20-26 June 2014 #712

Setopati's one year

Success of digital-only portal indicates that online media has attained critical mass in Nepal
Kunda Dixit

INSIDE NEWSROOM: Ameet Dhakal with his technical manager at the Setopati office in Jhamsikhel earlier this month.
The biggest surprise about a news portal a year after it started is not that it has 500,000 users per month, but that it is a shoestring operation run out of an improbable hole-in-the-wall office in Jhamsikhel.

When asked how many people are logged in to setopati.com at that moment, founder editor Ameet Dhakal (pic, right) whips out an iPad to confirm that more than 465 people all over the world are reading the portal even as we speak. We notice that Dhakal’s iPad has seen better days, its touchscreen is cracked and taped up.

“We don’t have deep pockets, we have no pockets,” quips Dhakal. “I could have bought a new tablet, but this one still works.”

Indeed, in the brave new world of digital media setopati.com is turning everything on its head. It has shown that you don’t need massive investment, there is no gestation period for startups and journalists can be their own bosses.

Dhakal had worked before at The Kathmandu Post and helped start Republica but quit after differences with publishers. He joined up with like-minded editors Narayan Wagle and Yubaraj Ghimire to launch Setopati on 1 April 2013.

Having seen the potential for online media in Nepal in their previous jobs, and convinced that they didn’t want to work for anyone anymore, Dhakal and Wagle decided to start a Nepali news portal with serious, exclusive and investigative content in longform journalism format.

“If we had started a newspaper, we would never have got this kind of readership within one year,” says Dhakal, “and all journalists need readers.”

Whereas a popular story in the print media would be read by 20,000 people at most, Setopati’s most read story by Kamala Thapa about her botched delivery at a maternity hospital got 325,000 readers and nearly 24,000 shares on Facebook. A profile of heart surgeon Bhagwan Koirala by Binita Dahal was read by 125,000 people in the first week of publication.

“I could never have got that kind of readership when I was working for Nagarik,” Dahal, who used to be a Setopati reporter and is now with BBC Nepali said.

With the number of Facebook users approaching 4 million and 400,000 on Twitter, Nepal now has a critical mass of online users. Low startup costs mean that new portals are sprouting all over the place. Mainstream media also have digital editions, although in many cases their sites are just dumping ground for print content.

Setopati has tried to ride this digital wave, and has managed to prove wrong a lot of assumptions about online media. Says Dhakal: “Setopati is proof that you don’t need multimedia content or light sensational news to attract readers.”

Even the readership breakdown indicates that Setopati users in the diaspora are more high-brow and don't follow popular entertainment and gossip-driven portals. The Gulf countries and Malaysia are not among Setopati’s top ten countries: it is Nepalis in the US, Australia, UK, South Korea and Japan who login most frequently.

Ameet Dhakal with his ipad.
The most pressing challenge for the portal is to make the venture sustainable. There is virtually no advertising on Setopati, including from Google Adsense since the portal is in Nepali. Dhakal is planning on launching an aggressive marketing drive to cash in on the eyeballs, and perhaps even a voluntary subscription model in the future. He doesn’t rule out accepting donor funding.

Says Damakant Jayshi of Panos South Asia and Dhakal’s former colleague at Republica: “Setopati is refreshing, it is doing what Nepali language journalism sorely lacked: perspective and analysis. It is a must-read portal for me, but needs to expand its coverage.”

Setopati spent its first year maximising readers, which it did successfully. The reason Setopati hasn’t spent resources on augmenting content with video and images is because of low bandwidth in Nepal, Dhakal explains, but all that could change with the spread of 4G enabled mobile platforms. “We want to earn our readers, not buy them,” he adds.

The name ‘setopati’ (which means whiteboard) came about by chance as the original team was at a brainstorming retreat and discussing possible names for the portal, as it turns out, on a whiteboard.

But perhaps the most telling measure of setopati.com’s success is not the surprising number of readers it has amassed so fast, but that it has so many copycats with names like ‘ratopati’ and the soft porn site ‘nilopati'. Imitation, after all, is the best form of flattery.

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