Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Published in Jul-Aug 2020

Newsrooms in Crisis

Shaheryar Popalzai on newsroom survival in a pandemic.

Pakistan’s news media organisations are at a crossroads once again. If the last 10 years have been kind to them when it came to adopting digital, the last eight have been equally brutal in terms of revenues and layoffs. Profitability has been low or non-existent for most news media organisations, with financial pressures leading to pay cuts and layoffs – and some have been forced to shut their doors due to mismanagement.

As a result, staff across newsrooms in Pakistan have become demotivated and fearful about their jobs. Despite all this, there has been little to no effort to maximise the potential of a growing digital audience. Enter Covid-19, a pandemic that is altering life as we know it. All sectors of the economy have been hit, leading to reduced advertising spends. Compounding this is a lack of innovative thinking in terms of new revenue models. How can news media organisation deal with this?

For sure, none will come out of this latest crisis unscathed and there will be damage in terms of loss of HR and cuts in other areas, leading to a further drop in the quality of content and a further decline in audiences. These are tough times that require tough decisions. However, there are still measures that can save jobs and ensure that audiences continue to get the content they want.

Consider Realignment

In this time of crisis, audiences are looking for authentic information they can find from a single source rather than having to scramble and look in different places. Politicians and government officials are on TV all day making statements which contradict their own party or government’s stance, or are just plain misinformation. In such circumstances newsrooms should put a premium on fact checking and rather than lay off staff, they should reassign them to specialised units like fact checking and data collation. People want authentic information in order to make informed decisions about the pandemic and a dedicated fact checking team can help grow audiences. There are plenty of free tools and training material with reference to fact checking as well as methods to fight disinformation. Newsrooms should take a step back and let their team learn new skills and then deploy them. Realigning resources is also beneficial for the long-term in terms of creating stronger teams and better content.

Better Content

Newsrooms should analyse the content they are pushing out. Audiences are looking for Covid-19 updates, but they are getting more national level news on the topic. Loyal audiences can be built up by providing them with local updates down to the neighbourhood level. People care more about what is happening in their neighbourhood and at their local businesses. The same approach applies to data. Everyone, including government platforms, are providing provincial totals, so why not expand them to union council level? Go beyond Covid-19 news; there is such a thing as pandemic news fatigue. Provide positive news and content on the lighter side. Many people are working from home… is there a way to make them a part of the news process, or create content relevant to their situation? In these under resourced times, news media organisations must play to their strengths rather than stick to covering the same content as their competitors.

Reinventing the Revenue Model

With decreasing ad spend, newsrooms have been struggling for quite some time and now would be the time to look at a subscription or membership revenue model – or even one based on reader donations. However, these models pre-suppose delivering quality content that audiences actually want (Covid-19 coverage would be free to all as a public service),

Leadership in the Newsroom

Covid-19 has affected everyone. People are forced to stay and work from home. It isn’t easy as some people may not be equipped to deal with this new situation. Newsroom leaders must take charge and talk to their team and be transparent. If they want their employees to stand by the organisation in troubled times, they must do the same. Measures should be taken to avoid pay cuts or layoffs (perhaps establish an emergency fund); steps must also be implemented to motivate teams by helping them to grow.

We work in an underpaid and under resourced industry. Things have been and are tough. Now is the time to take charge and set ourselves up for a better future.

Shaheryar Popalzai is a journalist and digital strategy consultant.