It was the sweet revenge of youth. When Rafiullah and 34 other young journalists were rejected by the Swat and Mingora Press Clubs, they decided they didn’t need Old Media. They took their handful of news websites and 3 million followers and formed the Swat Social Media club.
“When peace was restored in the valley and I come back to my hometown Saidu Sharif, we launched the Swat News website and it turned out to be a great success,” says Rafiullah, who has a master’s degree in Communication and Media Studies from the University of Swat.
It was almost by chance that they discovered the formula. One day in 2010, a man brought a photo of his sister whose foot had developed an infection which was causing her a lot of pain. He didn’t have enough money to have her treated. The men in the family had worked in factories to earn a living but because of the conflict the factories had shut down. To make matters worse their house had been damaged in the flood that year.
“It was a human interest story and we made a video on it and put it on our website,” says Rafiullah. “Within five minutes people from Pakistan and even Japan, England, Saudi Arabia and other countries started contacting us.” Ultimately enough money came in to get the sister treated. “That’s the day I realized how powerful social media was.”
Rafiullah and his friends did their own reporting, shot video on their mobile phones and swiftly uploaded the news to their own website. They beat the old school print journalists for being able to get people hyperlocal news much before the newspapers were offloaded in the bazaar. They tackled subjects that really affected people such as the high suicide rate and the use of drugs.
They are making money as well, through Google Adsense or they run paid local advertisements on their websites. They also give paid digital space to people who want to hold press conferences. Local politicians also use these platforms to promote their ideologies by paying these journalists. They say they earn about Rs150,000 a month from their digital properties and the main audience is local and Pashto-speaking labourers working in the Middle East and other countries. They don’t always pay their interns or trainee reporters, however.
They say they did so well that the older journalists at the Swat and Mingora Press Clubs grew jealous and banned them from entering. The more established newspapers in Swat were daily Azadi Swat, daily Chand, daily Shumal which had for years been serving the valley and surrounding areas in their own right. The difference was, however, that traditional media wasn’t moving with the times. “We have no problem with a social media club,” says Syed Shahabuddin, a senior member of the Swat Press Club. “But according to the Swat Press Club constitution, journalists who work at PEMRA licensed channels, ABC certified newspapers can become members. That is why we did not give membership to the social media club.”
The numbers tell the story. The well-established Shumal newspaper has 8,000 YouTube subscribers but Swat News has 33,000. Shumal’s Facebook page has about 700,000 followers but Swat News has one million. They were attracting people also because they were experimenting with new formats of handling changes in the valley after the conflict. For example, one of the rebels Fazal Rabi Pakhtunyar is a bit of a celebrity for his fresh take. “I am a comedian,” he says. “I highlight social issues with cutting satire.” People are fed up of routine news and are flooded with information so he wants to relieve their stress by discussing socio-economic political issues in a comic way. “We have been through the worst of times and the only thing I want to give my people out of all this is a sigh of relief for few minutes on social media twice a week.”
Another social media celeb is Muhammad Shiraz who has around 0.7 million followers. He lost his job as a cameraman with a national news channel after which he turned to social media and started his own website. He now receives information which he uploads to his social media sites.
Most of the journalists lack basic training, especially when dealing with sensitive content and their ethics may be a bit wobbly. Once a friend posted fake news about the death of a local MPA but later admitted that he did it just to increase their followers. They often piggyback off fake news to get more hits, but they are slowly realizing that this doesn’t serve their brand in the long run. And if their growth is anything to go by, they can hope to be bigger and better than old media in the future.