Media in the headlines

  • News industry’s bid for survival
Media in Pakistan is faced these days with a rather paradoxical situation. As regulations are revised amid critically low revenues and journalists are laid off on a rather regular basis, the state authority gears up to issue licenses to multiple news channels. At a time when existing publications and news channels struggle to barely survive, a questions begs an answer that where would emerging outlets be adjusted?
It would be hardly mocking to say that the news industry in Pakistan has itself become a source of frequent headlines. As I write this column, there are images on social media of laid off journalists protesting in a camp. And the lay offs are coming from big names, in big numbers. In the news channels and publications where employees are retained, salaries are delayed – sometimes for months. Elsewhere, pages are being reduced or entire publications shelved. It is only the passion and dedication of journalists which keep them going and their material needs which prop them with a bleak hope of earning an income. Journalism, in Pakistan, is gasping for breath.
Amid many steps taken by the incumbent government in the name of austerity drive and revenue generation, there has been yet another U-turn, although not in a policy or announcement but in the rates of advertisements by the state to media outlets. For what was being offered to news channels and publications by previous governments, has been cut down by more than 50 percent. When the portion which makes up more than 50 percent of your revenue gets slashed by more than a half, what remains is hardly of any worth. Coupled with this was an already worrying situation of some media outlets racked by legal issues. To the audience, which receives its daily dose of headlines in the form of newspapers, bulletins and magazines, little is known of the harrowing and difficult situation in which these outlets are operating. For what is published or telecast, is maintained at a similar standard as that practised earlier in profitable times.
And while economic situation in the news industry becomes rather precarious, the regulations in the country become more stringent. With the formation of the recent Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority (PMRA), the existing Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) and the Press Council of Pakistan (PCP) would be merged. Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry has stated that not only the electronic media, but also print and ‘cyber media’ would come under the umbrella of PMRA.
Critics from the industry, while holding the government responsible for putting both print and electronic media in crisis by cutting down its rates of advertisements, allege that changes in the regulatory authority are a step towards reining the print media in particular. Terming it as impractical and “the most regressive measure against the media”, the All Pakistan Newspaper Society (APNS) has slammed and bitterly criticised the move.
It would be hardly mocking to say that the news industry in Pakistan has itself become a source of frequent headlines
Among rows of harsh economic situation, strict regulations and alleged censorship, Pemra has recently announced that it will give license to 76 new channels. At a seminar organised at Lahore by the mass communication department of a college, Chairman Pemra assured the students of mass comm of several opportunities in future. The irony could not be more striking, as those having already availed existing opportunities, are in a fix trying to grapple them.
To an average reader of any local newspaper, it may still probably not be known that most newsrooms in Pakistan are operating at bare minimum staff. The number of office hours and workload has increased, while salaries, either remain the same or worse, are rumoured to be reduced. Obviously, an increment seems like a far sighted notion. And this is the scenario of journalists who remain in employment. An aggregate number reaching thousands across both print and electronic media in Pakistan is that of employees sacked from newspapers, tv channels and magazines. It may also not be too much of an assumption to make that at least presently, none of these organisations are in a position to employ additional staff.
So what opportunities is the respected Chairman Pemra talking about? And when I say opportunities, I refer to both fresh graduates as prospective applicants as well as new tv channels. The existing channels, with massive investments in technology, equipment and human resources, are cutting down costs and revising revenue strategies, to first survive and then earn. With drastic reduction in revenues from advertisements and bleak chances from private investors in the scenario of a wobbling economy, the channel owners and administrations are baffled as how to manage this daunting task. So while we have a situation of cutting costs and scrambling to generate revenue, what market share can we consider to be offered to nearly 80 new channels in the market?
And while this question should surely be considered by those applying for licences, who need to devise an ingenious strategy for grabbing a niche otherwise fear obliteration, what opportunities are we giving to the mass communication graduates? Apart from a slice of employees of the TV channels, which includes the top management and the ‘faces’ of the industry, with both responsible for managing some fruitful operations for their respective organisations, salary brackets for employees of the lower and middle tier may be expected to actually decrease, if not increase. What charm, thus, is left in getting hired by a news channel, other than for those who make it to the screen?
Each time a news channel is about to be launched the market forces operate in a pull to gain both experienced and unskilled employees. In the case of the former, usually handsome salaries are offered to lure professionals in leaving their existing organisations to join a new one. The existing, operating administrations, make promises of additional benefits and increments in order to retain their staff. When, at least in the near future, there are no bright chances of sufficient increase in revenue, what offers can both existing and upcoming organisations make to the employees?
On the contrary, this situation may create opportunities for fresh graduates from universities, who with a desire to start their professional journey early, may accept mediocre salary packages. This would mean an influx of untrained and inexperienced professionals in the field which is already lacking in opportunities and practices of training and refresher courses. If this situation arises, the quality and standard of news produced would indeed be questionable.
And if all these challenges are not enough, in this age of digitalisation, the news media industry is increasingly being suggested to “reinvent itself to survive”. Experts from field themselves have been commenting recently that viewers are opting for digital outlets for information and that the current model “would not last long if media houses did not change their ways”, with cable tv predicted to last for not more than five years.
This again brings back to the future of 70 plus news channels in the pipeline and the human resource to be employed. Do all these prospective channels have the insight that from their very inception, their approach should be digital? Will they use an existing or a futuristic model at their launch? Will the majority, if not all of their employees, be trained on a new model?
Media in Pakistan is at the crossroads. As the global trend demands, digitalisation is inevitable. But it may still be a bit too early to say goodbye to traditional setups. Even internationally, newspapers, publications and TV channels, although facing a tough time, are still operating. But what they face are the challenges of the new era; not censorships or threats from regulations. Print and even electronic journalism have had a historical evolution. Their climax can not be rushed.