Inside the Red Zone: Saving journalism – 11 Feb 2023

Journalism in the digital age is a challenge that many established practitioners are struggling with. In Pakistan, this struggle manifests itself daily on newspapers pages and television screens as reporters, editors, anchors and media executives try their best to retain readers and viewers that only a few years ago constituted a captive audience.

So where are things headed?

As life goes digital, there are fewer and fewer takers for the nostalgia of the analog era. Gen X may be the last to hold on to their memories of a bygone era while trying valiantly to get a grip on all things digital, but the Gen Y Millennials, Gen Z and the latest Gen Alpha (those born between 2010 and 2025) are firmly ensconced in the digital age.

Since audiences define the editorial and financial priorities of media organizations, it is unsurprising that legacy media like newspapers and TV news channels with an eye on the future are swiftly transforming their content generating structures in order to appeal to the demographic represented by Gen Z and Gen Alpha (and to a slightly lesser degree the Millennials who are also getting along in years).

Among the newspapers, The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Financial Times are good examples of how quality content can help ‘old media’ navigate its way successfully through the new and complex digital maze. These three print media brands have put their content behind a paywall (you cannot access all their content without a subscription) and yet have been able to garner enough digital subscribers to establish a solid revenue model at a time when subscriptions of the traditional newspaper are steadily going down.

No major Pakistani newspaper has attempted to take this route yet. There have been internal debates on the issue as media executives can hear what the graphs and charts of revenues and readership are telling them, but there is only so much that these executives can do when the ‘frontline warriors’ of journalism – the real content creators – struggle to produce material that readers would pay for.

Why this struggle?

To understand its complexity, we need to contextualize how content has been created in Pakistani media organizations over the past decades. There are three distinct categories:

First is the period before the advent of private television news channels where journalism was confined to newspapers only. During this time (which lasted till 2002), content was created through coverage of events by newspaper reporters and also through the reportage of domestic and international news agencies. Reporters followed assigned ‘beats’ whose categorization bore the mark of tradition. No wonder then that the overwhelming majority of these beats pertained to the government.

This in turn meant that a majority of the reporters spent their days covering official briefings or looking for some inside ‘scoop’ or internal documents from sources they had cultivated. More often than not, these leaks also affected the government and rarely did they have mass appeal for a wider audience. The rest of the content was generated from statements by important people or press releases. On the margins, there would be some reporting on sports, culture, and entertainment. There was little pressure on the newspapers to innovate in the absence of any major competition for the attention of the readers.

Second, after the advent of private news channels in Pakistan in 2002, the nature of the content began to change for two primary reasons: (i) TV news tapped into a much larger section of the population and therefore was compelled to produce content that appealed directly to the average citizen thereby enlarging the scope of the content beyond government issues. Many channels took a leaf out of the Indian news channels editorial repertoire which focused on the three ‘Cs’: cricket, crime and cinema. Political debates became a novelty that attracted huge viewership while live news coverage became a staple from 2008 onwards when the Digital Satellite News Gathering (DSNG) trucks were first introduced into the Pakistani media market.

Third, the rise of digital media forced the newspapers and news channels to take another look at their traditional content generation structures and methodologies in an effort to retain readers and viewers to their pages and screens. This has led mainstream legacy media organizations to divert attention and resources towards their digital arms – websites and social media presence – so their primary content finds the consumer even if that consumer is shifting platforms from traditional to the new ones. This has meant greater focus on content that can garner traction on digital media platforms even though it has been produced (in most cases) for the traditional media.

This is where the struggle is getting harder. Legacy media organizations are built upon traditional editorial structures like big newsrooms, sprawling studios and massive workforce because that is how content has been produced over the decades. It is not easy to undo these structures, practices and above all, editorial priorities to produce content that breaks from tradition. Even more difficult is to figure out what this new content should be. In other words, should the content be ‘dumbed down’ to increase its virality, or should it be ‘smarted up’ to appeal to the audience that demands value-added clarity in a world echoing with noise and confusion?

Here’s the problem though. The formal, bloated, and traditional editorial structures find it difficult to produce flippant content because they are weighed down by conservatism of journalistic practices as handed down from previous decades. Those reporting beats, and headline formations, and story ‘intros’ and news packages and demands of ‘leads’ and ‘superleads’ and of course the tyranny of ‘SOTS’ (soundbites) and ‘voxpops’ or vox populi (voice of the people, in Latin) – all these remain changed even as the demands, requirements and tastes of the audiences are changing across media markets.

The problem gets worse when you realize that if producing snappy and viral content that can fit into the journalistic mode is difficult for most Pakistani media organizations, then it is even harder to generate high quality content like The New York Times and Wall Street Journal that could find an audience willing to pay for it on the digital format. Among the many failures of the Pakistani media industry, one glaring one over the decades has been its inability to train, hire and incentivize journalists who can produce value-added reporting that generates fact-based, data-driven and context-laden stories which help connect the dots and make sense of the situation around us. It is so much easier to spew opinion than to unearth and stitch together facts into a coherent narrative. Hence the over-supply of views and a shortage of facts in the current Pakistani media market.

As a result, there is a widening gap between digital-media whetted appetite of the new generation among the content consumers and the ability of the old generation of content producers to provide the required content. This gap is leading to a greater dependence on the unverified, unregulated and unfiltered content polluting our social media timelines and WhatsApp accounts.

There are no easy answers for media organizations in Pakistan today even as individual journalists find refuge in YouTube channels and other such platforms. If journalism has to be saved from its own growing irrelevance at a time when its relevance is needed the most, decision-makers within the industry may need to take some risks.

The writer is the special assistant to the prime minister on public policy and strategic communication.

He tweets @fahdhusain

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