Sunday, 1 August, 2021

The Vanishing Weekly Newspapers

Dr. Kundan Aryal

With major festivals over, people have returned to their routine works. However, the people from all walks of life have been affected by COVID-19. The pandemic has affected the entire media industry as well. Some of the popular attributes of the production and distribution of contents are bound to be modified. Weekly newspapers of Nepal comprise a unique mode of production and distribution of editorialised news and views but they are now on the verge of existential crisis. For the last 10 months, newspapers and magazines have not appeared on the news-stands. Although a few copies of thin daily newspapers are hanging on the news stalls, they are unable to attract the readers. The piles of different weeklies publishing from Sunday to Saturday are being vanished rapidly from the news stalls and famous streets such as Bhugol Park and Naya Baneshwor in the capital.

Space for outlawed parties
In the earlier days, pedestrians or headline readers used to assemble in front of the papers on the footpaths. The weeklies were the close spectators of the political affairs in the country. They were the battleground for the political actors as well. Before February 1951, there was a single weekly newspaper under the direct control of the government. The dawn of democracy paved the way for the rise of newspapers, mainly the weeklies, from the private sector. A weekly, Jagaran, and a daily Awaj created a benchmark in the history of Nepali journalism. The first decade of democracy was an era of proliferation of weeklies. Subsequently, during the 30-year-long party-less Panchayat regime, the weeklies provide space for the outlawed political parties, including Nepali Congress and different factions of Nepal Communist Party to stay afloat in the masses.
The weekly papers generally contained eight pages and came out once a week. They were smaller in size in comparison to Gorakhapatra, which has continuously been showing strong presence in the market for the last 120 years. It was also a weekly in the beginning and became daily after the political change in December 1960. The weeklies are still well known for their slanted presentations. As the broadsheet like Gorkhapatra continued its influence in the media market after the 1990 political change, the weeklies began to lose the ground. Since most of them ran on low budget, they didn’t have much support for survival. One of the reasons behind their presence, despite their survival challenge, is that they are operating basically for the opinion, not for the commercial purpose. The initiation and continuity of a weekly was mostly a result of involvement its former journalists in party politics. They were arrested, sued and put behind bars before 1990 because of their political affiliation. After 1990, most of them were rewarded with public posts such as lawmakers and ministers.
Like during the French Revolution, a period of far-reaching social and political upheaval between 1789 and 1799, the newspapers served as unofficial public representation, the weeklies before 1990 played a pivotal role in favour of the democratic movement in Nepal. They disobeyed the laws, faced harsh consequences and continuously contributed to the evolution of pluralistic political culture. During the authoritarian Panchayat regime, banned political leaders could communicate with their cadres and public because of weeklies’ fearless coverage of events and pro-democracy stance.
The political cadres were themselves editors and publishers of weeklies. For instance, Bishwo Bandhu Bhandari, who was a communist activist and teacher, started a weekly named Bhanjyang from Tanahu in early 1983. He was neither a trend journalist nor an entrepreneur but he adopted journalism as a new front to wage an ideological battle for multiparty democracy. Recently, on his 72nd birthday, he brought out a compilation of editorials published in Bandying between April 18, 1983 and November 12, 2018. In the preface, he recalls his memorable three-month-long stay with incumbent PM KP Oli at Pokhara jail in 1980s.
The post-1990 witnessed the proliferation of big dailies with relatively large investment. Still the weeklies existed in the market not because they were run by a generation of journalists devoted to partisan journalism. Neither did readers loved to read them. They survived mainly because of their use for partisan interest. General understanding of a weekly newspaper in Nepal is that it covers news and analysis on current affairs in loose-sheets mostly having eight pages. Later, Kishore Nepal, a senior journalist, happens to be the father of two weeklies published from two big houses. Both the papers focusing on the subjects related to sex, gossips, entertainment and sports won over the youths and became most popular and highest circulated weekly tabloids.
A weekly news magazine named Janamanch was started with a relatively sound investment with the advent of multiparty democracy. Then came similar news magazines - Nepal and Himal, which were commercially published by two different big media houses. They gratified the audience to a greater extent. However, with the effects of the pandemic outbreak, Nepal got folded while Himal stopped its printing version and has been converted into online news portal.
Some 15 years ago, Nepali weekly newspapers were distinctly visible once again when the big dailies from the private sector started to publish an editorial on the history of monastery and socks. The daily papers, started with a large investment in the aftermath of the 1990 political change, could not continue their stance for the fundamental rights immediately after the then king Gyanendra grabbed the executive power in February 2005. However, when the anti-monarchical agitations were widespread, the dailies started to cover the movement. Subsequently, a daily was nicknamed as the 8th party by late Dr. Tulsi Giri, who was a co-chair of the council of ministers during the rule of king Gyanendra. The then Seven Party Alliance had organised the movement against the king's direct rule.

New trick for survival
The good days of the weekly papers could have been returned because of the financial crisis facing the big dailies. But the internet has drastically changed the media ecosystem. Hence, for the editors of the weeklies, it is a viable way to start a colourful online news portal than stick to the ugly newsprint papers. Hence, the critical cause behind the demise of the Nepali weeklies would be the outbreak of the pandemic.

(Dr. Aryal is associated with the Central Department of Journalism and Mass Communication of Tribhuvan