Well here it is. The Express Tribune has finally arrived and enters a crowded and insecure English language newspaper market. Does Pakistan have the need and capacity for another English broadsheet? Has the publisher been canny or foolhardy in investing in this old form of media? Time will tell.
However, he is certainly betting against global trends.
The perceived wisdom is that newspapers are going the way of the Dodo, Tehrik-i-Insaf and the VHS machine.
They are dying — if not dead already. Newspapers in the US and the UK are going bust at an alarming rate. Presently, regional newspapers have been most affected. But it can’t be long before national newspapers follow in the footsteps of their provincial cousins.
The old business model of advertising and circulation, where distribution rather than content was king, no longer works in a world of Twitter, Facebook and Google. Quality news, that is free, is only a mouse click away. More and more of us are getting our news from bytes not newsprint. As the American academic Clay Shirky puts it – "the old models are breaking faster than the new models can be put into place."
Even the press barons in the US and UK are in disagreement about what to do next. Some like The Guardian have invested heavily in their online website, providing it for free, but still charging for the print edition. As a result, the website version is now the second most-read English language newspaper in the world, after The New York Times. Meanwhile, the paid print edition is a paltry tenth most popular paper in the UK market.
Meanwhile, the last great media mogul, Rupert Murdoch, has announced that the Times of London and Sunday Times will start charging for their online content from June onwards. He announced the idea of a paywall almost a year in advance —a sure sign he isn’t wholly convinced it will work. It may be fine for specialist news organizations such as The Wall Street Journal or Financial Times to charge for online content, but does it work for general news? With so many newspapers losing cash, including Murdoch Times Newspapers limited (£240,000 a day) many are hoping Murdoch has got it right. The real answers, of course, will only come after the paywall has gone up. But as Alan Rusbridger, the editor of The Guardian recently pointed out, the paywall “might be the right direction in business terms, while simultaneously reducing access and influence in editorial terms. It removes you from the way people the world over now connect with each other. You cannot control distribution or create scarcity without becoming isolated from this new networked world.”
Don’t think we in Pakistan are immune to the global changes the internet is bringing.
With an estimated 18 million online and growing, it is only a matter of time before marketing and advertising rupees follow. Whilst most Pakistani media organizations have a free online existence, they aren’t the required reading their print papers once were. Slow, badly designed and cumbersome, with little social media or multimedia presence, they are lumbering dinosaurs to the more nibble and quick-witted blogs of Cafe Pyala, Five Rupees and their ilk. If you want to stay ahead of the curve in Pakistan for news, analysis and good old gossip, old media is not your first destination online.
Yes, there will still be the old timers who like to read their newspaper over breakfast. But with three-quarters of Pakistan’s population under thirty, they are a shrinking minority — especially for English language content. However, Pakistan’s media executives, predominantly over thirty and inclined to sending memos via paper, sound like modern day King Canutes. “Nobody advertises online. There isn’t a market” they say. It reminds me of a story of two salespersons who went to a village to sell shoes, only to find nobody in the village wore shoes. The first salesman said, “It’s hopeless, no one wears shoes there’s no market here.” The second salesman says, ‘”It’s fantastic. No one wears shoes, there’s a 100 per cent market here.”
Old media’s lack of investment in new media has failed to create a market in Pakistan. Their shortsightedness at realizing the power and potential of the internet will be their loss. The first organization that sows heavily today will reap the benefits tomorrow. The next Jang/ Express/Dawn group may come from some entrepreneurial Pakistani who is willing to do just that.
As someone who has a romantic attachment to newsprint, I wish the publisher of this newspaper the best of luck. I fear he will need it.