My Uncle, My Boss: Arif Nizami (1948-2021)
Much has been written about Arif Nizami, the journalist, since he passed away. Keeping in mind the target readership of this trade journal, I feel I should talk a little about Arif Nizami the publisher, the media salesman. The CEO, basically.
My first interaction with Arif Nizami as a boss, not an uncle, came at the age of 22, when I was a fresh faced MBA, having joined The Nation in the marketing department. It had seemed natural for me, like it was for him, to go into the ‘family business,’ as it were. My professional relationship with him was as wholesome and productive as my personal relationship. In stark contrast to his complicated relationship with his uncle, the late Majid Nizami, the boss and owner of the Nawa-i-Waqt Group, which Arif Nizami’s father Hameed Nizami had started in the 1940s.
Whereas Arif Nizami was open to ideas that in retrospect, I now think, would have come across as new-fangled and impractical, Majid Nizami was set in his ways and thought any expense by way of innovation was extravagance. The little bit that I managed to get by way of brand building, was the result of hard fought battles by Arif sahab (I trained myself to address him as such in professional settings). I remember that when I had proposed the plan of billboards with live news tickers on key traffic signals in Lahore, he immediately took to the idea, which was hitherto unheard of in Pakistan. Keep in mind that this was 2003; there were only two private TV news channels (which you could only watch in front of, well, a TV) and no cellular internet. Getting news at those traffic signals was a novel concept; it was a hit, the idea. Arif sahab, dressed nattily in a suit like he always was, had stepped out onto Mall Road and stood on a footpath next to the intersection on Mall Road to observe himself. Such victories were few and far in between. Professionally, I felt stifled at The Nation and left. Leaving, however, wasn’t a luxury that Arif sahab had.
In 2009, Arif sahab was unceremoniously let go from The Nation and Nawa-i-Waqt. He called me and said he would start a new newspaper and he wanted me to come back and help run it. I would be lying if I don’t concede that part of my decision to come back was because of the love of a nephew. But another significant part of it was, indeed, because it was Arif sahab! That he would get the funding and run a good paper, free from the shackles he had been putting up with for so long. And we started Pakistan Today. The whole being-open-to-new-ideas thing came into full play. We decided to follow a Western trend and go for a Berliner format, regardless of what the canon of the broadsheet said. And oh, it had to be all colour.
I will not bore the readers with printing press shop talk. Just take my word for it that printing all the pages in colour – and that too in a single fold – was an impossibility with the number of presses we had. But between us, we managed to figure out a way to print all 32 pages in colour. Those visits of Arif sahab to Germany for printing industry conventions weren’t junkets. He knew the latest technical developments. No print guy could BS us out of getting exactly what we wanted.
It was a lovely jugaar. As they say in the engineering world: if it works, it isn’t stupid. Alas, the newspaper industry’s good years were wasted on Arif Nizami’s earlier stint at the Nawa-i-Waqt Group. The internet was gobbling up ad revenue and no paper (to date) has made a successful, monetised transition online, within the country or abroad.
And with that, came a dark phase in Pakistan Today’s history and, indeed, Arif sahab’s. With ad revenues shrinking, we found it difficult to pay employees and vendors. Whereas other media magnates seem to be quite comfortable with incessant salary delays, he wasn’t. It took a toll on him. The unpaid staff of other papers often had to compile photos of their owners’ families’ high partying lifestyles on their society pages. But Arif sahab felt a personal burden.
In an unfortunate culture in the national news media, where even cub reporters can blackmail themselves out of a government fine, Pakistan Today’s electricity connection at the Islamabad office was disconnected due to non-payment. Arif sahab didn’t pick up the phone to call someone who would most certainly have obliged. He knew it would be wrong and that was enough.
Anyway, they say tough times don’t last, but tough people do. And Pakistan Today weathered that storm. We cut down on costs and redirected some of the savings to newer projects. One, was Paperazzi, which is a joint project with another publication, under an agreement, the details of which might have made other press barons wince. But one that more than fulfilled the engineering ‘if-it-works’ test. Another was our business magazine Profit. Not only did he see a future in quality business reportage, but also in exclusive business intelligence. He took the plunge and made Profit the first Pakistani news outfit to go behind a paywall.
These publications started ringing in the cash with the main paper soon following. Earlier dues to employees have nearly all been cleared up, leaving some former employees nonplussed about where the money that was just transferred to their bank account came from. He insisted on clearing those dues.
Arif Nizami was perhaps – along with only one or two others – the best connected journalist. Others might boast of a contact list of the who’s who of political and government power in the country. Arif sahab had all that and contacts in the business community, the ad agencies, the intelligentsia, the legal fraternity.
A Lahori boy, some of his Karachi counterparts begrudgingly admitted he knew their city’s corporate circles better than them. Such was the respect that he commanded, that Pakistan Today was the first paper in the history of the All Pakistan Newspaper Society (APNS) to obtain full membership right from the start.
It was quite the CV: Arif Nizami had been a reporter, one with an impressive set of exclusive news stories under his belt. He had been a bilingual columnist, one whose analysis was widely respected. He was, as I explained earlier, aware of the technical aspects of printing presses. He was an editor, having launched and helmed not one, but two APNS (category A) newspapers. He had launched the TV channel of the Nawa-i-Waqt Group, was the CEO of another one and, since 2009, had a regular programme on one channel or the other. On the trade association front, he had been president of both the APNS and the Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors (CPNE). He had been the federal minister for information in a caretaker capacity.
I have listed above, the entire gamut; he had seen every possible role of the news business there was. But that does leave out one role in the news business that he also had. The one that was closest to his heart: that of the reader. That of the viewer. He was with the readers that identified and would hate to see them short-changed. Running a newspaper is the art of the possible, he used to say. He wasn’t one for quixotic impracticality; we live in the real world and compromises have to be made. But as long as the vendors kept were paid and the salaries as well, he knew what a paper is, at the end of the day, supposed to do.
By way of illustration, let us use the HBL case, because the bank is, after all, Pakistan’s largest advertiser. When the bank’s debacle in New York happened, it was barely covered by the other papers. Profit wrote an uncomfortably in-depth cover story.
Arif Nizami was the editor. But he was also the CEO, and therefore, the marketing department’s boss. After being briefed completely on the HBL story, he knew which hat to wear and which one to shelve. “It checks out. Don’t worry, Babar. Let’s run the story.”
Babar Nizami is Editor, Profit magazine and CEO, Pakistan Today. firstname.lastname@example.org
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