‘Don’t be scared, be prepared: how to handle media crisis’?

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The media industry is going through an analog to digital transition. The transition marks the overall change of norms into the fourth industrial revolution. The changing dynamics and technological advancements are compelling the norms of the industry within and outside to consolidate in terms of infrastructure, human resource.

This change has also led to emergence of new platforms for content dissemination and consumption. The changing consumption patterns of the content has created economic challenges for the traditional media especially print and television. The new media has emerged as the primary platform to generate debate and information to generate debates and public sentiments.

The new media dynamics have also led the media owners to behave in a manner to safeguard their businesses with utmost unethical manner. The laws of the land which governs the Right to do business under the Securities and Exchange Commission of Pakistan and the media regulatory bodies i.e. the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) and the Press Council of Pakistan (PCP).

The behavior of the media owners has shown the worst form of business practices in the country. Journalists and media persons have been sacked without any notice, reasons or merit. One of the reasons presented by the media owners is the fact that the economic viability of media entities has been severely affected due to the changing industrial dynamics along with governments’ new advertisement policy. However this fact can be checked with the evidence from the SECP, PCP and PEMRA, whereas; the annual reports along with the annual audited accounts are mandatory documents to be submitted by all companies operating business licenses in the country.

The SECP remains the primary regulator for all companies and businesses to operate in the country, whereas; PEMRA and PCP are the secondary regulators for doing business in the media sector. The SECP has a responsibility for ensuring that the businesses are run according to the SECP law, which mandates all companies to submit their annual reports and accounts.

The annual accounts of all the media entities can reveal the current state of financial health of all the channels over the five years. The annual reports can reveal that the financially the media companies have not been effective due to the changing environment but instead poor management practices, something that the SECP needs to consider and ensure for media sustainability and job security for the journalists according to the contract and labour laws of Pakistan.

 

On the other hand there is a debate by the effectees, on the current media crisis which says:

The crisis hurting the print media in particular has three elements to it:

a) The global decline of the print media and migration of advertising to other formats, mainly TV in Pakistan’s case;

b) The combination of this with an overall economic downturn in Pakistan and;

c) A rapid rise in censorship and an environment of curtailment in Pakistan, which is turning the screws on an already beleaguered sector.

While the print media continues to adopt a hardline stance against governments, its news reporting, in general, is not equally independent — perhaps reflecting the over-dependence on government advertising. Things have, however, been changing since the elections in July 2018 brought the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party to power, which has shown hostility in its dealings with all media: it has heavily slashed government ad-spends — former Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry admitted so in many press conferences — forcing the media to cut jobs while some TV channels and newspapers have even been shut down. However, the digital media in Pakistan is not supported by the government and, therefore, exhibits a relatively independent streak in its editorial positions, sustained as it is by the private sector rather than the public sector.

Over the course of 2016 to 2018, Pakistan’s overall advertisement spending on media has shown a declining trend. This was even true for digital media against the general perception that audiences and markets are migrating online. The total latest annual media advertising market in Pakistan — which included TV, print, radio, digital, out-of-home and cinema categories — showed a seven percent decrease from the preceding fiscal year, according to quarterly Aurora magazine’s print edition issued in the last quarter of 2018.

The advertising market size in Pakistan grew from Rs 66.9 billion in 2014-15 to Rs 87.7 billion in 2016-17. In August 2018, the Senate was informed that the government provided advertisements worth Rs 15.7 billion to print and electronic media from 2013 to 2017. This money clearly buys influence. But so does a slash in government advertising, say media managers. After the July 2018 elections, the provincial governments of Punjab and Sindh — the main contributors of advertisement revenues for the print and electronic media — and the federal government in Islamabad, have slashed their advertisement budgets by 70 percent, leaving the media industry in a bad financial situation.

Industry sources say this crisis does not come out of the blue but, over the better part of this decade, the newspaper industry in Pakistan has recorded an estimated 15 percent to 20 percent decrease in sales despite the emergence of new titles as non-legacy media groups have brought out newspapers. A major chunk of the print media market in Pakistan comprises Urdu-language newspapers while the market for English-language newspaper is small by comparison. Since 2010, mid-ranking newspapers have undergone a substantial reduction in advertisement revenues forcing the lay-off of hundreds of staff.

Because of the declining readership of English-language newspapers, telecom companies are diverting their remaining ad-spends to Urdu-language TV channels. This also explains the closure of two English-language news channels since 2015. Although Dawn TV (English) and Express 24/7 (English) belonged to two of the largest media houses in Pakistan, they were forced to shutter them following a decline in average earnings per channels as the number of TV channels ballooned.

Why are Pakistani media outlets clinging to old models of information and news cycles, ignoring changing consumer behaviours and the fact that people are migrating online in droves for information and news?

According to Asad Baig, the founder and director of Media Matters for Democracy, a media rights and technology advocacy organisation, Pakistan is perhaps the only country in this region that is still largely using a decades-old TV distribution system referred to as ‘analog’; elsewhere it is being rendered obsolete because it makes use of the traditional linear transmission system through analog signals. Baig says digital services that would allow content producers (broadcasters in this case) to generate revenue through subscription or pay per view aren’t possible. Meanwhile, ‘Over-The-Top’ content providers that distribute streaming media as a stand-alone product directly to viewers over the internet, bypass telecommunications, multichannel television, and broadcast television platforms that traditionally act as a controller or distributor of such content.

While the future of the media in Pakistan is digital, the reality of digital in Pakistan is bitter. It is reflected in the massive decline of advertising revenue from it. While advertisers have cottoned on to the fact that, with such low internet penetration — less than 20 percent after two decades — and low literacy levels, digital critical mass-proximity is nowhere near in the future. Even some of the success stories of big digital media portals such as Dawn.com are subsidised by revenue and content from the print operations of the Dawn Media Group at the moment. There is also the danger that digital is more prone to censorship — not just foreign media, such as websites from India, are blocked but digital media platforms from Balochistan are routinely blocked by the telecom regulator PTA.

The work of Pakistani media practitioners and their employers is cut out for them. They have to go where the technology — and money — is, and that is where sustainability lies. But censorship will have to be battled in a concerted fight by the media and the political classes with the real censors. If Pakistani media is not to be swamped completely by the current endemic, this is the road to take. It needs to come out of its comfort zone.

With reporting by Mediabites, Amir Jahangir and Dawn

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