism should make sure that it doesn’t just focus on political parties and what politicians say.
A journalist should think like a sociologist—what’s going around you.
Media should pay journalists on time and only then they won’t do freelancing work, commit to ghostwriting, and act as a consultant. Sadly, this is not the case right now since many journalists moonlight as writers of autobiographies or do other works for the sake of money. And I don’t blame them for doing that.
Why do you think mainstream media are reluctant to pay journalists? Is this the trend in South Asia? How can we make media pay to journalists so that this sector will last for long? What future do you see of journalism in coming days?
The problem in Nepal is that despite the massive profits made by mainstream media, they pay badly to writers. It is almost impossible to be a freelance journalist in Nepal because the pay they get for a story or a feature won’t even buy a lunch for them. However, some of the regular columnists get paid pretty well. Kathmandu is an expensive city and I think it’s unfair that writers are paid poorly. Even in India pay is very low. Also, for Nepali writers who write for Indian outlets, getting paid is difficult due to the complicated banking system between the two countries. I think low-pay and not getting paid on time are two the biggest problems right now.
Now things are changing since the minimum pay has been fixed by the government and a few media outlets have agreed to it. If media wants quality writing, they must pay to freelance writers and journalists.
Do you have any words of advice to aspiring journalists? How can the next generation of Nepalis prepare themselves to safeguard English journalism in Nepal?
Just because you have a good degree and command over the English language is not enough to become a good journalist. Experience is important. You must travel within the country extensively, and also make contacts with people with diverse backgrounds.
Travel a lot. Read a lot. Talk to different people.
And try to get an understanding of your own experience as a reporter because that will help you in one of your works or else you have to rely on others’ experiences. A journalist should possess these qualities: empathy, integrity, kindness and honesty. If a person is not honest by nature, then it will reflect in the writing—resulting into a fake, and bogus journalism.
You need to have a moral compass because education and language skills will only take you to a certain extent. You must be able to be empathetic to other people and even to nature.
Try to be open, listen, observe and learn things from different angles. In writing the way you see things matters. If you can’t notice things what others don’t then you won’t be able to write unique materials. Young journalists should find materials online to learn more about writing and enhancing their technique and craft.
The job of a journalist, at least for reporters of print or online media, is to listen, not talk. And journalists should focus on their craft because you express via words and you should be good at using them. In Nepal, we have plenty of good reporters but they are bad writers. If you are not a good writer, then you can’t become a good journalist. The craft is extremely important.
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