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Finding our niche: An overview of media landscape in Pakistan

News media in Pakistan has gone through massive changes over the last two decades. It was all print-based till the early 2000s when the government ended its monopoly over airwaves. Consequently, many private television channels mushroomed within a span of few years -- most of them being owned by the already established print-based media houses. Around the same time, the internet also started becoming an increasingly important tool to access information. So, many media houses established web desks to bring online the content produced by their newspapers and/or television channels.

The transition was managed quite well by the established media houses until the arrival of smart phones which was closely followed by the social media explosion. Platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have changed the global – as well as Pakistani -- media landscape so much and so quickly that nobody could have predict the nature and the speed of this change a few years ago.

The results of the changes forced by technological advancements have been hard to miss – as is evident from the difference between how Pakistanis accessed information in 1998 and 2017 (the years when the second last and last population census have been held).

Number of households with NO source of information has gone down from 51.9 per cent of total to 7.5 per cent during the 19 year period.

Newspapers were described as a source of information by 21.2 per cent of all households (including both with and without access to any other source) in 1998. They were described as a source of information by just 6.4 per cent households in 2017.

Similarly, the proportion of households using radio as a source of information has fallen from 23.9 per cent to just 6.1 per cent.

Television as a source of information, however, was used by 35.3 perc ent households in 1998 but 54.8 per cent households were using it for the same purpose in 2017.

Mobile phone was obviously not included as a source of information in 1998 but in 2017 a whopping 90.6 per cent of all households (29 million of the total 32 million households) identified it as a source of information.

In 2017, 11.6 per cent households also said they have access to computers and internet. This is close to the combined total of those who identified newspapers and radio (12.7 per cent) as their source of information in 2017.

Since the last census was held four years ago, it is highly likely that these trends have continued in the same direction since then except that the growth in television audiences might have decreased as video watching has also moved to YouTube, Facebook, TikTok and Netflix in recent years.

Smartphone ownership in Pakistan has also increased at a fast pace during this period. It has grown from 13.5 million in 2017 to 40.6 million in 2020. The technological advancements have not just posed a transformational challenge to the news media, they have actually morphed into a threat to its very existence. This is mainly because social media platforms have snatched from the news media not only its audiences but its resource of livelihood – advertising revenue.

News media has traditionally survived on a single revenue stream flowing from advertising. The marriage of convenience between news media and advertising is now in serious trouble and heading towards a divorce. Advertisers are moving to social media. Just like all advancements related to information technology, this change, too, is happening at a breathtaking pace.

According to Aurora, an advertising industry magazine, 23 per cent of total advertising spend in Pakistan in 2019-20 was attracted by digital media platforms. Most experts forecast that this share will rise to 49 per cent or even more by 2023.

The news media has seen bad times when economic downturns shrank advertising revenues or when the governments decided to punish some media houses for their editorial policies by withdrawing public sector advertisements. They have generally sailed through these challenging times without many bruises and scars. Their perseverance was mainly backed by the hope that hard times will be over sooner or later. The current technological challenge, however, is not just another ‘bad patch’; it is forcing news media to take a new birth.

The social media is redefining the use of advertising as well. It uses artificial intelligence on big data that it continuously collects from its users which enables it to offer solutions to advertisers that are impossible for the traditional print and electronic media to match. Micro-targeting and real time interaction on multimedia content with potential clients and customers is something that traditional media formats are simply incapable of offering.

All this boils down to one conclusion: It does not seem likely that advertising revenue will return to news media in the near or far future. So, how will it survive?

Here is how different sections of news media in Pakistan are – or aren’t – responding to this challenge.

The old guard media houses in Pakistan include Jang, Dawn and Nawa-i-Waqt groups. They are older than the country itself and their print versions have dominated media landscape during much of the country’s history. There were several other popular dailies – such as Pakistan Times, The Muslim and The Frontier Post in English and Imroz, Mashriq, Hurriyat and Amn in Urdu – but they vanished because of their failure to withstand the state’s machination and/or the pressure of market forces. The three oldest media outlets in the country have, however, survived many a storm.

Jang group took the electronic challenge in early 2000s head on and launched Geo TV which instantly became, and still is, the country’s most popular news channel. Dawn group tried its luck by launching an English news channel, Dawn News, but had to switch it to Urdu soon. Nawa-i-Waqat also launched Waqat TV but that failed to make a mark. By then, Nawa-i-Waqat group’s newspapers had already lost considerable market to daily Jang and other entrants in the market such as daily Express, Express Tribune and daily Dunya.

All three groups have their news websites as well. In fact, dawn.com is the most popular Pakistani English news website while the websites of both Jang and Geo top the popularity lists among Urdu news websites. These websites mainly upload content produced by the newspapers and/or television channels owned by the same group. In other words, they are not stand-alone media platforms. Instead, they work as a digital showcase of their legacy newspapers or television channels. Consequently, their viability as news platforms is tied to the viability of those newspapers and television channels: if the latter wither away, the former are bound to follow since they do not produce the content that they publish.

The likelihood of this has increased given the fact that the overall advertising spend in Pakistan has been on the decline for last four years. It has come down from 87.7 billion rupees in 2016-17 to 58.6 billion in 2019-20. This 33 per cent decline can be attributed to political instability, economic downturn and Covid-19 pandemic. Television channels alone have lost 38 per cent of their advertising revenue during 2016-20. This revenue has shrunk even more drastically – by 53 per cent – for newspapers.

The only section of media that has not experienced a downturn is digital media. In fact, its advertising revenue has grown by a staggering 148 per cent during the last five years. There, certainly, is a correlation between the rise of digital media’s advertising revenue and the decline in the advertising revenue of print and electronic media.

What complicates the situation is the fact that 90 per cent of 13.65 billion rupees advertising spend on digital media in 2019-20 was taken up by just two behemoths: Facebook and Google. Even the most popular Pakistani news website could not claim more than one per cent of this spend. If nothing else, this ability of the social media giants to attract a huge part of the advertising revenue turns the transformational challenge being faced by the legacy news media in Pakistan to an existential crisis.

It, indeed, is in a catch-22 situation: It cannot abandon the digital space because this is now the frontline of the information sector but it refuses to throw a lifeline at them as their traditional platforms sink without the hope for retrieval. Nawa-i-Waqat group has already failed to adapt. Its television channel went off air in October 2018 – ten years after starting its broadcast. Its English daily, The Nation, stopped publication months later and its flagship Urdu daily, published since 1940, is barely surviving. It often does not pay its staff for months.

Daily Dawn’s advertising revenue has come down from 2.2 billion rupees in 2017-18 to 1.1 billion in 2019-20. Dawn group’s television channel has also lost 32 per cent of advertising revenue during the same period. Consequently, Dawn Group has shut down its monthly magazine, laid off staff and cut down salaries by 40 per cent of the remaining staff of both its television channel and newspaper. It has wound up its reporting network at a number of locations across Pakistan.

As far as Jang-Geo group is concerned, its flagship publication, daily Jang, which is also Pakistan’ most read Urdu newspaper, has also lost 26 per cent of advertising revenue during the last three years and has taken similar measures to scale down its operations and cut down costs. Geo TV, however, has been an exception so far. It has not suffered losses at the same scale that other outlets have. It is, however, facing a mounting challenge from platforms such as YouTube and NetFlix so its survival, too, is increasingly looking like a race against time.

This part of Pakistan’s news media sphere mainly includes television channels that sprang up after the liberalization of electronic media sector in early 2000s. They did not graduate from print to electronic media but, instead, landed directly into the new age by buying broadcasting licenses against hefty payments.

They do not carry a history and experience of news media like the legacy media houses do. More importantly, they are all owned by business groups which made it big in some sector of the economy in recent decades and then decided to enter the news media sector as well to hedge their gains.

The prominent among them are ARY News television owned by a Dubai-based Pakistani jeweler and gold dealer; Dunya News owned by a private education tycoon whose business empire, starting in 1985, now comprises three universities, 330 colleges and hundreds of allied educational institution; GNN TV owned by a bakery that claims to be Pakistan’s biggest food products retail chain. Starting in 1987, Gourmet Bakery now has 100 retail shops in Lahore alone. It also has seven factories across the country; Express TV is owned by Lakson group of companies that includes Colgate-Palmolive and McDonald in Pakistan. It also once owned Pakistan’s second largest tobacco company but sold it to Philip Morris International over a decade ago.

In almost every case, these business groups decided to enter news media not because it promises a good rate of return on investment but on the assumption that news outlets can put them close to the power circles – if not within them. This proximity is considered by most business people in Pakistan as a failsafe way to guard and advance their business interests.

This is also borne out by the fact that many of the new age televisions channels have shown little interest in making their media ventures profitable. Consequently, only a few of them have made the required investments and have hardly made efforts to stake a claim in the advertising market.

The most recent advertising data confirms that. According to it, advertising revenue earned by the entire television sector – including news channels, entertainment channels, sports channels and food channels – was 26 billion rupees in 2019-20. Even in the best of the time in 2016-17, it was 42 billion rupees. Generally, half of this revenue is shared by the top five channels while the other half gets distributed among over 100 channels. Advertising revenue of 12 private television channels had crossed one billion rupees mark in 2016-17 but the same mark was crossed by only six channels in 2019-20. Hypothetically speaking, if the entire advertising revenue earned by all the television channels in Pakistan is equally distributed among them, none of them could break even.

These new age television channels, obviously, have the privilege of belonging to ‘rich families’ and, at least theoretically, have the luxury of digging into the deep pockets of their parent companies whenever needed. This aspect, however, has not translated into more editorial freedom for these channels. It has actually worked in the opposite direction.

A report published in August 2020 by the South Asia Center of an American think tank, Atlantic Council, describes this situation very aptly when it says:

“Today, Pakistan’s news media are mostly bankrolled by the private sector, due to a lack of state subsidies to support loss-making outlets. Print and broadcast media specifically have been forced to associate with various political and business elites in order to function. The media platforms that have managed to continue publishing and broadcasting face crippling economic conditions: shrinking revenues, unprofitable digital presence, and outstanding fines slapped on news outlets critical of the Pakistani government or military. As a consequence, this increasingly privatized industry has developed a certain coziness with corporate and political bigwigs.”

From purely a media market perspective, these new age platforms are a distortion as they can always resort to financial support from their owners, making it tougher for the entirely advertising-dependent platforms to compete with them.

A number of Urdu news platforms focusing on Pakistan are owned by foreign states. The most prominent among them is BBC whose radio service has been synonymous with unbiased coverage when the state of Pakistan had a monopoly over airwaves and the state radio and television would censor and blackout all news that the government of the day did not want to be disseminated.

BBC converted its very popular radio news bulletin, Sairbeen, into a television show in 2014 to be broadcast in Pakistan through a partnership with a local television channel. It, however, faced multiple regulatory and editorial problems in this regard and, finally, had to end this program in January 2021. It cited continued interference in its editorial policy by the Pakistani state as the main reason for pulling the plug on the show. Recently, it has re-started its broadcast on its YouTube channel. BBC’s digital avatar - bbc.com/urdu - has, meanwhile, become one of the most popular Urdu news websites in Pakistan. Voice of America Urdu has also gone through a similar transformation from radio to website. Its website was blocked in Pakistan in 2018 by the state but its social media pages in Urdu and Pashto have millions of followers and have kept it alive.

German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, too, has developed an Urdu website whose Facebook page is followed by over two million people.

Similarly, and perhaps inspired by the soft power these western outlets offer to their respective states, Saudi Research and Marketing Group has set up two Urdu news websites in Pakistan – Urdu News and Independent Urdu – in 2019.

The entire budgets of these outlets come from their sponsoring states that see these as instruments of their foreign policy objectives. Almost a quarter of the budget of BBC World Service is contributed by UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. BBC Group spent a total of 315 million pounds on its World Service in 2019-20 which includes its Pakistan-focused Urdu platforms. Though the World Service runs programs in 42 non-English languages (including Urdu) across the globe, this annual expense was more than double the combined advertising revenue of all the television channels and newspapers of Pakistan in 2019-20.

To sum it up all, these platforms are well funded and can spend their allocated budgets without having to bother about earning back a single penny. They are shielded from market uncertainties and, backed by powerful states, they have traditionally enjoyed greater editorial freedom than their local counterparts.

This ‘business model’ adds to the distortions in the media market in Pakistan, making life hard for local news websites which have to earn their keep. These foreign websites pay their staff and contributors much more than local outlets can. This also results in a brain drain of sorts as experienced and talented journalists move to them, leaving local media houses poorer for that.

This section of Pakistan’s media environment is extremely crowded because all that it takes to become a part of it is to have a computer, a camera and a website or a social media account. This ease of starting a news media outlet has spawned dreams and ambitions among both professional journalists and wannabes. Success in digital space, however, is illusive so rate of attrition among these platforms is high.

Early birds catching worms

A few websites which have survived for long and are still going strong include those that started at a time when internet had just landed in Pakistan and local audiences were desperately seeking content in their local language. UrduPoint and Hamariweb fulfilled this need in early 2000s and have since then maintained their top position by populating their website with each and every bit of information that an Urdu reader can possibly look for – from the price of an iPhone to that of potatoes and from prayer timings to showbiz gossip. They also have news sections but it mainly consists of a rehashed version of what other websites, newspapers and television channels have already disseminated – and they do this without any acknowledgements or permissions.

Since the introduction of 4th Generation internet, which has made video streaming better and faster, these websites have also formed video teams that follow everything that has the potential of going viral. At times, they are accused of fomenting controversies and playing dirty to win the race for popularity. Daily Pakistan, a video channel associated with an Urdu newspaper of the same name, has also adopted this format, practically abandoning its print version. Its spicy videos now dominate this section of the media.

These channels pro-actively follow social media trends and have hardly any editorial stance or policies except avoiding personal and business risks. Their business model is mainly based on advertisement revenues generated through social media monetization. Only partially do they get some money through direct ads by local advertisers. Their thirst for clicks, therefore, is insatiable so they have mastered the art of click-baiting.

Digital refugees or netizens

The digital media is also serving as a refuge for professional journalists who have been expelled from established media houses under pressure of the state. It is because of this pressure that the World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Sans Frontiers (RSF) has ranked Pakistan 145th in a list of 180 countries it monitored in 2020. The country has slipped down six points since 2018.

Faced with myriad internal and external challenges, the state has acted brutally in recent years to suppress dissent and silence criticism. Consequently, news media houses have laid off many of their experienced journalists including some of the best known faces of television talk shows.

Almost all of these journalists have taken to social media by setting up YouTube channels and Facebook accounts where they regularly air their views. Notable among them are Najam Sethi, Talat Hussain and Matiullah Jan who, respectively, have 266,000, 178,000 and 143,000 subscribers – for their YouTube channels. Hussain also has 434,000 followers on Facebook and 3.4 million followers on Twitter. Sethi, too, has 3.2 million Twitter followers. These digital platforms help these journalists stay alive and relevant in the profession but none of them can claim making reasonable amount of money from the monetization of their content. It is difficult to say whether they will take a permanent residency in this digital space or will move over to the mainstream news media if and when they get an opportunity.

Some successful and on-job journalists and columnists are also ambitious about creating their niches in digital space. These include Urdu columnists Javed Chaudhry and Hassan Nisar who have 1.27 million and 473,000 subscribers on YouTube respectively. Almost all of these individual ventures offer the views of their hosts on current political developments. Only some of them, however, have a serious and professional tone. Most others are bombastic and even hysteric. But whatever strategy they adopt, it is difficult to assume that their social media ventures can financially sustain themselves as micro-media houses in the medium to long terms. 

Dreamers and their nightmares

The possibilities opened up by technological advances have also inspired many in journalism to think beyond individual-based ventures and set up small digital only media houses. 

Humsub is the most prominent among them. It has created a digital platform for hundreds, if not thousands, of Urdu writers who write about almost everything under the sun – from politics and history to art, culture and showbiz.

NayaDaur is another popular platform. It focuses on current political issues and offers space to views that find little attention or are intentionally ignored by the mainstream news media for various reasons.

Among these, only The Current has a reasonably large team. It introduces itself as ‘a news-lifestyle platform that informs Pakistan’s millennials about all the issues that matter – news, entertainment, lifestyle, and much more.’ It also claims to be Pakistan’s first digital news media startup funded by the Google News Initiative.

There are a number of region-specific initiatives as well, with Balochistan Voices and Tribal News Network being prominent among them. And then there are others which have either not bothered to develop their websites – or nominally attend to them – while solely depending on social media to disseminate their video-based content. These include The Centrum Media (TCM), Brahui TV and VCast (which focuses on covering issues and personalities of the business sector).

None of them, however, has yet been able to convert its good intentions and ambitions into a viable and working business model. Most of them survive on individual donations or institutional grants while some have attempted to supplement these with monetization of their social media platform.

Simply put, monetization means getting a share in the revenue that Facebook and YouTube earn by running advertisements on your content or website. The money to be made through monetization is proportionate to the number of times the content is viewed by target audiences. It, however, is never enough to cover even the costs of producing news content in a professional setting.

The best known Pakistani YouTube channel, Village Food Secrets, is run by one Mubashir Siddique. It has over 3.3 million subscribers and its content creation requires inputs of hardly one or two part time persons other than Mubashir himself. He is one of the few YouTubers who can claim to be making a profit from their channels. YouTube channel of Geo TV has three times more subscribers than Mubashir has and roughly six times more views but the former’s cost of production is tens or hundreds of times higher than that of the latter.

For news media outlets, income from monetization is so paltry that, even in the best case scenarios, it does not exceed five percent of their costs. Even more problematic is the fact that these revenues are fickle. There is no guarantee that they will keep flowing in even if the content creator remains committed to the promised quality and quantity. Trends on social media can change in the blink of an eye. When viewers migrate to some other content, so does the monetization revenue. 

Digital news media, therefore, can use the social media to reach out to readers and audiences but it has to place its financial sustainability outside of the social media space.

Social media platforms have ended the distinction between producers and consumers of news content. Everyone is allowed and facilitated to create content for his/her own audience while simultaneously serving as audience for others. This ‘democratization’ of media sphere has opened the floodgates of all types of content creation, including by those with mischievous, malicious and even criminal intents. While the tech giants owning social media platforms defend the entry of these players as an unintended consequence and keep assuring everyone that they are doing their best to curb their content, there is little doubt that the manipulative ways of the dark forces that peddle lies and spread fake news are making hay while this newfound liberty of content creation afforded by the social media platforms lasts. 

The use of social media has exponentially increased their ability to bend, dent and shape news and, consequently, impact the social and political discourses.

As has been explained above, the same social media giants are strangulating the news media that has traditionally been playing the role of a gate-keeper in the production and dissemination of news. The sudden introduction of a multitude of players on its turf has created massive challenges for the formal news media as it has to not just coexist with disinformation cells and fake news factories run by vested interest groups but also compete with them for audiences and revenues.

Pakistan-based YouTube channel, Haqeeqat TV, exemplifies this. (Haqeeqat is an Urdu word meaning reality or truth.) It uploads video commentaries on the latest political developments and explains them through outlandish conspiracy theories involving ‘evil global powers’ working against Islam and Pakistan. The subjects of some of its recent videos show its tendency to exaggerate and peddle outright lies: 

China made a copy of US missile system THAAD and Pakistan will use it

Bilawal Bhutto undergoes a sex change procedure in London

Chinese president asks army to be prepared for a big, horrendous war that’s about to break

Most popular: Prophecies of a holy man who lived 900 years ago about an impending decisive war between India and Pakistan; war will continue for 6 years; Turkey will side with Pakistan (3.1 million views)

Haqeeqat TV has 3.87 million subscribers and is Pakistan’s sixth most popular ‘news’ channel on YouTube. Below is the list of Pakistan’s top news channels on YouTube and their net worth as calculated by website YouTubers.me

1: Geo News; started: Jan 10, 2007; Subscribers: 10.1 million; Total views: 3.7 billion; No. of videos: 120,128; Estimated net worth: $1.38 – $8.3 million

2: ARY News; started: Jun 12, 2013; Subscribers: 7.95 million; Total views: 2.5 billion; No. of videos: 39,414; Estimated net worth: $9.43k – $5.66 million

3: Samaa TV; started: Jun 14, 2011; Subscribers: 6.9 million; Total views: 2 billion; No. of videos: 73,792; Estimated net worth: $742k – $4.45 million

4: Dunya TV; started: Mar 4, 2009; Subscribers: 4.6 million; Total views: 1.5 billion; No. of videos: 63,884; Estimated net worth: $546k – $3.28 million

5: UrduPoint; started: Dec 8, 2014; Subscribers: 5.5 million; Total views: 1.4 billion; No. of videos: 11,564; Estimated net worth: $517k – $3.1 million                                                     

6: Haqeeqat TV; started: Dec 19, 2017; Subscribers: 3.87 million; Total views: 1.3 billion; No. of videos: 5,315; Estimated net worth: $496k – $2.97 million

(Sites accessed in October 2021)

his shows that, in just four years, Haqeeqat TV has reached the heights that others have struggled to scale in over a decade. The main difference here, however, is that four of the first five websites in the list above are associated with established 24/7 television channels and the fifth is linked to one of the most popular websites of the country. Each of them employs hundreds, or even thousands, of journalists and support staff and has invested tens of millions of rupees in infrastructure. Haqeeqat TV, on the other hand, is a YouTube only channel that daily uploads five videos of less than 10-minute duration. It mostly shows pictures with background commentary in the same man’s voice. This suggests that its entire team probably consists of two or three members who do not have even camera as they never show any original footage. The channel’s success, therefore, is solely owed to its bombastic content that clicks with gullible audiences desperate an explanation of complex global political economy.

Haqeeqat TV is a YouTube verified channel that is monetized as well even though it offers no evidence in support of its claims. What matters for YouTube is that its content offers a high level of ‘audience engagement’ which YouTube can easily turn into advertising revenue and shares its spoils with the content creator. According to estimates by YouTubers.me, the channel made between 11,000 and 67,000 dollars in September 2021 alone. YouTube should have earned a similar amount from its content.

The emergence of social media has not only made the news media space chaotic and highly contested, it has also pulled the rug from under the feet of the established – or legacy -- media houses by snatching  a massive part of their advertising revenues. The marriage of convenience between the news media and advertisement industry was thus broken. Their relationship had not only survived all earlier technological revolutions of the past century or so, it would actually grow stronger with each change in technology. As social media came along, this long-standing relation soured badly to the disadvantage of the news media.

In response to this problem, the established media houses are rushing to cut costs by sacking journalists and, thereby, shrinking their reporting networks drastically. This has had an inevitable outcome: all those places and spaces that did not earn profit for these media houses became vacant and the news media’s concentration grew further within a few metropolitan areas. At the same time, these media houses are bending over backwards to please the moneyed and the mighty for financial succor, sacrificing professionalism and compromising on the basic principles and values of journalism in the process.

Lok Sujag places itself in the space that was either never attended to by the established news media in the first place or has been vacated by it in recent time. We plan to report from geographical areas and sections of the society that are no more profitable for the traditional media. We plan to bring the problems and issues of the suppressed identities and ignored communities to the mainstream social and political discourse. We locate ourselves on the margins of power, not at its center.

Similarly, our business model does not rotate around advertisement revenues. We are, instead, pinning our survival and growth on Lok Sujag Community’s support.
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