Q & A: Sudheer Sharma on Kantipur, Nepali Journalism & Ethics
Kantipur's editor Sudheer Sharma discusses a range of journalism issues with Gerhard Schoenhofer of Nepal Monitor.
Sudheer Sharma, 36, is the chief editor of Kantipur, Nepal's leading national daily newspaper. He has been at the helm of this newspaper since the last four years. Gerhard Schoenhofer, a student of anthropology from Germany now working with the Media Foundation, met him recently for an interview in the Kantipur complex in Kathmandu. In this interview, Sharma discusses a range of topics from political influence of popular media to the tasks media educators should aim for these days as well as the recent case of plagiarism at the newspaper, and the disciplinary measures taken in that regard. Sharma also responds to questions concerning the impact of social media on the public and the opportunities it offers in interacting with the audience of Kantipur news outlets
Photo © Gerhard Schoenhofer/Nepal Monitor
First, could you share with us your current engagements? And how did you end up being the editor of Kantipur?
Currently I am the chief-editor of Kantipur national daily, the largest selling daily newspaper in Nepal. I am in this position for almost four years now. I was with Kantipur publications for five years already as an editor and assistant editor (for one year) of the weekly newsmagazine Nepal, a sister publication of Kantipur media. Before that, I was also with another news magazine, Himal and other print media. I'm in this profession for 19 years now; and with Kantipur publishers for more than nine years. I started my career from a vernacular weekly, then I switched my work focus to news magazines and now I am busy with the daily newspaper.
What kind of education did you choose for your career?
Actually, I studied science and then I switched to humanities. For this profession I have not taken any formal or specialized course. I learned this job via learning by doing.
How do you describe the reach of Kantipur these days in the Nepali mediascape? And its influence?
Kantipur has a certain history. It is the first newspaper that started after the political change in 1990. Before, we had an autocratic type of rule. When we got a democratic system, Kantipur was started as the first large-scale private sector newspaper. Before that, there was only one government newspaper, Gorkhapatra. They had a huge circulation those days. But after a few years, Kantipur and its sister publication, The Kathmandu Post, became the number one newspaper in Nepal. Before Kantipur was established, the mainstream media of Nepal were the weekly vernaculars. But gradually, the daily papers, mainly Kantipur, took over that kind of role. Kantipur's circulation is more than 250 000 copies per day. We have several editions, from Kathmandu; it's the capital edition, and then we have regional editions from Bhiratnagar, from Bharatpur and from Nepalgunj. We also have a weekly edition being published from Doha, Qatar. We also publish other newspapers and magazines; we do have a radio and a television station as well. In the initial phase we had only Kantipur and The Kathmandu Post, so now we have an extended family. We call it the Kantipur Media Group.
I can give an example for what type of influence we have: Some leaders, who should have been responsible to complete the peace building- and constitution making process in time, were recently going on a two-week trip to Switzerland. ´We published their photos and just now, before you came here, the UML decided not to send their leaders to that foreign trip. Also the Maoists and other parties made similar decisions. It means that the Nepali society listens to what we write and what we are saying. We earn a very high degree of credibility from our readers.
And obviously you also have a high degree of political influence.
Yes, and we have become a part of our democratic movement as well. Because our profession and our newspaper can only survive in a democratic system, we are now in a transitional process, just like our country. Our declared agenda is therefore to strengthen the democratic development.
What can you tell us about the contents? What is the share of coverage in terms of politics, culture or sports, etc?
Due to the current phase of political transition, most of the front page news is political. We also cover non-political issues on the front page, but it depends on the type of situations in our country. We also consider the public sentiment, their demands and their needs. A lot of things determine the type of news we cover with priority. Two thirds of the newspaper is political. We also carry the news from outside the valley. Then we have our city page, general news and the two-page Op-Ed section. In this section we do not only publish political commentaries but also other different types of opinions, also non-political ones. And we have an art and entertainment section next to our international news section. The four-page section of business & economics comes next, leading towards the final section, the sports page. This shows that content is diverse and mixed and if you count the number of the news items, then you will see that the non-political news prevails. In the front page, though, is full of politics.
How would you define the relation between Kathmandu and the rest of Nepal in terms of spatial concentration of media, as all the big media houses are located here in the capital city? Some have even called this phenomenon "Kathmandu-centrism"?
A lot of Nepali media are Kathmandu-centric. Physically they are present in Kathmandu, their headquarters are here, but the content also is very Kathmandu-centric. But we are an exception, because we are the only media company which has a country-wide network. We have more than 100 reporters outside the Kathmandu Valley and it is only us who have the strength of such a wide network. Other newspapers lack such reach. This is also a reason for our success. We also publish news from Jhapa, it is an eastern district, as well as from the Mahakali region, in the far west. We offer diversity of news content, so we are a complete newspaper. There is a predominant focus in Nepali media to cover only Kathmandu-based events, but we do cover the country-wide, national news. Our paper also more pages compared to other newspapers, so we have relatively more space to cover those issues. We do have a wide reach, from the Kathmandu elites to the Kathmandu middle class to ordinary people outside the valley.
The term inclusion has become a major policy agenda in recent years in the media. How do you see the Nepali media covering or representing minorities like Dalits, Madhesis, Janajatis, women or children? How does Kantipur access and cover news about these groups?
As I told you earlier, we are also part of the political change, so we support these issues of inclusion, overall state restructuring and the constitution making agenda. We also give a lot of space to issues related to these groups and ethnic issues in general. It becomes visible in our news content and we leave some space in our Op-Ed page for further debates as well. Many interesting debates have grown and continued in our Op-Ed pages. We also taken the initiative to moderate some round table discussions on important contemporary topics and then published the outcome. We are very positive towards inclusion and minority issues.
Some critics have said that Kantipur has become some kind of monopolistic news outlet in terms of media production and ownership. Kantipur is big emporium and it has so many outlets, so it's pretty easy to gain a dominant position in the Nepali media, and some might even call it monopoly. What do you think about this term?
I don't want to use that word monopoly. But I can say that we have a very large influence in the Nepali society due to our reach and our success. Some people do ask questions about our superior presence in print, radio and television. Our management can give a proper answer concerning this issue, I can say only this: We have newspapers-- print media--, television and radio, and these are under our government's rules and regulations. These are operating under the proper rules and they are legitimate media.
The commercial interests have become pretty dominant these days in the media. Do you see that Nepali editors are losing their editorial independence? What kind of experience have you had as an editor here in Kantipur concerning commercial influence?
The main reason for Kantipur's success story is its editorial freedom. There is no interference from publishers or the management team in the editorial content. In the four years of my editorship, there hasn't been a single intervention from the publisher to stop publication of news or to censor news. But we faced very strange behaviors when we did not compromise on editorial content. I can give you an example: When we criticized some of the issues relating to India, our neighboring country, their Nepal policy, and the behavior of their diplomats here in Kathmandu, there were strange reactions. For example, the previous Indian ambassador Mr Rakesh Sood would get involved: Here in Nepal we have many multinational joint-venture companies from India with huge business networks. They are the major source of advertisement in Kantipur media. Mr. Sood emphatically instructed those Indian multinational companies not to advertise in the various channels of our media house. As a result, those advertisers stopped advertising in our publications for almost two years. The envoy wanted us to compromise with him on editorial content. But we didn't compromise and finally, after two years, when his term ended and he left Kathmandu, the next day those companies resumed advertising in our outlets. If commercial issues or agenda were our priorities, then we would have compromised, but that was not the case and we didn't do it. Our newsprints from Canada and South Korea were blocked for a month at the Indian port of Kolkata, in transit. Financially, that was a big loss for our company. Things like this happen, and we have experienced such things, but there is editorial freedom for me and m my team and there is no interference from the management side.
Did you face any similar issues with China?
Well, compared to India, China does not have that level of political penetration here. Yes, it may happen in the future, but not yet.
What does media professionalism and media ethics mean to you, and what overall role do they play at Kantipur?
We are only a medium to help make news accessible to the larger society. We are doing that under certain ethics developed over the years by Kantipur itself and also by our concerned authority. We have an internal code of conduct, but we also follow the code of conduct made by the Press Council as well as the government rules and regulations. I can't say that we haven't made mistakes. We have instances, some three to four cases, in which we not only took actions against those particular reporters who broke the code of conduct but also asked them to leave the company. Recently, one of our reporters was involved in plagiarism, and this was substantiated by our internal investigation. We asked for clarification and finally he left the company as we asked him to leave.
What exactly happened in this case? Some social media users portrayed it as a very extraordinary case of ethical lapse.
He was a coordinator of one of our supplements. His column was on technology issues. He copied some examples from a column in The New York Times. We found him guilty and initiated disciplinary actions against him.
Do these kinds of events harm the credibility of Kantipur?
Well, as an editor working for Kantipur I have to take the responsibility, but that was done by one particular reporter. In general, we have to trust our reporters. If somebody makes mistakes we are ready to investigate. I think the issue of plagiarism is widespread in the Nepali media, and I think it was the first time that we initiated this type of action. It was the first issue like that in Kantipur and we didn't compromise or took a lenient approach. That's not the case with other media houses.
But if these cases happen on a regular basis, it is kind of a negative factor for the credibility of the Nepali media in general. What can be done against plagiarism in order to prevent them in the future?
We took that incident as a lesson and we organized several discussions within our team and with our office-coordinators, the main responsible staff on the ground level. Everybody is now very aware about the importance of avoiding this kind of incident. We are very cautious that this type of issue shall not happen again.
Journalists might simply be too busy and there's also the issue of the lack of manpower in this sector. Some part of the responsibility to improve standards may also rest on journalism education, colleges or schools. How helpful do you think have training organizations or colleges been in developing media capacities in Nepal?
Previously, we had only few institutions that offered journalism courses such as the Nepal Press Institute. In the government university there was the RR-College, but there were only a few institutions these. Today, there are several private sector institutions. I can't tell you for sure but my impression is that the majority of these institutions are not so capable to offer some proper training. The quantity has increased but the quality hasn't. So we are thinking of establishing a separate training wing within our company. The training can be given by independent trainers from here and from abroad.
Is there already something like refresher courses, fellowship opportunities, cash incentives, awards or training being offered to staff?
Yes, we have cash incentives and also refresher trainings, but that is done by our own network and manpower. We also launched regional workshops for district reporters. But a proper way of training is still necessary. Occasionally, our reporters are also getting an orientation from different European and American institutions. Some are currently enrolled in academic and non-academic courses. Yet, we still have no proper mechanism for training. Until now, we either had to approach the private sector institutions for training possibilities or we had to make our own unit for training; so we have chosen the second option.
So that is also something you wish to have for your team? Do you think it would improve the overall quality of work?
In the course of your work you must also have a lot of contact with the young and upcoming journalists. What would you state as the special strength of this new generation of journalists? What do they lack? What kind of qualities can they offer that perhaps the older generation is missing these days?
The new generation has energy. That is a very good thing, energy to do anything, in particular risky reporting. But they have no passion. They want to be a star within a few months. For six months we can see that their energy is very encouraging but it doesn't last long, it does not continue for long. It doesn't mean that the new generation is not capable; it's due to the new generation that our media is where it is today. We have also some drawbacks, that's a fact. But overall, the new generation is very promising.
Maybe this lack of motivation, of passion, comes from the increasing commercialization of the media in Nepal?
What kind of effect has the work from you and your team had on the people here in the Kathmandu Valley? What is the implication for the people in terms of public opinion making? In what ways are these implications different here in the valley compared to somewhere in the mountains? Political discussion on new media such as Twitter and Facebook is now an essential factor also for the public opinion making, as the plagiarism case here in Kantipur one month ago demonstrated. Many people just take part in this discussion which is not possible somewhere in the villages where you don't have access to the Internet.
One good thing is that our newspaper is available in every district headquarters as well as smaller urban centers. Through that network we have a big reach in several remote villages. Kantipur is brought from the district headquarters to these villages and people there read week-old editions with interest. They have a kind of curiosity in our newspaper even when it is from days back. However, it is true that due to its size and the limitations in circulation we don't have full access to every part of our country. Still we are trying to expand the network. My feeling is that we are trying to be a bridge between the ruler community or the Kathmandu center and the people. Let me tell you what we recently did: We carried a long feature about one 18-year-old werewolf girl. She lives in a remote village in the Dolakha district. One side of her face was totally hairy dark, with fur growing all over. When we published her photo and the story about her, one of the hospitals in Kathmandu offered her free plastic surgery service. Five hours surgery, and now the girl is fine. This is only one recent case. This kind of social work continues, parallel with other types of reporting. It is true that not only media but our whole system is mainly focused and concentrated on Kathmandu affairs. That is the drawback of the Nepali media. But we are trying to break that trend.
How do you look at the consumption of news content produced in Kathmandu by Nepali migrants living, for example, in Malaysia, Kuwait or Qatar? Does it happen mainly via the Internet? Do you think people, although they are abroad, feel the need to stay in touch with the news in Kathmandu?
Yes, most readers read through the net. A huge chunk of Kantipur goes to Hong Kong daily. Also in Malaysia and other parts of the world, but in the Middle East we have a separate weekly edition of our newspaper. We publish a weekly Kantipur newspaper from Doha, and I am also the editor of that edition.
Is the content in those editions different from what you publish in Kathmandu?
The content is different. It is in a 16-page format and gets published on Friday. From Doha, we distribute it to the gulf region. In Europe and the USA, the Nepali readers access Kantipur through the Internet. We feel that the number of people accessing Kantipur through the Internet is increasing.
So Internet is becoming a big factor for accessing news and media?
Indeed. We have separate news portals in Nepali and English. Besides, we also have e-papers. Many readers access Kantipur through e-papers because they can read it on their mobile devices.
How do you personally use and access social media like Twitter? How does it contribute to your job as an editor? How do you use it as a communication tool?
Personally, I use Twitter (@sudheerktm) only, I have no Facebook account. Our news portal also uses Facebook and Twitter. I think we have to be alert about what is going on in the social media. We have to be responsible, like the recent plagiarism case showed. It was heavily discussed on Twitter and so I personally answered some of the issues concerning that case through Twitter.
Did you also post something on your personal account to help explain that?
Not only that but I also announced that we had taken disciplinary actions against that particular reporter. I posted that type of issue through Twitter. That was the first case because we had no experience to share our official matters through social media. We had to do that because we felt a very huge pressure through social media. For personal issues and also for our media house, I think social media makes Nepali media much more responsible as it is a totally different platform. We are now learning how to use and to connect social media with the print newspaper.
It's a new area now that somehow I can imagine. I guess you have much more possibilities to interact with the readers of your newspaper. If you post on a Twitter account, your message pops up immediately...
The direct interaction with the reader is definitely increasing through the social media. Before, we had only one-way access. Sure, some readers responded through posting letters but these days we are in direct exchange through social media.
Posted by Editor on April 4, 2012 2:59 AM