Media Sustainability: The Digital Pivot
Afghan journalists attend a press conference on May 24, 2022, in Kabul. The Taliban’s restrictions on access to information have reduced the capacity for journalists to produce stories outside of official narratives. Credit: Wakil Kohsar / AFP
“News organizations that have not yet fully embraced digital will be at a severe disadvantage,” warns a new report published by Reuters Institute and University of Oxford in January 2023. The report, ‘Journalism, Media, and Technology Trends and Predictions 2023’, predicts that “[t]his will be a year of heightened concerns about the sustainability of some news media against a backdrop of rampant inflation, and a deep squeeze on household spending.”
The Russia-Ukraine war, global warming and the lingering effects of the Covid pandemic have generated uncertainty, including within the media industry, according to the report, which flags the arrival of the next wave of technical innovation: artificial intelligence (AI) which presents both opportunities and challenges for journalism.
Against this tumultuous global backdrop, how did the media industry in South Asia remain relevant, independent and sustainable?
The media in South Asia is gradually climbing out of the devastation of the Covid-19 pandemic, with media companies re-opening shop after downing their shutters as revenue dried up during the Covid years. What was clear during the pandemic was the need for credible media amidst the cacophony of ‘fake news’ and misinformation. Audiences’ trust in media was a valuable resource to leverage.
Afghanistan saw one of the most dramatic upheavals in the media industry during the past two years, but that was also because of the Taliban take over.
The media landscape in Afghanistan shrank dramatically. According to a 2022 report of the Communicating with Disaster Affected Communities (CDAC), 51 TV stations, 132 radio stations, 94 print, and 41 online media outlets ceased operations between August 2021 and February 2022. Financial resources, lack of access to information, program restrictions, security and threats were cited as reasons for the shutdowns.
Hundreds of Afghan journalists were forced out of jobs and many left the country. Those still working in the media under the Taliban, operate under extremely difficult conditions. Every day that they go to work, they put their lives at risk. The Taliban has imposed a new media control regime featuring three elements i.e. restriction, gender-discrimination, and repression with impunity. First, the imposition of constraints on press freedom and media rights. Any sort of critical reporting on topics related to the government or the public is banned. Second, policies targeting Afghan women in the media. Third, treatment of the Afghan media and media-related affairs as a security threat. The Taliban security and intelligence agencies are increasingly involved in controlling media affairs. The lack of donor support and internal revenue has made the media in Afghanistan largely unsustainable.
Over in Bangladesh, the situation is only a little better. A study by the Department of Mass Communication and Journalism, Begum Rokeya University, documents how the pandemic almost destroyed the media industry. Many local newspapers were severely affected by losses in advertising revenues from coronavirus. Advertisements have gone down by an estimated 70-80 per cent despite an increase in television and online media viewership.
Many newspapers in Bangladesh have been forced to shut down publishing, others reduced their staff to cope during the pandemic and post covid. Cost-cutting also had an impact on content. For example, in the case of print media, many have reduced their pages. Additionally, multitasking is now very important for a reporter, who is not only required to collect information but develop skills to produce audio and video content. Moreover, the rise of social media and acceleration in mobile internet consumption has changed the way media companies traditionally drew revenue.
India, the largest economy in the region, also has the biggest media market. Much before the pandemic, digital news media platforms began making headway. Alongside online presence of legacy news media, many digital-only news media platforms emerged over the last decade. Nevertheless, covid left a massive impact on the sector in terms of decrease in advertising revenues. Print advertising revenue dropped from INR 206 billion in 2019 to INR 122 billion in 2020. Similarly, TV ad revenue dropped from INR 320 billion in 2019 to INR 215 billion in 2020.
Investments are hard to get and the overall faith in the business of digital news, and perhaps media in general, is waning. As a result, most companies drastically cut costs, retrenched staff, reduced hiring, and began to look for new ways to generate revenue. Digital natives are coming up with alternate models like audience revenue, membership models and grants.
In the Maldives, a small country of 556,398, having 80.2 per cent internet penetration that is highest in the region, media is mostly reliant on state-funding or advertising revenue from politicians and business houses. Early in 2022, the president’s office was revealed to have distributed more than MVR 1 million (USD 64,000) for positive coverage of government projects.
Surprisingly, the number of registered newspapers and magazines increased from 219 in 2020 to 268 in 2021. The new start-ups were predominantly news websites in the local Dhivehi language. But not all registered outlets publish regularly, and 47 inactive outlets were dissolved in March 2022. Popular proposals to ensure financial sustainability for startups included government subsidies, low-cost internet packages and a merit-based process for securing advertising from state-owned enterprises.
As more legitimate advertising revenue returned with the recovery of the Maldivian economy from the pandemic, larger mainstream outlets were able to restore cut salaries. But smaller newsrooms continued to struggle.
Media platforms in Nepal also have been impacted by the pandemic, with decreased revenue from advertising and challenges in maintaining operations. In Nepal, where outlets subsist almost entirely on advertising, about a quarter shut down entirely. More than 1 in 3 print, television and radio journalists lost their jobs. Many who remained faced pay cuts.
Pakistani news publications had been losing audiences long before Covid hit. Unofficial statistics suggest that newspapers and magazines registered with the government’s Audit Bureau of Circulation have lost their circulation by almost 6-8 times between 2012 and 2022. While the print media in Pakistan was ailing even before Covid, the pandemic only hastened its terminal decline.
The main reason for this decline was technological disruption. The other major factor was the failure of the print news media to invest in investigative reporting and innovative ways of doing journalism that could keep it relevant in an age when news was breaking by the minute, especially on social media. The third was the strengthening of the state’s censorship regime after early 2015.
News reporting on electronic news media outlets became even more restricted due to the Covid-mandated restrictions on travel, movement and assembly. The decline in viewership, was preceded by Covid and the decline in their revenues appeared to be one of the major reasons behind their failure to reverse the trend.
Amid the ongoing economic crisis in Pakistan, traditional/legacy media are surviving by cutting costs – sacking high quality and better paid staff, reducing investment in news gathering and news production and reducing the number of their bureaus and reporters in rural and remote regions of the country. Persistent loss of viewership and advertising revenue has forced many television channels to scale down their operations. Others (such as Public TV and Indus News) have completely shut shop while a few (such as Samaa TV) have been sold to investors with deeper pockets.
Sri Lanka’s economic crisis in 2022, severely impacted the media industry, as shortage of fuel, printing materials, and suspension of imported printing machines and their spare parts, dealt a heavy blow. Newspapers reduced the number of pages in their print editions, hiked their prices, and temporarily suspended printing certain editions of their publications due to shortage of paper.
The pandemic also had significant impact on digital media platforms in the country, with many experiencing a decline in advertising revenue and facing challenges in maintaining their operations. Community groups on social media quickly stepped into the breach, functioning as a vibrant platform for communication, information sharing even raising money for basics like food and medicines. Fact-checkers such as FactCheckLK and WatchDog online helped bust misinformation and fake news online. Restrictions and lockdowns during the pandemic triggered innovation in the media.
What was clear during the pandemic was the need for credible media amidst the cacophony of fake news and misinformation. Audiences’ trust in media was a valuable resource to leverage.
In Nepal, where outlets subsist almost entirely on advertising, about a quarter shut down entirely. More than 1 in 3 print, television and radio journalists lost their jobs.
Amid the ongoing economic crisis in Pakistan, traditional/legacy media are surviving by cutting costs – sacking high quality and better paid staff, reducing investment in news gathering and news production and reducing the number of their bureaus and reporters in rural and remote regions of the country.
Maldivian President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih is recorded through a camera. While Solih’s election in 2018 was heralded as a victory against autocracy in the Maldives, threats to press freedom and editorial independence are ever-present across the archipelago. Credit: MJA
The media in Bangladesh is seemingly flourishing. There are 3,176 registered newspapers and magazines according to 2022 data from the government’s Department of Films and Publications. But these figures might not reveal the true picture. Industry insiders say that these numbers do not represent credible media outlets. The number of authentic Bangla dailies published from Dhaka is more likely to be just 32, and fewer than 10 English dailies they say.
Transforming from traditional media to digital is widespread. The largest dailies in Bangladesh like Prothom Alo and Daily Star have their print as well as online streams. The revenue the newspaper earns from the digital version crossed USD10million in 2018 and the amount is going up. The readership of the online Prothom Alo is around 5 million, while the Daily Star’s website had over 4.4 million active users. The addition of local-language stories has attracted readers too. Prominent and interesting stories are being translated in Bengali and are being widely read. Prothom Alo’s bronze award in the “Best Digital Subscription” category of the South Asian Digital Media Awards, 2022 instituted by WAN-IFRA Award is validation of its move towards sustainability.
The news website bdnew24.com is the pioneer of this kind of new media in Bangladesh and a first internet-based newspaper in the country. Bangladesh is now seeing several online newspapers over the recent years: bdnews24.com, banglanews24.com, risingbd.com, banglamail24.com, natunbarta.com, justnewsbd.com, Barta24.Net etc. However, despite the bright future of the digital media in Bangladesh, lack of skilled digital journalists, and lack of internet access for the masses remain some of the main obstacles.
Pivot and innovate
Post-Covid, media organisations read the writing on the wall and attempted to stabilise their revenue and began to grow their audiences by pivoting from print to digital.
Legacy media in India is well into a major digital transformation journey or have even completed the process. Legacy revenue streams like advertisements are still valuable, so companies are trying to juggle two balls – legacy revenue and emerging revenue streams. This is leading to a fair bit of short-term innovation, like ad packages with both traditional and digital media. Companies are also getting better at leveraging their traditional media content in the digital ecosystem. Companies are depending more on data, or the business of data, events, audience revenue and subscriptions, monetising their journalism through other productions like cinema or podcasts etc. There is lot more innovation happening on the digital front.
In Nepal, the digital news industry today has stabilised somewhat, but it is smaller and less robust. The transition that began around the new millennium, has reshaped the entire Nepali media landscape as many consumers migrated from print to digital platforms. Dedicated news portals are outpaced by the social networking platforms whose priorities are only to attract and gratify consumers, and not necessarily inform them.
Internet penetration in Nepal has increased dramatically in recent years, and the online news consumption has seen a similar rise because of the popularity of social media and the availability of cheaper Chinese or Indian smartphones. In recent years, some senior and well-known editors have invested in digital media outlets which has increased the impact of those media among political and social elites.
Overall, news media platforms that have been able to adapt and innovate during the pandemic have had a better chance of surviving. YouTube has emerged as one of the popular content dissemination mediums. Some of the YouTube channels have even formed an association and committed themselves to follow self-imposed ethical guidelines. However, the Press Council of Nepal, the media content regulatory body, recommended action against 34 YouTube channels in July 2022 for violating the code of conduct.
In Pakistan, digital news media has been a major beneficiary of Covid. With the availability of better internet connections and smartphones, an increasing number of people is consuming news online. Developments in information and communication technologies have also made it possible that people can watch only the most relevant pieces of news on their phones instead of having to watch a full bulletin or talk show and can consume news at their own convenience.
To respond to the digital challenge, almost all the major news outlets in the country have set up their websites and YouTube channels. Scores of small independent digital-only news outlets have also emerged over the last few years. These include Naya Daur, Soch, Humsub, TCM, The Current, Voicepk and Lok Sujag. Dozens of journalists, after having lost their jobs in print and electronic media, too, have started their own YouTube channels. Though online platforms associated with large print and electronic media organisations are attracting audiences in ever-larger numbers, their revenues have not reached such levels that can sustain them without support from their mother ships.
Among the digital media start-ups, some survive on grants and donations. For instance, HumSub almost exclusively runs on grants by international media development agencies. So do Voicepk and Lok Sujag. Naya Daur runs on small grants but it simultaneously collects donations from philanthropists and Pakistani expats. Soch is the media arm of a big tech company based in Karachi (and, therefore, does not need grants and donations for its survival). But its operations, too, remain small. Some other digital outlets, TCM being the most prominent among them, have tried another model: selling their production facilities and capabilities.
Working with media support organisations such Media Empowerment for a Democratic Sri Lanka (MEND), media organisations looked at stabilising their revenue and growing audiences by pivoting from print to digital. Relatively larger media houses such as Wijeya Newspapers, with 18 publications, managed to re-work editorial content and expand revenue by introducing podcasts. Wijeya now has a full-fledged podcast network of 24 original shows. A new digital strategy developed by government-owned Lake House (ANCL), saw for example, one of its publications, Dinamina rising in the Alexa ranking – a global metric for ranking countries’ website popularity – from 350 to 127.
Startups such as Roar Media surged ahead to lead the digital news media race with its mobile journalism innovation during the pandemic called #FlattenTheCurve campaign and never looked back. EconomyNext, another new media publication redesign its website, and enhance its user experiences with improved navigation and loading speed. Since launching the redesigned website in April 2021, EconomyNext’s audience acquisition has increased by more than 73 per cent.
The readership of the online Prothom Alo is around 5 million, while the Daily Star’s website had over 4.4 million active users. The addition of local-language stories has attracted readers too.
Startups such as Roar Media surged ahead to lead the digital news media race with its mobile journalism innovation during the pandemic called #FlattenTheCurve campaign and never looked back.
Students shout slogans during a protest demanding the release of detained journalist Shamsuzzaman Shams in Dhaka on March 30, 2023. Despite the election of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the evocation of the 2018 Digital Security Act continues to result in the detention of journalists across Bangladesh. Credit: Rehman Asad / AFP
Control and censorship
As the digital news media in the region became more robust, emerging in the frontline of reporting and truth telling, attempts to control and regulate media grew equally vigorously.
The growth of digital media outlets in Bangladesh was accompanied by the government’s heavy-handed regulation of the mushrooming online portals, social sites, newspapers and Tv channels is also problem. The Digital Security Act (DSA) 2018 has been consistently criticised as ‘draconian’ and a ‘weapon to muzzle political dissent, freedom of expression and press freedom.’ The law has successfully created a culture of self-censorship in Bangladesh.
In the Maldives, the regulatory body for the broadcast sector remains susceptible to government control through political appointees, who are nominated by the president and approved by parliament. The seven members of the Maldives Broadcasting Commission, which accredits journalists and regulates television and radio stations, can be dismissed and replaced at will when the president’s party has a parliamentary majority.
In contrast, eight of the 15 members of the Maldives Media Council (MMC) – which regulates print and online media – are elected by media organisations. Moreover, a serious electoral flaw was remedied in October 2022 when inactive media outlets and publications registered by government agencies were barred from voting. In the past, “shell media companies” that did not regularly publish were able to influence the council’s composition.
In Sri Lanka, in January 2023, President Ranil Wickremesinghe said that a new bill will be introduced to regulate social media and electronic media like the Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA) Act 2016 of Singapore. Given the restrictive nature of these laws, this move is being viewed with concern by media and human rights activists.
In India, the government attempted to rein in the vibrant digital news media through digital surveillance as well as tightened information technology laws supposedly for national security and sovereignty. Over-broad definitions and arbitrary interpretation of laws like the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 (updated in April 2023) were a source of harassment for journalists in the digital media. Any critique of the government was construed as anti-national and therefore liable for punitive action and even raids and “searches” by other central government agencies such as the Enforcement Directorate which oversees financial probity.
Unity among digital news publishers in coalitions such as DIGIPUB in India and DIGIMAP in Pakistan has managed to stall bull-dozing tactics of governments and big corporations and fly the flag of press freedom and autonomy.