It comes as no surprise that the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the crisis of the news industry, long affected by losses in advertising revenue and in a desperate search for a sustainable business model.
This year, many newsrooms have had to cut costs to survive, and that usually means letting go of staff as well as print editions — if they still had one at all.
But in Nepal, one leading media outlet is going against the current.
The English-language weekly magazine Nepali Times surprised its readers on the first day of 2021 by bringing back its print edition, which had been discontinued in March 2020.
Sold at 50 Nepali rupees (0.40 USD), the 16-page publication was relaunched with a circulation of 5,000 copies.
Have you read this week's Nepali Times? The print edition is back! Grab a copy.
In this issue:
▶Journalists reflect on a year of crisis coverage
▶ Nepali overseas get the first vaccines
▶ Crisp and crackly Narayan Gopal in vinyl
▶ Death of print is exaggerated
▶ The Ass pic.twitter.com/N4lAveyJZR
— Nepali Times (@NepaliTimes) January 1, 2021
Global Voices spoke to the Nepali Times’ publisher and editor Kunda Dixit, who is also an author and a professor of media studies, to understand how he came to this decision. He said:
During the past year of the pandemic, the online readership of “Nepali Times” increased five-fold compared to pre-COVID times. We covered the pandemic in all its aspects, and the average time readers spent on a page rose to an all-time high of 4 minutes. However, revenue suffered. As the economy collapsed, there was no advertising, and no subscription income. As both editor and publisher of the paper, I had to get our team to work on tiding over the crisis so we could at least pay salaries. We had to cut staff, lower costs. But after finding no other way to raise revenue, we brought out a trial print edition in October 2020, and were encouraged by the response from both readers and advertisers. Our preliminary survey showed that print had a prospect.
Last year, Nepali Times asked its readers what they missed the most about the print version. Their testimonies were included on this January 2021 video:
As Dixit points out, readers’ experience is key — it varies widely for the same content when viewed on a centrefold spread or on a small mobile phone.
Indeed, most readers featured in the video indicate they miss the feeling of reading on paper, of enjoying large-print photos or the reading ritual during breakfast.
A shifting scene
Nepali Times was founded in April 2000, and for a while, it was one of the only news websites in the country. In July, it launched its print edition.
South Asia has a long tradition of newspaper reading — in India, some daily papers have a circulation of over 5 million copies.
Eventually, the Nepalese Civil War caught up with the magazine: It came under censorship in 2005 when the country's last king imposed a state of emergency. Shortly after, Maoist cadres who were unhappy with its reporting of the events on the ground vandalised the magazine's offices and physically attacked its staff.
In March 2020, as the magazine was preparing to celebrate their 1,000th issue, the pandemic brought major setbacks. As Dixit recalls: “We had to sell off our printing press, and ensure that ‘Nepali Times’ and our sister magazine, ‘Himal’, survived as digital-only products.”
Giving up completely was never an option, Dixit says, because of the magazine's role in the local media landscape:
Nepali Times, because it is in English, is restricted to academics, researchers, business and corporate houses, decision-makers, senior bureaucracy and Nepal's international partners. As such, the paper always had clout that was disproportionate to its circulation numbers. Our aim has always been to bring the reality of Nepal in all its aspects (especially the under-served and neglected) to the notice of the movers and shakers in Kathmandu. We practice solution-oriented journalism — not just exposing wrong-doing and what is wrong, but that things can be set right, and profiling people who survive and thrive despite all odds.
Nepal indeed presents unique challenges to publishers. There are at least 129 languages spoken in the country; the national literacy rate is under 70 percent, and internet access remains limited in the mountainous regions outside of the capital.
Besides, media consumption habits are constantly changing, as an article published in the Nepali Times January 1 edition unpacks:
[A survey] showed that the proportion of Nepalis who watch TV overtook radio listeners last year. This is a major change because Nepal's FM radio networks had been supreme for decades. But even TV is now facing a serious challenge from social media, and the rise of Facebook, YouTube and TikTok.
Dixit concludes that changes in demographics and better connectivity for mobile data might signify the end of print media — with very few exceptions:
Trade and specialty magazines may still be able to sustain themselves from ads, but general interest magazines and newspapers will have to plan for and move towards a digital-print hybrid, or even re-invent themselves as digital-only products. The eyeballs are dragging us in that direction, and this is a challenge not just for content producers, but also for those who are working on the new business model for media. How do we preserve the public service role of media in a democracy, while at the same time keep ourselves financially afloat? The media's political independence stems from its economic independence, and the new dependence on analytics and clickbait could lead us astray from the main mission. We have seen even in advanced and large democracies in the past few years how fragile that independence is.