Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Converging towards integration

Published in Nov-Dec 2014

The impact of online revolution on print publishers in Pakistan.

Conversations around the rebirth, reinvention, resuscitation and yes, possible demise of print are abound, even in Pakistan, despite the fact that from 2009-2013, Asia and Latin America have seen growth in print audiences – just over six percent for both regions, according to the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers 2014 survey.

The reason this discussion has reached Pakistan is because of the wave of terror and confusion crossing over from newsrooms in North America, Australia and Europe where print circulation has plummeted by 10 to 23% and continues to decline.

For much of the world, advertising in print is declining faster than circulation. Many legacy papers and magazines are gone. Thousands of print media folk are out of jobs. The entire industry is looking to the online space for a solution, while those working online are holding up sad little rate cards that sell millions of ad impressions and clicks for fractions of pennies.

This is worrying, even for largely cocooned Pakistan, because a decline in print seems inevitable. Since the boom of the 2000s, electronic media is something the public understands and is totally in sync with. The internet is no longer perceived as ‘for entertainment purposes only’. Social media is so trendy that the current Director General ISPR runs official military updates on Twitter first, email second, and print a distant third, if at all.

Given these fast paced changes, will Asia and Latin America see the same decline the rest of the world is going through? How soon? How fast? The conversation has begun its drift from, “Pakistan is different. We’ll always read newspapers here,” to, “What do we do, just in case?”

Thankfully, by the time this decline in print begins to register at alarming levels locally, a number of solutions may be at hand, courtesy the crisis elsewhere.

Print expertise for digital domains

On the editorial front, every discussion about print versus the ‘evil internet’ comes down to the level of professionalism, seriousness, credibility, depth and all things wonderful that decades of legacy bring to print – and all of that is largely true – for now.

The internet, especially for Pakistan, is still new territory. On the news front, the best journalists have come from, or still are, in print (Urdu and English). In general, the best content is in print. TV is largely a sham, a scam, a breeding ground for vacuous drivel. Yes it has the eyeballs, but when the issue of quality comes up, the answer is generally print. Every fresh media grad knows they have two main choices: join a TV channel for money and fame, or join print to build a serious career.

Unfortunately, the people who read print are in decline. As outlined in Open Society Foundation’s report, Mapping Digital Media: Pakistan: “While there are no reliable figures on print circulation, the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS) found that the average daily sale of all Pakistani daily newspapers fell from 9.9 million in 2007 to 6.1 million in 2008, reaching less than four percent of the population.” Even if you ignore the decline, those numbers are terrible and the outlook for magazines is just as bad.

This problem has a solution however. Those in the print industry must expand into, and adopt the online space as their own. It’s a natural transition. The primary content on the internet is words and images, something those in print know everything about. While previously there was a big technical learning curve to publishing content online, the tools and websites of today can (literally) be run by children. There are no excuses for skipping out on this switchover; only bad attitudes and/or being unwilling to learn, stand in the way.

Across the globe, people in print are finding themselves either transitioning onto the web by default as their organisations expand in the digital space, or for the more driven of the pack, new job offers are at hand from digital domains, desperately seeking quality staff, particularly TV channels launching websites that are – apart from the live-stream and video clips – print in nature. The pay and prestige may not be as great for transitioning print folk, but it’s not complete rubbish either, and roles are expanding to allow for serious work.

Even in Pakistan, online staff have quickly gone from ‘IT guy’, ‘copy-paster’ and ‘content uploader’ to ‘online journalist’, ‘multimedia editor’ and ‘blogger’, thanks mostly to the large audiences local sites are now catering to. This convergence works because the payoff is so transparent. Reporters are getting calls about how their stories are read and received online. Print editors are concerned about the comments coming in on articles and what content is being shared on social media. With such concern comes ownership, and with time, print organisations will become online organisations.

Not everyone will crossover though. The payoff online is largely in terms of audience size, big data, two-way dialogue with readers, content shelf life, a wide-open space for all forms of content – everything but large sums of cash to sustain the whole print caboodle. Which leads to…

Print publishers – yes, even in Pakistan – are beginning to wake up and smell the online revolution that, in many ways big and small, puts digital first, print a distant second.

New revenue streams for new media

Jeff Bezos, Founder and CEO of Amazon is not completely mad in his purchase of The Washington Post. From all his public statements, he is not in this just for political clout either.

What Bezos and others see is the enormous monetary potential that exists in the sale of quality content online. The only thing missing right now are new systems and new models for selling content, something journalists (and their associated marketing departments) are notoriously bad at, but technologists excel in (given that techies created the very medium these sales need to be made in).

Pay wall. Paid subscription. The website visitor and online community as a sellable commodity. ‘Free’ content in exchange for tiny bits of personal data. E-book stores. Paid mobile apps. Free mobile apps with in-app purchases. Sponsor content. Sponsored content (yes, there is a difference). ‘Free’ immersive, interactive web ‘experiences’ with ads that engage, ads that target intelligently.

The question is not whether online content will ever have an Amazon, iTunes, Android App Store moment; it’s more of when, and by whom, and how many print media folk will have died of starvation by then. The new revenue streams outside of the banner ad will eventually emerge, and with them…

Digital first, print second

Print publishers – yes, even in Pakistan – are beginning to wake up and smell the online revolution that, in many ways big and small, puts digital first, print a distant second.

What this literally translates to is the (painful) restructuring of organisations through convergence, ditching and deleting all things (and staff) that no longer fit into this new world, and putting the web at the centre of everything – often literally, with floor plans that have digital desks at the centre and print at the end of the line. In this world, print becomes the backwards-engineered, value-added by-product of online content; more niche, far cheaper (production costs are now web-centric), perhaps offered free to subscribers, perhaps sold extremely expensively, sustained by advertising in its traditional form. This may sound like fantasy in Pakistan, but media site Politico, music reviews site Pitchfork and technology blog Pando, are successfully running print editions and supplements on this model.

So does Pakistan’s print industry have anything to worry about? Not really. We are running 10 to 20 years behind the rest of the world, and while that unfortunately means we do not get to define the future, at least it cushions us from the dangers that come with being out front. At the end of the day, there will be no shame in borrowing working models from abroad. Indeed, there are more important things to worry about.

To quote Susan Glasser, editor of Politico Magazine: “If you define your publication by the platform on which you publish, you pretty quickly risk irrelevance… I would rather think about it in terms of the audience, content and mission of the publication.

Jahanzaib Haque is Editor, at the Dawn Media Group.