Future is digital

Digital news media of Pakistan is shaping up but traditional hounds need to be leashed

Pakistan’s media landscape has changed beyond recognition between the first and twentieth year of this millennium. Starting off basically with a virtual state stranglehold centred on broadcast media with a vibrant but smallish print medium and only a smattering of internet, it has now morphed – after major ups and downs – into an emaciated private broadcast, and print sectors with a still largish but unpopular and unreliable state broadcast sector. The only medium left standing, with a still sizeable growth potential and a promise of a relatively free voice to carry the burden of journalism, is the internet medium.

One way to understand the state of the internet in Pakistan is to roughly view the digital domain in two broad sections of (i) formal news and informal information space, and (ii) the broader non-news business space where the rest of everything happens. The former comprises the framework in which the slowly burgeoning formal news and information local operations as well as the international social media platforms are situated. What is its specific context and what are its key characteristics?

Pakistan has been able to engender a growth-oriented, dynamic digital society with internet and online media use exploding in numbers and scale in recent years. According to We Are Social, which issues country-wise annual internet data, at the start of 2020 over 75 million Pakistanis were online (every third citizen is connected digitally). Over 55 percent, or 37 million, use social media, including advertisement-reachable 33 million on Facebook, 6.4 million on Instagram and 1.83 million on Twitter.

Clearly, like in other places on the planet, internet is empowering Pakistanis to express themselves vigorously. Easier, faster and cheaper internet access is fuelling social media use, and underpinning burgeoning online current affairs media and community information platforms that are driving a national discourse from a people’s perspective. This is replacing mainstream TV and radio media in Pakistan as sources of traditional information that have been compromised by big business and deep state with public interest journalism fading away all but completely.

A dynamic digital media already

The new internet media has, thus, become the new journalism media in Pakistan and rivals the traffic for mainstream offline versions of news and current affairs. This has particularly been driven by the country’s youth bulge – over half the 210 million population is under the age of 25 – who are not watching news bulletins or current affairs shows on TV or reading newspapers. They’re rather online social mediating, exchanging information. Hence, nearly all current affairs TV channels, newspapers and most FM radio stations – not to mention online-only news and current affairs websites – maintain active social media platforms, especially Facebook and Twitter to drive up traffic for their news and current affairs content.

The real challenge is playing the ‘news-bringer’ online for the news-and-gossip hungry Pakistani netizens. Which players currently hold the fort as Pakistan’s most-followed and trustworthy news-and-current affairs operations online? This is essentially a straight contest between the digital versions of mainstream offline news market leaders who have robust online presence versus a new ecosystem of online-only news and community information services – the ‘digital-only newspapers-TV-radio’ of Pakistan.

Who are the main online news players of the country? According to media consumption and audience data from Gallup Pakistan from 2018, also referenced in the Media Ownership Monitor Index for Pakistan 2019 produced by Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF), the accumulative audience shares of top 10 news websites in Pakistan constitute 26.52 percent of the audiences’ shares of all news websites in the country.

While the digital news realm may be more public-interest oriented, business sustainability is a challenge as is government interest in the free-flow of critical information and independent opinion online

The Top 4 players in the online media have 24.84 percent (more than half) of the audience share, as they own 8 outlets out of top 10 – the remaining outlets have 1.68 percent. Jang group has 9.84 percent audience share in the overall total with three websites of Jang, The News and Geo, which proportionally amounts to 37.1 percent of audience share of the top 10 websites. Express group has 8.03 percent audience share in the overall total with two websites of Express News and The Express Tribune, which proportionally amounts to 30.28 percent of overall audience share of the top 10 websites. Together Jang group (37.1 percent) and Express group (30.28 percent) come to a total of 67.38 percent. This means two media groups have over half of all news website traffic of the top 10 news websites in the country. Clearly, diversity is a challenge.

There is, of course, no data available for a breakdown of audiences for all news and information websites in Pakistan. But clearly the digital versions of mainstream media groups in Pakistan have an edge over any online-only news and current affairs websites. This is clearly because offline versions of these mainstream media groups create a bulk of the content. Only a few, such as Dawn Group, Jang group and Express Group, create any decent amounts of digital-only current affairs content (such as news features, analysis and blogs) as they have to cater to larger international audiences, mostly comprising a substantial Pakistani diaspora.

The challenge of being online-only

The online-only news media in Pakistani cyberspace is still hampered by business sustainability challenges and a much more diffuse and fickle audience that can’t spend too much time on news and current affairs because the advertising revenues are mostly snapped up by the digital versions of the mainstream media groups.

Despite this, Pakistan’s online-only news media ecosystem is growing and offering a dizzying array of innovative information models that offer more hyper-local, community-friendly information in multiple mediums as well as thematic specialties than their mainstream media counterpart giants. Examples include Sujag, Humsub, NayaDaur, Aina-e-Absar, Wichaar, etc – each with its fantastically diverse focus on topics, geographic regions, linguist and ethnic groups and, of course, much more representative voices from all social strata that is absent in the blandish mainstream media.

While Pakistan’s digital news and information realm may be much more public-interest oriented, and may offer community-focused news-you-can-use information compared to the mostly state-interest, vested-interest oriented mainstream TV and print mediums, business sustainability is a challenge as is the newfound emphasis of the deep state and government interest in expanding the free-flow of critical information and independent opinion online. The Asia Internet Coalition grouping together the likes of Facebook, YouTube, Google and Twitter have already hit back against the government intentions (the so-called protection against harm online) to over-regulate the online information sphere, including barely concealed disdain for free speech online.

This also flies in the face of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s assurances to CEOs of global social media giants, including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube who met him in Davos last month, to invest in Pakistan’s burgeoning digital economy. This duality of purpose will undermine one of the very few areas in Pakistan exhibiting optimism and growth – the digital economy. On top of that, if implemented, the proposed social media regulations will end up constricting the online free speech and civil liberties environment further.

Like pretty much elsewhere, the future of Pakistan’s media is digital but only if formal news and information providers online can focus on the needs of audiences and are backed up with policies that do not extend the climate of censorship and allow the stuttering national economy’s reach into the digital domain. The Pakistani advertising market will also have to support online-only news-and-current affairs media if they want to expand their access to audiences. The digitally native Pakistani news medium also has a battle on its hands to fight the cannibalistic influence of the international social media platforms that tend to divert local market audiences to mainstream media bullies based on their existing relationships.

The digital news media landscape of Pakistan is shaping up nicely to become the people’s medium of choice for reliable and useful news and information – provided the traditional hounds can be kept at bay offline.

The author is a political analyst and media development specialist. He can be reached at adrehmat@gmail.com

Future is digital: Digital news media of Pakistan is shaping up but traditional hounds need to be leashed