Ulaanbaatar’s treasure trove of rare Buddhist manuscripts

Scholars believe it to be the world’s largest treasury of ancient Buddhist texts. The sheer immensity of the collection held in the National Library of Mongolia has prevented a proper tally to date.

The National Library, located in a stout Soviet-era neoclassical building in downtown Ulaanbaatar, is estimated to contain over a million scholarly and religious Buddhist works. Besides original works from Mongolia, the library has rare copies of the early Tibetan Buddhist canon—sacred contemporary records of the Buddha’s oral teachings, called the Kangyur, and commentaries and treatises on the teachings of the Buddha, the Tengyur.

I was literally speechless when I first visited the storage vaults of the National Library of Mongolia to follow up on whispers I had heard of a priceless collection of Buddhist manuscripts tucked away and barely spoken of. The dim lit passage of shelves upon shelves stockpiled with manuscripts bound in colourful cloth, broke the gloom with an aura of warmth and an almost palpable ambience of sacredness. This collection had been locked away for many years as the Library was short on funds to understand what the collection was worth and to try and study and preserve them. The Mongolian government had funded some preservation work and many rare treasures had been identified. But hundreds and thousands more were yet to be identified, work that is now fitfully progressing thanks to foreign assistance.

This was my latest pice for Eurasianet.org. The full story can be viewed on their website here.

Meanwhile here are a few extra photos from the days spent at the library.

130208_IMG_8761With limited storage space, many bundles of texts are placed in makeshift shelves in the Library’s store room.130208_IMG_8783Less than 70 percent of the texts have been studied and catalogued. The new label shows this volume has been registered.130208_IMG_8811A staff worker shows damaged parchment. Many of the texts are in a fragile state and in danger of further damage.130208_IMG_8826The Tibetan script of this wooden block print is transliterated word for word into Latin script and stored in a data base as part of a recent cataloguing project launched by U.S non-profit, Asian Classic Input Project (ACIP)

130208_IMG_8847The Soviet-era National Library of Ulaanbaatar houses one of the largest singles collection of Buddhist texts in the world

A volume of Tibetan sutras awaits it's turn to be studued and catalogued.A volume of Tibetan sutras awaits it’s turn to be studied and catalogued.

IMG_8746_7D_130207A collection of Sanskrit verses of the 1-2 A.D. Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna inscribed on birch bark is one of the most precious collections of the Museum.IMG_8761_7D_130207A professional photographer is called in as part of a renewed effort to keep proper records of precious sutras that have been identified and registered.   130208_IMG_8792A staff worker shows the charred edges of a block printed collection of sutras rescued from a monastery destroyed during the communist purges of the 1930’s.

Eeks! Mobile phones killed the DSLR…Never!!…Or?…

I have long been a healthy skeptic in the idea of mobile phones being the future of convergent newsrooms. I say healthy because my argument, as other nay-sayers before, often rests solely on the quality. I’m unconvinced smart phones can replace the sensors and glass of DSLRs.

Living in Mongolia where countryside assignments can leave you without mobile reception for weeks, 3G was rather useless. I owned assorted paraphernalia for professional grade multimedia gathering. I am not a breaking-news reporter but focus on features.

I clung to the why go smart affront.

Then I got me an iPhone. For emails only I said. Then, not too bad these shots in good light. And wow it’s discreet. I’d never try shoving my 24-70mm f2.8 there.  And what more, a visit to a manual textile-weaving workshop in Spain minus gear-bag resulted in an impromptu inspired video (see below).

In today’s world of instant news where Twitter is the new newswire, smart phones are essential for news gathering as much as for news dissemination and digestion. They are handy for clandestine shots and when essential gear gets left behind when absent-mindedness attacks, as in the case of  WBUR Public Radio’s Bianca Toness.

I doubt smart phones will ever truly replace mirrors and lenses for antiquity romantics just embracing digital. But in todays’ nano tech world, practicality will dominate for a majority. As Mobile Journalism Pundit Stephen Quinn spells in his book – “A revolution is happening in the way journalists gather and deliver news using only a mobile phone.”

The smart phone is here to stay and can only evolve to something better. DSLR sound saviors Rhode are already testing an iPhone equivalent. But till then, there’s still room for the gear-lugging-loving field journalist.

How can social networking and social media best work with converged media?

The first thought that crossed my mind when asked this question by a professor was – Could  online convergence work without social media? Where would the audience be without the community of web trawling, sharing, re-sharing, reposting, networking, faithful lot.

The first ever Youtube video was posted in April 2005 and since, almost every major media organization with multimedia content has an Youtube account, regardless of the video streaming service utilized on their homepage. The same can be said of Twitter and Facebook.

Social media has become a necessary medium for drawing traffic. A research by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) found that news sites receive 9 percent of their traffic from social media, a modest figure but one expected to grow. In March 2012, the Guardian discovered Facebook referrals drove 30 percent of its 70 million unique monthly browsers to their website.

Twitter director of content and programming, Chloe Sladden, created a stir when she remarked “Twitter is the new newswire,” at a media conference, to assert her belief that newsrooms should be breaking news on twitter and drawing audiences to their home page for follow up. The relationship between social media and convergent newsrooms is a symbiotic one. In the words of the Chief Executive of Digital First Media, John Patton – “No social media connection. No news organization.”

The present challenge, as the PEJ report presents, is how can this translate to revenue?

N.B: Much of this post is a rough summary of the linked PEJ report. A resourceful read for more on the relationship between social media and online newsrooms.

Subsidizing my Journalism: The year in Client Commissioned Work

In trying to establish myself as a freelance journalist while experimenting with video and photography, I realized the bills and gear acquisition list were piling up faster than income was pouring in. As a freelancer, I was making more money editing, shooting photographs  and writing for commercial magazines than from journalism direct. But journalist was the title I liked to use best when asked my métier. Freelancer was too vague and media professional seemed a trite too lofty when said, though inscribed so on my LinkedIn page. But then what do you call someone willing to write and shoot for money so long as the subject complemented my interest and to an extent beliefs.  Then, at a time when loved ones were subsidizing both me and my various expensive hobbies and journalism gave me some credibility but little else materially, came a chance from a  private business. “Can you make us a video?,” said they. “You mean a corporate ad?,” said I. “No,” said they. “Not about us. Just a video that captures the youth and dynamic energy of Ulaanbaatar and gives outsiders a visual clue of the enormous growth potential in Mongolia…and a glimpse of the real estate market. We’d like you to give us a quote.”

It was that last sentence that echoed awhile in my year and, equally important, I also liked the subject but truth was till then I had filed a few TV reports moonlighting as a TV correspondent for Iran’s Press TV, made a few honest rough cut self-shot edited videos but that was it. And I wanted a new pair of lens bad. Audacity had a big part to play in fairing out a creative brief and making a quote that was instantly approved. No pledging my case for additional production allowance from stern editors.  But was I really capable of producing work that could please clients and how much creative independence would I have? UB Rising was the video that came out of my first commercial commissioned work. I listed the help of a brilliant photographer friend to help with shooting footage. Pierre graduated from one of the best agricultural engineering schools in France but decided to trade his degree for his passion for photography. He had come to Mongolia with his wife who had been sent to head a NGO project. Though hard schooled in analog photography, Pierre was no analog snob and keenly followed digital advancements. It didn’t take much convincing to entice him to experiment with the movie mode on his DSLR. All seemed well till a crisis struck. The professional editor I was hoping to sub-contract the project to dropped out for better paying options. So there I was stuck with tons of raw footage, ticking deadline and at risk of fumbling up my first commercial gig, as simple as the brief was. No option left, as my modest fees meant I couldn’t interest anyone  else,  I was forced to sit and edit it myself. Pierre stepped in again as his technical brain and professional workflow helped sort me through the messy process of transcoding and organizing the files for editing on the Vegas suite I was using at the time. And the clients were happy as was I with the results. A little rough here and there and a few things I wouldn’t mind changing but this is the video that marked a badge earned to step into the professional multimedia world.

The clients must have been happy because a few months later they asked me to produce another video for them. “A journalistic piece,” they said. Could you commission journalism as a private company?  That was the naive me wondering. Till that point I had largely viewed my need to take on additional non-journalistic pieces a little bit like my failure to be a real journalist able to sustain self only through journalism. But then there’s a limit to unanswered pitches and ignored emails you can take. But I was proud of UB Rising and ready to tackle another subject. I was asked to make an in-depth 15-20 min report on the state of infrastructure in Ulaanbaatar. The system was crumbling and they wanted a video presenting all the problems the city was facing with regard to traffic, energy, water and the mounting problems in the suburban ger-districts, Ulaanbaatar’s vast unplanned shanty towns.

The dearth of information in Mongolia had convinced this company to be willing to pay to raise awareness on issues affecting the real estate sector. What Now UB? was next piece I produced for the company and this was the longest piece I had tackled and one that was enormously challenging in both obtaining relevant footage and using them in a coherent flow. Many Mongolians do not like to be photographed nor video taped and some can get quite aggressive and  physical. Also, a seemingly dull story like infrastructure has its limits when it comes to presenting it in a visually interesting way. Again Pierre Thiriet helped enormously in obtaining the footage for this piece that was a huge challenge to complete for the subject matter and I sorely missed having an editor to help me along. But end result – the clients were happy.

In July,  I was once again asked to produce another journalistic piece for the same company. This time my brief was “Go to the Gobi and tell us what is happening. Talk about the infrastructure, the building boom, the economic growth, the power supply problem, the corruption….just show us what is happening. But also add something about real estate development in Dalanzadgad.”  And while I appreciate loose briefs, it doesn’t always help for a tight knit story. I took the trip as an opportunity to present a few real journalistic stories as well for news outlets. But the video I admit could do with more focus though once again it had all the elements required from the commissioners. And I admit a sense of self-satisfaction when I received the feedback – “A bit eco-warrior towards the end but we like it.” I had been a little worried about being so frank about the environmental and social impacts being wreaked by the very resources propelling Mongolia’s economy and  something most investors like the client were depending on. But like many, a lot of people do believe transparent good governance is still possible and shying away from very real problems is not doing anyone any good in the long run.

I am still immensely happy for the chance I’ve had to tell these stories and meet the people who made both stories possible. And these projects have also provided the fodder, both equipment and ideas wise, to realise personal projects. Your thoughts?

Converging Skills and an expanding list of Essential Tools

Four years as a Radio Host for a music station, a few months moonlighting as a TV correspondent for Iran’s Press TV and finally a journalist wielding pen and camera – all these experiences have helped equip me with some essential skills required at a time when multimedia journalism is the industry buzzword.

Easy availability of essential software and clandestine online supply chains for sharing goods has made multi-media tools available to anyone who seeks. The launch of the DSLR with HD video recording spurned the birth of a generation of self-taught filmmakers.  I was among those excited and amazed by the possibilities of the new breed of DSLR cameras. I followed a few film makers and online forums waiting  for the day I  could afford one. By then, despite having sold a few pictures taken by my humble Lumix bridge, I was increasingly aware of its limitations and my brief experience with Press TV made me want to continue creating video stories, minus the conservative editorial dictates. In 2011, I finally got the Canon 5D Mark II – may it forever be remembered in the annals of photography and HD filmmaking – and till today, this continues to be the most important tool for my visual journalism and despite the many other technical acquisitions, the most cherished.  

And let’s not forget the power of Google for research and publishing platforms like Vimeo and WordPress to build an online community for constructive critique, support and inspiration and social media sites like Facebook and Twitter to share work and find peers. As for the iPhone as a tool to replace all my heavy expensive reporting tools? I still a sceptic but an open minded one.

A special mention to http://www.dslrnewsshooter.com and its founder Dan Chung, a site without which I may have never made the leap into making visual news.

My main media tools

Canon 5D Mark II, Zoom H4n recorder, Sennheiser ew112 wireless pack, Rhode VideoMic, Preferred lens: Canon 24-70mm f2.8 L, Canon 70-200mm f4.0 L, Carl Zeiss 50mm f1.4, Sirui N1204 tripod, Monfrotto 701HDV Pro Fluid Head, A cheap lens hood I hope to soon replace, An unused unwieldy Wondlan shoulder rig with a follow focus that needs some DIY re-designing for run and gun shots, An iPhone for web browsing but little else, A notebook, A Sony dictaphone and a pen. 

Empowering communities to represent themselves but who’s watching?

Video Volunteers started off as a small experiment in community reporting, encouraging members from marginalized communities in India to tell their own stories and report on issues under-covered by mainstream press. IndiaUnheard, is the program that resulted out of the project that provided journalistic training and basic video skills and necessary tools, low-cost HD camcorders in this case, to chosen community correspondents.

There is something raw and moving about hearing stories directly from the people on issues that affect them, on stories they feel needs urgent attention. Be it farmers in Kashmir talking of how climate change is affecting their crops and farming practises with people using more dangerous pesticides and fertilizers or the subject of the widows of victims killed in fake encounters in Manipur, IndiaUnheard has succeeded in bringing out stories that need telling.

But where do these stories fit in mainstream media and reaching an actual audience that can make a difference? In the case of video volunteers, media partnerships with established names including CNN-IBN, Al Gore’s Current TV and MSN India, has helped spread the word. But what, without these strategic and necessary partnerships? Citizen journalism can empower communities to tell their stories, but at the end of the day, sympathetic mainstream mediums will still play a role in taking these stories further.


Al Jazeera: A step ahead in a convergent world

In April 2011, Al Jazeera launched a new social media powered program where all content was sourced from social sites like Twitter, Facebook and Youtube and online audiences invited to interact and contribute in real time. What more, all content was gathered and curated using a social media aggregation tool called Storify, then just launched.

The show, called The Stream, was just the latest in social media innovations Al Jazeera had incorporated into their programming and accolades poured in swift from peers and competitors across the globe. The New York Times called it “an indication of where mainstream TV news is heading” while Havard University’s Neiman Journalism Lab hailed its success in  “not only in fully integrating social media into a news operation, but also in embracing the medium as an inherent feature of the new news programming.”

Al Jazeera was one of the first broadcast channel, and still one of the few, to fully embrace the internet to make its programming and unique coverage available to a global online audience. The web enabled the channel to circumvent harassment, censorship and sanctions to aid a revolution, report ground-breaking news and win a global audience. The website’s opinion page has long hosted the lettered arguments of some of the world’s most prolific and well known thinkers and writers and in September 2012, Al Jazeera became a competitor in the digital publishing world with the launch of its monthly magazine. A class example of an integrated newsroom paving the way? Certainly.


Bait ’em, hook ’em…bill ’em: Getting readers to pay

Despite rent to pay and money to save for long contemplated travel plans on a salary that barely covered the tabs, the internet bill is one always first accounted for. And why? I decided to forfeit subscription fees of well loved magazines I had grown up with for a virtual word of free and limitless information. So, when former journalist and author of Free: The Future of a Radical Price, Chris Anderson wrote in an article – “For the Google Generation, the Internet is the land of the free” – I wasn’t about to disagree.

Former Tribune Company President Jack Fuller once said the most stupid thing newspapers and magazines ever did was to give the content away for free online. As a reader, I wasn’t complaining but as a journalist, should I be expected to produce news for free? Oh, the impertinence!

With advertising revenues drying up with the ink of fresh print, the good audience will realize they can’t be subsidized forever. So, while I still love my freebies and will continue to trawl the web for free good stuff, once you do hook me, I’ll tire of these pop-ups (see below) and yes! direct me to subscription page please. Bait them, hook them and get them to pay. A business model born of necessity.

Capture NYT 3

With newspapers tightening their belts readers can only be thankful for the 10 free reads

Screen Capture globe and mail

Missing the postman – convergence is driving audiences online

In Ulaanbaatar, door-step delivery of newspapers is non-existent and the poor quality of local reporting and paucity of English news sources drives most urban news readers and resident foreigners to the internet.

Personally, my web-dependency for news has evolved my browsing habits. I no longer visit  specific websites but  have tailored my social media feeds to provide me the news I like to follow. Twitter, Google News and Facebook provide my daily news stream.

And recent findings have shown I’m not alone. This March, the Guardian discovered Facebook referrals drove 30 percent of its 70 million unique monthly browsers to their website, a case point for news organizations turning to social media to boost traffic. Online sharing is also shaping and indentifying niche audiences, as an interesting study by social researchers at the New England Complex Systems Institute have shown  by mapping news-sharing communities on Twitter to identify social structures and shared networks. The study focused only on New York Times readers but identified several common interest clusters within this seemingly uniform demographic.

In short, with growing web-dependency for news, convergence allows for tighter niche following and for the frequent traveler with no-fixed address, the web is the complete media aggregator.

Future-proofed but content loose: Mongolia’s media convergence blues

ImageCommuters preview the day’s headlines at a bus-stop news stand in Ulaanbaatar, where the wide media range is  often overshadowed by unprofessional standards and non-transparent ownership. 

Numerically, post-communist Mongolia’s media is flourishing. In 2011, the Press Institute’s survey counted 430 media outlets – 130 newspapers, 102 magazines, 95 TV stations, 72 radio stations and 31 “active” websites for a population of under three million. But local watchdog, Globe International, reports that non-transparent ownership, persecution of journalists and forced censorship continue to restrict freedom and quality of journalism with many news outlets functioning as propaganda vehicles for their sponsors.

Parallelly, growth in mobile phone and internet subscriptions is driving more users to the internet for news, in turn encouraging independent online news providers. Internet users grew from 30,000 in 2000 to 350,000 within a decade according to the website  internetworldstats.com.  Mobile phone subscriptions stand at 2,750,000 –  over two thirds of the entire population while the country’s largest mobile service provider MobiCom, claims one million of their subscribers own internet enabled devices in a recent article.

The time seems ripe for media convergence in Mongolia but content wise, convergence is still static. Multimedia barely registers on news sites.  Tactical cross-promotional convergence is growing between online news providers. News.mn, which has over 34,556 likes on their Facebook page, shares links to Baabar.mn, another news site and Toimsetguul.mn, a news magazine with active online presence and hosts video snippets from Eagle TV, a news channel. Infomongolia.com, another news site hosts a streaming English news program sponsored by Toim, the news magazine and produced by NTV, a local TV station. Online content is still rudimentary but collaborations like these are paving the way for future digital convergence in Mongolia.