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Turning the Tide

Media houses in Pakistan are beginning to realise that to remain relevant in a future-facing world, their own future will be inexorably tied to the digital world.
Updated 02 Jun, 2023 04:00pm

Maria Memon is a TV anchor and journalist who, like many other TV celebrities, is branching out into social media platforms outside of her employer’s studio. However, unlike many in her stead, who simply do vlogs on politics, she is taking her digital content in a different direction. Her videos showcase short interviews with, say, the mother of a special child; a young woman who opted to not have children; someone who speaks of coping with, and growing up after, having lost a father at a young age. In addition, the platform has Khadija Siddiqi, a celebrity in her own right, to provide legal advice and an educationist to talk about the education system. 

But most importantly, Memon shines in her short reels on her Instagram account. Unlike most celebrity journalists, whose accounts simply provide a platform for pictures or clips from their television work, she uses it to speak of her own life, and with a view to mentoring young women. 

On a daily basis, her reels showcase a shot of her clothes, playfully titled Aajkayrang. She explained in a video that when she was young she avoided colours and opted for drab shades, and now she wants to encourage young women otherwise – and from the responses, it seems she has struck a chord. She offers snippets of political commentary and advice – such as how the boomers running the country at the moment are traumatising the young and then highlights some of the responses she receives from young people. On Women’s Day, she uploaded short videos of women, including politicians, actors and other personalities, explaining what advice they would give to their 20-year-old selves. These informal reels, interspersed with details of her personal life (her husband explaining how he made an omelette in an air fryer), are excellent examples of how the personal and political can make for good content. 

They also make one wonder about the lack of diverse content on news websites which appear to be struggling to escape the traditional parameters. 

Indeed, the media is caught up in a rapidly changing world and appears wary of, or averse to, a digital future, clinging on to old comforts. This is not to say the change is not there. It is. It is also not to say that the awareness is not there. It is. But the speed appears slow. 

Most legacy media, such as Jang, Dawn and Business Recorder, have their websites run by digital teams, as do most of the news channels. The websites have now been joined by branded YouTube channels, followed by accounts on various social media platforms such as Twitter, Instagram and TikTok.

The question is, how are these platforms used? The general assumption is that many are simply used to draw attention to the content generated by the mainstream or flagship project (newspaper or TV). This impression is strengthened by looking at the major news websites of the known media groups. The bulk of the content appears to be similar to what the flagship channel or newspaper offers, and comes either in the form of the written word or video content. In fact, it would not be wrong to say the websites appear too wordy, as is the case with newspapers in Pakistan. 

Mahim Maher, a senior journalist (she currently serves as Editor of who cut her teeth in senior editorial positions in print and has run a number of digital newsrooms agrees. “Most organisations shovel content onto platforms without a strategy.” 

First, it was the content from newspapers and then TV she says. Although this is changing and most news organisations with websites are now creating original content for their websites, it still lacks a larger vision or strategy. 

Her views are shared by Sana Jamil, Editor, Geo Digital (English News), who says it is a daily struggle to understand what is digital. Both Maher and Jamil stress that discussions are happening in newsrooms and among media owners about what to offer, how to use the various platforms and how to generate money from them. So, it seems there is the realisation that while the different platforms can be used to showcase existing content (which Maher describes as ‘shovelling’) there is also a need to create exclusive content for all these platforms. 

In terms of showcasing existing content, Maher cites the decision by some news organisations to create multiple YouTube channels for their different content – separating for instance sports content from news content. This serves audiences better and also ensures more eyeballs, as putting all the content on one channel can push some of it so low down on the homepage to make it unreachable. Creating exclusive content for these platforms appears to be more challenging and journalists and media owners are brainstorming about what to present on which platform and how – be it the home website, YouTube, Twitter, TikTok and now WhatsApp. 

This is more than just a matter of content creation, which in itself is a challenge, and although many wonder if this problem can be addressed. Jahanzaib Haque, who heads, is of the view that within five years digital will be the platform, rather than TV and print. For him, the challenge is monetary – the resources are not there to innovate. He feels once resources are shifted to digital, innovation and storytelling will follow. As an example, Haque refers to The Washington Post’s TikTok account which uses actors and smart scripts to comment on current events around the world. 

The Washington Post example is a good one because it shows how much the digital invasion has changed what news means and how it is presented. Traditional definitions and concepts have been turned upside down. A journalist with a large Twitter following is a brand in him or herself and can do individually what channels or newspapers have hitherto had a monopoly on – breaking news. In addition, he or she can provide analysis on it. Or, like Memon, head off in a different direction. 

YouTube is used similarly by individual journalists who are becoming brands themselves. TikTok and Instagram and then WhatsApp, add new levels or new confusion to this fast-changing world for journalists, says Maher. Political parties and their activists and supporters use TikTok and WhatsApp to great success in Pakistan. This varied use and the diversity in content have made the challenge all the more for the news groups. 

However, other than content, the financial side has its own set of challenges. Everyone agrees that the digital side is now profitable for news organisations in Pakistan. They are earning from putting their content on various platforms and this is simply the beginning. According to Asad Baig, Founder and Director of Media Matters for Democracy, as more and more ad revenue is moving to digital, news organisation managements are realising the need to spread their digital footprint. 

Unlike what the content on TV and in newspapers suggests, Baig, who works closely with media owners and has produced a report on the economy of the media, says there is now a realisation of the need for digital content creation. This realisation is linked to the numbers. In his recent report, he points out that over 80% of Pakistan’s digital ad spend is going to social media giants, and this is what is prompting media owners to begin brainstorming about digital platforms and content creation. He adds that while they are gearing up to invest in innovation and content creation, they are held back by the unstable environment. 

Policymaking in Pakistan remains ad hoc and even irrational, especially where the digital world is concerned. Media owners fear abrupt policy reversals, such as random bans on a platform or new regulations. This fear of whimsical policymaking is adding a dose of reluctance to their plans for the future. The state will have to also look ahead if the media industry in Pakistan is to evolve instead of stagnating and becoming irrelevant. The digital tide has to be taken at the flood by media owners as well as the state. 

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