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When Good Content Comes in Small Packages

Published in Nov-Dec 2020

Arifa Noor, Lead Anchor, DawnNews, on new current affairs websites in Pakistan.

As the finer details of the coverage of the 2018 election were planned in front of Marium Chaudhry at the private channel she worked for, she was struck by the general lack of interest in creating content aimed at attracting younger audiences.

Within a year, it was this audience (aged between 18 and 35) that Chaudhry decided to attract with a new website after leaving her job. Aptly called The Current (, she launched it at the beginning of March 2019 and it soon made its mark. In the age of WhatsApp forwards and video sharing, the light hearted and short question-answer interviews published by The Current with high profile politicians as well as others proved to be a hit. Initial interviews included one with Fawad Chaudhry as he walked through a lab clad in a white coat (shortly after he was given the Science & Technology portfolio) and one with Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, who is not too generous with interviews. More importantly, it was the chatty and unconventional style that caught attention; part political, part personal, these short interviews, as politicians moved through their homes and answered personal questions, were different from their usual studio appearances. For example, Fawad Chaudhry revealed that the Prime Minister forwards him memes (based on Fawad Chaudhry’s news making endeavours); Hammad Azhar spoke of his interest in gardening and PMLN’s Maiza Hameed was asked about the filters she used on her photos (many of which make their way to her various social media accounts).

The Current is among a handful of independent news websites, including Naya Daur ( and Sujag ( that have become household names among Pakistan’s news junkies. Obviously, the bigger websites continue to be those run by mainstream groups such as The Dawn Media Group or The Jang Group, which enjoy deep pockets, brand loyalty and perhaps a loyal audience, thanks to their other platforms. Yet, within this environment, smaller websites have been able to make their mark despite many challenges. Like The Current, they have found a niche and (for the moment) are comfortable with the gains they are making with their USP, rather than trying to be a general website – and readers know this. Omar Warraich, a journalist and rights activist, currently working with Amnesty International, uses the smaller websites regularly. For him, they “are a source of stories that are not covered by the mainstream media, often because they might be deemed too sensitive to cover or they explore areas that are generally under-reported.”

Naya Daur, for example, began in 2017, funded by a few expats as well as Pakistani citizens, who wanted more ‘progressive’ voices in the media. Raza Rumi, the founding editor, says the platform began with videos which would be shared on various social media outlets and later they launched a website which offered news, commentary and videos. Like The Current, the full time staff is small, although unlike the former, Naya Daur has an extensive list of contributors. “We have nearly 1,000 contributors.” The website’s strong political voice has become a large part of its identity.

For Voice ( the focus is human rights. Started by Monizae Jahangir in November 2019, the platform uses the “prism of human rights” to cover stories – political or not. However, the emphasis is on reportage. “We have little commentary or opinion,” says Jehangir. The website is associated with AGHS, the law firm founded by Asma Jehangir. In some cases, says Jehangir (who is Asma Jehangir’s daughter), the firm has provided legal aid to the victims of the stories the platform has reported on. This is a website which combines reporting with advocacy and when asked whether the website will evolve in the future and become more broad-based, Jehangir says the decision is up to the board of directors.

Sujag too began as a donor-funded project to report in detail on districts “ignored by mainstream media” says Tahir Mehdi, who launched the website as part of his NGO, Lok Sujag. After two years, the donor project ended but the website continued “with money from here and there” he adds. Since then, Sujag has continued with its mission of reporting from districts despite shortages of funds. According to Mehdi, the platform has tried to not compromise on its initial aim – of reporting from the field – and avoids commentary “as this is already present on other websites and elsewhere.” Sujag has a network of 50 contributors who are paid for their reporting and stories and the full-time staff is about a dozen.

Similar to The Current, Sujag illustrates the importance of innovation. The Current made its mark with its interviews and Sujag first became known for its videos of former model and actor Iffat Omar spouting her views on various topics (she no longer works with Sujag). Mehdi explains that the short monologues were introduced to touch upon taboo cultural issues, such as female hygiene products. However, the commentary soon became political and along with the strong language, it was noticed and circulated widely.

Perhaps there is something to be said for ‘innovative’ content, however rare it may be, although for the moment, innovation seems to take a backseat as the websites struggle to make ends meet; each platform says finances are the main challenge. Chaudhry launched the website with her own money and has since won a Google award which has allowed her to add to the website’s resources (human and otherwise); Naya Daur is funded by Pakistanis who wanted “a more progressive voice” on news to be heard and asks for contributions from readers; Voice is donor-funded and Sujag (also donor-funded), is now looking at other options. Full-time staff members at each are a dozen or less and some of the senior members work without a salary.

Varied future plans to raise funds reveal there is no clear path to financial viability. The Current and Sujag talk of a membership model.

Chaudhry says that while the website will be kept free, The Current will organise special events and perks for members; in fact the Google award the website won will be used to develop this model. Mehdi says that Sujag will unroll a membership model by next year as well as link up with “other digital start-ups”. However, Naya Daur aspires to The Guardian model – keep the website free but hoping that people will voluntarily donate enough to sustain the platform as well as expand it.

None of them, it seems, thinks traffic and advertising revenue are the answer – yet. Chaudhry is frank enough to point out that advertisers want to pay for content which should then not be marked as sponsored. She says this is commonplace and it is hard to swim against the tide.

The immediate future of these websites will be crucial, not just for their own survival but also for what it reveals about the viability of smaller, independent voices and platforms in Pakistan’s limited media scene.

Arifa Noor is a journalist and the lead anchor for NewsWise on DawnNews.