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Pressing Matters

Muna Khan reflects on changes in the media industry and their impact on the newsroom.
Published 18 Jan, 2024 09:43am

I asked some of my peers who started their career in journalism, like myself, in the mid-nineties to tell me how they thought the newsroom had evolved since – the fact that only a few wanted to go on the record for fear of upsetting their respective employers says something. I will share the common theme the four of them (all in senior management positions in traditional media) said – advancements in technology have disrupted the way in which news is created, disseminated and consumed, but TV is not as dead as people like to think. 

However, in their view, the same cannot be said for print. Herald and Newsline magazines, held to be a definitive guide to politics, arts and culture (and respectively did fearless reporting in their 49 and 29 years of existence), shut down in 2019. The jury is still out on whether they could have been ‘saved’ had they migrated to digital, but my vote is yes, they could have been. I believe people would have paid for their content, too. 

While the four aforementioned people did not agree on how the managing of newsrooms today had impacted the stories we see across all media, they did concede that media owners had taken over roles once held by professional editors. While decision-making processes vary across news organisations, those news organisations owned by businessmen who launched news channels as side businesses tend not to adhere to editorial principles.  

“In the last couple of decades, it seems as if the newsrooms have become administrative hubs rather than places where editorial decisions are taken,” says Arifa Noor, who anchors NewsWise, a TV show on DawnNews and writes a weekly column for Dawn.  “As reporting has taken a back seat and the emphasis is on simply reporting events, primarily press conferences, there is little for newsrooms to do. Editorial policy and decision-making are now monopolised by those who decide what to run or not run on the basis of considerations of money and power. As a result, there is no need for experienced journalists who can make editorial policies or filter stories. Decision-making, it seems, has been reduced to what events to cover and how to manage resources such as what to cover live and how.”

This was not always the case.

Geo News perhaps best illustrates what it was like at the time when the media was liberalised during General Pervez Musharraf’s period. Geo News was bold, exciting and totally different from the staid ‘news’ most Pakistanis were used to watching on PTV. It was the first to do this and paved the way for other channels to follow, like ARY, KTN and Aaj which were launched between 2002 and 2005. Samaa launched in 2007, Express in 2008 and Hum News in 2018. There is also a list of defunct channels, such as Business Plus and a few iterations of the Indus channel. Two English-language channels also did not fare well. 

At the time of their respective launches, news channels were largely run by editors who moved from the print industry along with other staff and received in-house training organised by the channels. Talent was groomed and it launched the careers of many people who remain at the top, including Talat Hussain, Hamid Mir, and Asma Shirazi – all of whom came from print backgrounds. 

TV channels were seen as profitable businesses and many were launched not for the love of journalism or informing the public, but as a means of furthering business interests. For some businessmen, launching channels was a way to ‘clean black money.’  I thought this was an urban myth but former Herald editor, Badar Alam corrected me last year in an interview I did on whether news organisations needed to rethink their business models. He said many businesses launched channels for this very purpose. 

This changed the culture in newsrooms and their operations. 

When arts and culture critic, Aamna Haider Isani – who now runs her own digital platform, Something Haute – began her career in journalism, there were clear distinctions between the editorial and marketing departments. “We were very careful about who we covered, as our credibility was at stake and marketing had no say. We could push back and say no,” – including, she adds, to the highest of the highest in the hierarchy, and that it was a great time to be a journalist. The digital landscape has opened up new opportunities for people, especially in terms of empowering them financially, but it has also impacted journalism – lines have been blurred, language has suffered and roles are unclear. “Today, you can’t tell if the content is editorial, ad, paid content, credible or not credible,” says Isani. 

Everyone in the newsroom today knows their organisation is in financial trouble, as evidenced by delays in salaries, often by months, which begs questions of, where are things going wrong?

Alam told me how the media’s dependency on advertising, especially from the government, for revenue, is part of the reason that newsrooms are in a financial bind. The government knows this and uses it to its advantage. Caretaker Prime Minister Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar’s recent comment about the print media needing a new business model was met with a scathing response by media organisations. An editorial in The Nation on October 27, reminded Mr Kakar that the government owes news outlets money for ads it pays “a pittance for, compared to the commercial rates paid by private businesses.” 

How independent will journalism be if its business is dependent on a government for advertising? While there have been so many technological advancements in the newsroom, especially with the digital arm of their outlet, none of the mainstream organisations have introduced a paywall or a subscription model. 

Profit, owned by Pakistan Today and launched in 2010 by Arif Nizami, is an exception. I spoke to its publisher, Babar Nizami last year about their business model, and he said they were not bound to advertisers, something that allowed them to practise independent journalism. Profit has proven that people are willing to pay for niche content.  

Why haven’t newsrooms tried to adapt to changes beyond attempts at convergence models where information is received, created and distributed to different platforms? 

“Newsrooms are way too corporate compared to 25 years ago. What I mean is that journalists don’t have the kind of freedom, time or breathing space in today’s newsrooms as they did earlier,” says Munazza Siddiqui, Executive Producer at Geo. “Barring reporters, everyone else on the floor is generally confined to a beat or a desk. There is very little sharing or exchange of ideas, and this is reflected in today’s bulletins and digital/web news stories; most news and stories aired or filed seem to appear in a vacuum, with little or no context, little or no follow-up, and generally isolated from the overall fabric of society.” 

While a newsroom has always been demanding on staff members’ time, Siddiqui criticises the clinical environment in a newsroom that “has no time for personal growth, no time for seniors to teach newcomers and no time for anyone to learn from anyone.” 

Is it all gloomy then?

Perhaps not, says Mehmal Sarfraz, a journalist and co-founder of the digital platform, The Current. She has worked in all media since 2005 and says that each one has its own requirements and the newsroom culture is different in many ways. “Print may be my first love but digital is something that makes my work much more creative and interesting,” she says. 

Given the gains made in internet access, more people get news on their smartphones and the data shows a drop in TV viewership. Digital outlets have understood a new audience’s needs and are catering to them in a language they understand and on platforms they use – from YouTube to TikTok. 

“There is more innovation in digital media newsrooms than in print or electronic,” concludes Sarfraz. “The one thing that is different from print and electronic media newsrooms is also that you never get bored, because for digital content you have to keep trying new things.” 

Muna Khan researches newsroom culture in Pakistan and