Nepal: Writing News Stories From a (Digital) Cave
A black cloth. Mugs of coffee. Internet. And five stories.
For 72 hours, five journalists were kept in a secluded house, far from bustling newsrooms and their editors. The challenge was to produce stories based on online and social media sources. No phone calls, no interviews. The event, called New Media Gufa and organised by the non-profit Media Foundation Nepal in association with Hotel Mandap and Vision for Nepal Foundation USA, took place on 7-9 September in Kathmandu, the Nepalese capital.
“Gufa means cave in Nepali,” said Binu Subedi, one of five journalists taking up the challenge. Journalists were nominated by their peers and screened by a selection committee.
In Nepali society, a cave is not just a natural underground chamber. It is the symbol of rigorous experimentation, a place for meditation, spiritual awakening and where one can contemplate on experiences. The media cave that took place in Hotel Mandap in Thamel, a major touristic hub in Kathmandu, was also given an aesthetic touch.
Journalists, researchers and social media enthusiasts bid goodbye to the five journalists at the start of the programme and welcomed the journalists after completing their Gufa hours.
Working space was given an artistic cave-like feeling, with a black cloth and dim light. Journalists weren’t allowed to talk to each other while they were inside the cave but they could interact using new media tools. They weren’t allowed to leave the hotel premises. Verbal discussion would continue only in a group meeting inside the hotel room.
And the challenge was to write news only with the help of the internet and social media-based sources.
At a time when Nepali media are still ignoring the strength of new media, five journalists were very excited in the experiential lab. They were experimenting to see whether news reporting and sourcing is possible using new media and after 72 hours they unanimously said: “It is possible.”
After coming out of Gufa, Luitel said: “Now I can say: internet-based research and sourcing is so effective for reporting.” In Nepal some media houses still block facebook and other social media sites, some allow them for few hours and some media don’t share Wi-Fi passwords with reporters, making the Wi-Fi access limited to editors only.
Journalists weren’t alone in the cave. A research team led by Dharma Adhikari, co-initiator of the Media Foundation, observed the experiment. The team observed physical gestures, modes of communication and internet use habits of journalists, which were then coded in observation sheets. The team also coded internet connectivity, online content, sourcing variations and news attributions.
Pramod Bhatta, a local physician,would come every day for a health checkup. Journalists used social media to contact sources in diverse locations, from rural Jumla to New York City. It was clearly visible on social networking sites and some sources helped with documents, quotes and pictures.
Five topics were selected out of 17. Journalists picked their topic by lottery, after a nightlong discussion. These types of discussions are hard to find in Nepali newsrooms, the journalists said.
Subedi, from Community Information Network (CIN), worked on Food Alternatives in Karnali, Luitel – on internet penetration in Nepal’s rural communities, Keshav Koirala, from The Himalayan Times, worked on climate change in the Everest region, and Arun Rai, from Republica Daily, on small town street kids.
The rule was simple: the story should have a) three local sources, b) two expert sources and 3) three data sources.
But it was not as simple as picking up the phone and dialing a number. Searching local sources was a challenging task.
“Initially it was not easy,” said Luitel.
Journalists searched Skype directory, facebook pages, groups and twitter hashtags. Some were frustrated after sources didn’t respond them even after 24 hours of a formal request made for an interview. But they didn’t stop there. They looked for more sources.
“I wanted to interview people of Jumla, which is the remotest part of the country,” Luitel said, showing some sign of relief. “When I searched the word ‘Jumla’ in Skype directory, I saw almost a dozen people who have noted Jumla as their home city. I sent them requests, explaining that I wanted to interview them for a story.” Luitel was happy when some of the people from Jumla finally accepted his request for an interview on Skype.
According to the Nepal Telecommunications Authority, 18 per cent of Nepalese have internet connection, but it is centered in the urban city life. However, journalists who participated in the experiment showed that it is also possible to contact rural and local sources using new media.
At the end of the Gufa ,journalists looked happy with what they have got online and said they were excited to use these experiences in their daily workspace. But the question remains whether media houses will make new institutional guidelines relating to the use of social media for news.
“The Gufa experience forced journalists to use only the relevant, highly authentic and credible sources by way of rigorous verification,” Adhikari said. “The newsrooms ought not be apprehensive of social media as long as they decide how they are exactly going to make use of it and ensure that it is actually being used in accordance with clearly developed institutional guidelines.”
I myself had to complete a story about the social cost of foreign employment in Nepal. It was very challenging because the story was not just about finding a source. Sources weren’t willing to talk to me on the record about their family break-ups and divorce. But after some hard work, I finally interviewed a man whose wife left the family when he was in Dubai for work and a woman whose husband is having an extra-marital affair while she works in Israel.