Narayan Wagle - Journalism in Asia Today

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What is your day-to-day task in your publication/organisation?

I write political commentaries and long pieces on social issues. I am the principal writer with Setopati, a Nepali-language online current affairs portal based in Kathmandu. We, a group of journalists, with mainly print experience, established this as an alternative to the mainstream commercial media. I had worked for three different newspapers. I also became the Editor-in-Chief of two national dailies with the largest circulation in Nepal, during the politically tumultuous period of Nepal’s recent history. After two and a half decades of the day-to-day deadline rush, I am now taking a backseat role which helps me breathe, as well as get a broader view of the current state of affairs.  

What is the greatest challenge in journalism today in this region?

Journalism is challenged by the glamour, business and power of the media. There is no public service journalism. The private sector which owns the media remains fixated on profits. This competition among all commercial media outlets is not necessarily serving the true mission and spirit of journalism. We, the journalists in the region, are sharing the same concern of this over-commercialisation of media and thus our media has been prone to market pressures and compromises. 

Newspapers are not competing in terms of content but marketing and brand influence. Even the so-called alternative online media are desperate to get more visitors because they survive on Google Advertisements and local revenues. The in-depth reporting of stories from the region (or foreign news) are rare these days due to the lack of foreign correspondents. Currently, the media only has space for celebrity scandals whether they are local, national, regional or global. We are living in globalised scandals.

How important is journalism in Asia?

It has been more important as the democratic space is shrinking. Public discourse is hijacked by nationalist rhetoric, populist ideas and sellable headlines. With the rise of China and India, we need to understand the geopolitics of this region and that means greater engagement through stories. They say that this is going to be the Asian century but as a continent, there is tremendous diversity from South Asia all the way to North-East Asia. We need robust journalism that can help with a better understanding of this region.

What’s the greatest lesson you’ve learnt from another journalist in Asia?

Asia is unique in that we are very different from each other. We are global in some ways but still local in some sense. There is no formal regional grouping, so what we have is only an imagined community. Asia is also not a political entity, but just a name for countries with geographical proximity. Yet, we feel close to each other. We do not understand each other fully but we can sympathise. Can we empathise? I doubt it.

How much exposure would I have to my neighbour's media or literature? Language, the way we speak, our food, our festivals and rituals are different and yet we are so rich in terms of our diversity. The greatest lesson I've learnt from another regional journalist is I have so much to learn about others.

What do you think is the most important issue/story in your country and the region?

The erosion of public service is the most important issue in the region. Health, education and transport services are privatised and made commercial. People are inherently equal but some more important than others. Public service stories are not sellable in today’s headline hungry media. The taste of the mass media is stories on the popular and powerful – success stories that are packaged and easy to read and digest. However, the stories of the people suffering is dull, boring and deeply troubling.

What are you most optimistic about as a journalist in Asia?

We are connected more than ever today. We have digital power. We are social media rich. We have networks. We can share concerns. Photographs and other forms of art can communicate more effectively. As Asia rises, this continent challenges us to prove the relevance of journalism in society.

What does it mean to be a journalist in Asia, as compared to the rest of the world?

Asia is vast, densely populated, conflict-ridden (in some places), rapidly developing but politically, we are yet to be admired. A rising Asia means rising challenges, shifting priorities, changing dynamics and uncertain geopolitics. The question is how would powerful nations adjust? How the countries in the region resolve the challenges of nuclear threats, climate change, inequality and migration? What is the future of regional forums like ASEAN and SAARC with the rise of China? These are the challenges Asian journalists face: describing geopolitical complexities in a manner that the lay reader understands.

As the world’s most populous continent, stories from this region will naturally receive greater global attention. But more attention does not necessarily mean just happy news. Democracy, development, social justice, environmental and inequality remain important issues for journalists to pursue consistently. Even more so at a time when today’s media is geared towards easy news, clickbait and listicles.   

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Narayan Wagle is a Nepali journalist and novelist. He was the editor of Kantipur Daily, one of Nepal's largest circulating newspapers until 2008 and was also the editor of Nagarik News until 2012. Currently, he writes for Setopati.  Wagle's novel Palpasa Cafe won a Madan Puraskar award

Journalism in Asia is a collection of portraits and interviews from influential journalists in Asia presented every Monday morning. 

Zakaria Zainal