It was in 1901 this day that the Gorkhapatra weekly debuted as Nepal’s first newspaper whose name became synonymous with journalism. Other newspapers began arriving more than 50 years later, coinciding with the 1951 advent of democracy. On his way back home after he visited Britain in 1850, the first Rana Prime Minister Jung Bahadur’s unaccompanied luggage included a printing press that had an eagle metal craft atop it. That is how the machine got its name in Nepali: Giddhe Press. Reduced to near scrap after several decades of use churning out official documents and later gifted to the Gorkhapatra, its remains were handed over to the National Museum in the early 1980s when Bharat Dutt Koirala was the corporation’s executive chairman after serving the Gorkhapatra as editor. Only the scrap of the pioneering printing press might greet us today but the newspaper it printed with such dogged loyalty survives as one of the oldest of its kind in Asia.
♦ Careful treading Rana Prime Minister Dev Shumsher was forced out of office at gunpoint aimed by his fraternity before he could complete four months in the all-powerful seat installed by Jung Bahadur in 1846 in the wake of the severe Kot incident. By the time he died 12 years later, the newspaper had inched its way as the only news publication under the suspicious eyes of his successor Chandra Shumsher. Contributions made by editors and other staff members cannot be overlooked. Working in different politically exacting environs was strenuous. Among the galaxy of stalwarts in this undertaking was Chandra Shumsher’s son-in-law Jaya Prithvi Bahadur Singh, a humanist, social reformer, educationist and globe-trotting philosopher. Finding Nepal’s prevailing political atmosphere too suffocating, the law graduate from the University of Calcutta preferred to live in exile, espouse humanism and promote the spirit of fraternity. Ram Raj Poudel, who was among the earliest to scribe books on journalism and media in Nepali, before serving as secretary at the Ministry of Information and Communications, also headed the paper, as did his father and grandfather. His love for Gorkhapatra was manifested in his dying desire to be wrapped in copies of the oldest newspaper at the funeral pyre. His family obliged him. Ram Chandra Gautam, who held a trio of Master’s degrees — Nepali, Sanskrit and Journalism — died in harness, when a massive heart attack struck him when he was in his editorial chair before being rushed to hospital and being breathed his last. Survival is the primary task for any publication. But mere circulation does not offer ground for satisfaction. Quality content alone sustains established image, reputation and public expectations. Initiatives inspired by positive imagination and translated into action should stand in good stead in media annals. Print history in Nepal credits government initiative for the pioneering newspaper. As in most other countries, South Asian states, in general, chronicled the launch of newspapers first by private individuals and business companies. In the broadcast sector — both radio and television — the state-owned, and continues to own, the services in almost all countries, often as a virtual monopoly. Advanced information and communication technology of the 1990s and after created new vistas for disseminating contents in vast volume and variety. The Gorkhapatra was the first news daily to use computer typing and get printed on an offset press in Nepal. The closing decade of the 20th century saw a welcome change in the Nepalese media landscape. Media outlets multiplied in numbers and content niche. By the 2010s, the number of daily papers crossed the 100 mark. Private radio, today, is closing in on the four-figure stands while formally registered online news portals, too, drive toward a similar direction. For a paper like the Gorkhapatra and its sister daily The Rising Nepal, also the country’s first English broadsheet that now circulates as the oldest English daily, it is high time they devoted to public service journalism in all its aspects. In his Public Journalism — Defining a Democratic Art, American scholar Merritt Davis says: “Public journalism seeks to define and learn a different set of reflexes, one that has a purpose beyond telling the news. It seeks to break away from the concept of One Journalism.” Gorkhapatra would not be commended had the editorial department’s collective efforts were poor. Editors who never showed in positive attitude on record installed. They never write anything before or after their stint in the paper. Among those who made their way to the top through a career developed in the paper itself, only contribute write-ups to their alma mater in their post-retirement period. Nirmal Acharya and Kamal Rijal are two of them. Krishna Bhakta Shrestha, who, after working 20 years for The Rising Nepal, migrated to the Nepali publications in the mid-1980s. Even after retirement, he contributed literary pieces to Madhupark, which he edited for several years before taking the reins of Gorkhapatra. Recently, he handed over to Madan Puraskar Putakalayaan an extremely rare copy of The Rising Nepal’s first issue, signed by the then Crown Prince Birendra.
♦ Readers’ preferences If promises and claims were the measures of success, Nepal would have long ago been listed in the world's most prosperous and happy nations. In Gorkhapatra’s case, too, mutual congratulations do not suffice. Reading audiences and their preferences are the real barometer regarding its content value. No institution in a competitive sector can live off its past glory alone. It should move with the times. The opportunity is to carve a niche for itself at a time when credibility continues to be a casualty in a culture of basically partisan character among many a news outlet. Only one-third of the audiences in the US and major European countries trust the media. Nepal's case can be better surmised than be proved in the absence of any reliable survey. News no longer is just what you did not know YESTERDAY, but what you do not know right NOW. Instant journalism creates both opportunities and challenges. Advanced technology has opened new vistas for content depth and expansion in quality and variety. The biggest task is to cope with the stiff competition in a limited market marked by a high density of news outlets that struggle to survive, let alone thrive. Gorkhapatra now needs to strive for additional strides and energy for doing yet better, underscoring its need and significance into the third decade of the new millennium. Tall order? Far from so. Concentrate on the content befitting the ideals and ideas tossed up by the existing political make and conditions.
(Professor Kharel specialises in political communication.)