Forget about TV, everyone is doing digital in Pakistan from small news companies to big television channels—but is it financially successful?
At the Lahore Literary Festival this past weekend, a panel of experts, journalists and two media owners debated just how possible it is to run a digital news business in a session moderated by journalist Benazir Shah
SAMAA TV founder Zafar Siddiqi had a story to tell to illustrate the power of digital. The Washington Post’s CEO was once giving a presentation. When Amazon’s Jeff Bezos bought the newspaper, he asked why they didn’t do something on the digital side. So two techies were put in the newsroom but the journalists kept asking who they were and what they were doing there.
Then, one day, a story published on the digital side got an answer from one of its readers and its journalist got excited. They realized they could interact.
Today, digital financially supports print at The Washington Post.
But closer to home in Pakistan, you could argue that the realities are slightly different. “Opening a digital company is not like having a factory,” said Zafar Siddiqi. It isn’t like you invest x amount, produce goods and start earning money by selling them immediately.
“Three years is the minimum time when you will see even a penny,” he said. That is why digital companies need a long term plan in Pakistan.
The owner needs to commit capital: say, Rs100 million. You need a unique selling point. What are trying to achieve? Who is going to be your audience?
The good news is that digital revenue in Pakistan was up 18% (2017-2018) and Rs2.5 billion was spent on digital advertising. Siddiqi expects it to increase. But, he cautions that it will take time.
Some people think that one way to run a digital company is to get advertisers for the website, but this isn’t as easy as it looks.
According to Arif Nizami, in Pakistan, getting commercial advertising for digital, that is non-government, is a Herculean task. In the US, some newspapers are printed twice a week and the rest of the time they go digital, so they get their print advertisements.
“But in Pakistan, unfortunately, advertisers are not accepting social magazines,” he said. He has noticed ads shrinking for his paparazzi magazine ‘Sunday’. It is doing digital in the shape of Instagram but it isn’t enough.
Everyone is, however, experimenting. Many television anchors who were big names on the screen have now opened their own YouTube channels and are trying to earn revenue this way. They may have left TV over censorship or because of the media crisis. “Some of them are doing it to get their voice heard, like Talat Hussain, for example,” said Arif Nizami. But the government has been toying with the idea of controlling them on digital as well by making them pay for expensive licenses. Fortunately, though, added Nizami, the government has put off these plans.
The Current’s Marium Chaudhry pointed out that Google, Facebook and Twitter are not that interested in Pakistan in terms of revenue. Google has not, for example, given Pakistan a live country trends page which it has for other countries such as India. “Pakistan’s Facebook representative is based in Singapore. There is nobody in Pakistan,” she said. “Facebook isn’t monetized in Pakistan. If you have videos on Facebook and you want to make money out of it, you can’t.” And YouTube gives you such little money for Pakistani viewership that it isn’t enough to run a whole news operation.