The business of journalism has never been easy. A lot more is invested into maintaining the staff and resources that go into news gathering and airing or publishing it than can be mined from selling newspapers or airtime. Yet for an informed society the service provided by these platforms infinitely valuable. Over time, especially the past two decades and a half, make it three at best, the traditional journalism mediums have undergone several transformations – each creating more challenges for the news organizations while adding to the convenience of the digital viewers and readers.

When Google gained traction, the first thing to run away from the newspapers was classifieds. Online e-commerce channels made their strike, snatching away the display advertising from news publications.

The biggest – and the most recent – blow to the media organisations’ revenue channels has come from the social media. What’s left of the advertising business after classifieds and e-commerce is now slowly moving towards social media, leaving the already much squeezed and shrivelled print media high and dry.

The rising menace of ‘fake news’ further denting the credibility of news outlets altogether, and more often than not these two are intertwined. While the private, unregulated blogs and news outlets are thriving on fake news, the official news channels are experiencing the heat, both in terms of lower viewership and loss of advertising business.

Fake News

About 18 months ago, most people might have not been familiar with the term ‘Fake News.’ This phenomenon is not new but its new-found popularity has become a global threat to the journalism landscape, democracy, and law and order. The idea behind fake news creation was, most likely, to inform people in a satirical manner. Even today, the claimed purpose of fake news remains to inform and not mislead. Several renowned publications worldwide, including The Washington Post, The New Yorker, The Times Magazine, and The Times of India are known to indulge their readers in humorous explanations of some very serious issues faced by their country.

However, the reason that this phenomenon remained a scattered source of information with little to no impact on general life so far can be traced back to the recent influence of social media. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter were launched in the mid 2000s, but it was not until the turn of the decade that apps like Instagram and Snapchat were launched, and overcame the news platforms completely along with Facebook and Twitter. Today, they have taken the position of the primary source of news, especially for the digital generation. The preferred medium to get news is also shifting from TV and newspapers to mobile phones and computer screens.

Not only social media platforms have made traditional news outlets almost irrelevant but they have also become a necessity for these traditional platforms to maintain presence in the industry. The Wall Street Journal is possibly the only famed publication left to remain independent of social media influence since all its reports need to be bought to be read. And that is only because WSJ has built a strong reputation for its content quality and has specific segments of customers who read and consult its reports.

This luxury is not available to the newspapers and even some TV channels anymore, owing to the falling trust of public in news mediums. For a regular news agency, free news availability on several platforms over internet has made it virtually impossible even to gain an online paid subscription.

The impact felt by the print mediums is two-fold. On the one hand, there has been an erosion in the number of readers/subscribers to platforms imparting sensational and possibly false news, creating lack of trust and credibility in readers towards news sources altogether and making journalists’ jobs more difficult. And on the other hand, hitting them in terms of revenue through far lesser advertising volume, partly owing to the same private blogs and platforms creating ‘viral’ content geared towards people’s preferences instead of based in reality or truth. The media outlets themselves cannot be absolved of the responsibility either. The fact that blogs etc can afford to keep the readers’ and viewers’ preference in sight while creating content while traditional news platforms have to report almost everything, has also become a source of falling popularity for the news platforms. Founder of Pro-Pakistani (a digital platform publishing technology, telecom, business and auto news in Pakistan), Aamir Atta said, “Jang and other Urdu publishers have been hurt by the lack of local language support from Google and the ecosystem itself. Due to the absence of such key support, new user acquisitions are far lower than English papers which hurts rankings. Overall, publishers need to understand millennials and their taste in content.”

Another perspective to the popularity of blogs and private sites was provided by an avid reader of such private blogs, Ahmed Saeed. He said, “The TV channels are all about politics. They barely discuss the other social matters like rising instance of child abuse or dilapidated infrastructure of the roads, for instance. So blogs resonate more with my opinions instead of newspapers or news channels harping on the same politicians day in and day out.” Another blogger, Sana Batool said, “Blogs are more popular and getting more media companies moving their content to digital platforms because they have the option to support their blogs with a video and there is also more room for freedom of opinion as well as immediate feedback from the readers.” This brings another idea into perspective, that due to advertising increasingly being concentrated from the government could also be responsible for media – especially newspapers – being especially focused on political issues, instead of delving into general social matters. It could also be a result of viewers feeling more valued with the option of giving their feedback and receiving responses for it. Co-founder of MangoBaaz Ali Ahsan spoke to Profit about it and said, “Our most successful strategy has been to define who our audience is and what they care about. By making relevant content for a specific audience, we’ve seen growth in not only our website traffic, but also across the board on our video viewership, social media followers and overall brand equity.”

Social Media challenges

Another of such platforms Urdupoint works with the similar strategy of keeping the audiences in the front seat of strategy making. The website’s founder Ali Chaudhry said “Neutral news” is their mode of action with which they keep the readers hooked. He also said. “We are viral on social media which has helped us in reaching millions of viewers.” This shows the impact of social media, but before delving into the challenges posed by social media to the traditional news platforms, let’s look at the internal challenges faced by them.

In modern times, the ‘Breaking News’ or ‘Instant updates’ no longer make the cut. To bring readers to your website or channel, attractive and sensational content is necessary. It is especially true for small outlets without a regular printed newspaper or a TV channel or an established readership. It has also become especially significant since social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Google News have become the de facto publishers for news. Now it’s all about creating sensational and ‘catchy’ content. While the traditional publications are bound by the principles of reporting factual news and refraining from creating false content, there is no such limitation for private websites and blogs.

Not only fake news has allowed private bloggers and random news outlets to pull advertisements away from the traditional news channels, but it has also endangered the integrity and trust that people place in these newspapers and TV channels to get their information. Of course, it can be argued that not all personal blogs are imparting fake news, but the fact that they are unchecked and unaccountable to anyone unlike regular print and electronic news channels, means that these blogs have no compulsion to ensure that the material written and shared on these platforms is truthful and accurate. Influence of personal opinions regarding any particular issue is also cause of concern, since it defeats the very purpose of journalism which is to inform the facts untainted by any judgment. Then there is no precedent or pressure on such platforms to issue apologies or redact their news after having been proven wrong. The basic principles of hiding names, of victims of horrendous crimes like rape for instance, are also not followed on any of these platforms. In the name of freedom of speech, several of these blogs incite violence and create wars of words – all the time gaining more views leading to higher profits. The censorship laws on usage of appropriate language and regard for state institutions are also unknown ideas for these blogs and news platforms.

Following the lead of these viral content generating platforms, at times, TV news channels and newspapers also fall prey to false news and join the bandwagon.

Put together, this culture of unchecked information being spread on social media has led many to believe to write and post anything and everything without any regards to the impact it can have on the lives of people concerned, or how difficult it could become for state institutions to uphold law and order.

Fake News Phenomenon

The ‘fake news phenomenon’ has also become a source for defamation and incrimination. Conspiracy theorists and propaganda instigators have found a new haven for their activities and in the absence of any censorship for these private blogs sites it is an impossible task to check them.

Higher rankings also mean more influence on the viewers. Considering how quickly news can spread these days, irrespective of its accuracy, higher viewership should also come with higher responsibility, which tragically is not the case, especially in Pakistan. The recent news of a man’s five daughters raped is just one of the many examples we come across every day. With an actual tragedy in the backdrop, several news venues capitalized on the moment and shared the fake news gaining innumerable views and shares. The spillover effect of desperation, frustration and eventually violence in the citizens is another cost of such fake news that cannot be ignored.

Then there is the matter of revenues. While the primary source of revenue for news outlets remains advertisements, the likelihood of gaining advertisements depend on the popularity of any news source, in this case, the website. Most blogs or news websites not falling under registered and regulated media agencies are free to generate content that the viewers want to read instead of the fact based truth. While the same may be argued for traditional news outlets, the necessity to retract or issue an apology after airing or printing a false story is still a satisfactory check for the latter. Therefore it can be assumed that the traditional news sources might be writing opinionated pieces, but they are still not allowed to print or air completely false news. The result of this unchecked content spread is that the viewership of private blogs and websites rise while the media outlets see a fall in their viewers, leading to loss of advertisements financing.

These websites and blogs are not the only cause of concern for the traditional media outlets. The impact that social media platforms are having on these media entities is now greater than ever and has no end in sight. When the journalistic landscape shifted from print to digital, the whole industry underwent an overhaul. Those who were quick to adapt to the changing tastes of readers for conveniences survived, while others were squeezed out. Now, Facebook, Twitter, and Google have taken over the news industry and have become de facto publishers themselves. By the end of 2016, even Mark Zuckerberg had retreated from his previously rigid position that Facebook was “just a technology company,” to acknowledge that it was a “new kind of platform.”

According to Alexa, the most trusted websites ranking tool in the world, only five proper media outlets’ websites rank among the top 50, namely Dawn, Express, Dunya, Jang, and the Tribune. And the top ranked among these also start as low as the 14th rank – Dawn.com. As opposed to these, Urdupoint.com, Dailypakistan.com.pk and Hamariweb.com all have rankings even higher than Dawn on Alexa. One might argue that their popularity may stem from the absence of language barrier, but that still does not explain a far higher number of visitors as compared to Dunya and Jang News – two of the most watched channels in Pakistan. Some viewers of these sites are also of the opinion that the traditional newspapers are too focused on political issues and they want to read about other things like technology and fashion. Unsurprisingly Google, YouTube and Facebook have comfortably occupied the top spots in these rankings for Pakistan.

So what is it that makes these web channels or websites so popular, apart from sensational content and news tailored to the interests of the viewers? According to Alexa, four factors are counted in the evaluation of ranking: daily time on site, daily page views per visitor, the percentage of traffic from search, and total sites linking in. While longer time spent on the websites may account for better content under general norms, difficulty in finding the required content may also lead to the same outcome.

Likewise, the percentage of traffic from search could easily be a result of AdWords and not the actual relevance of the content. And if a site is linking in several sites only because it is rephrasing other websites’ content and linking back to them, instead of generating new content, that also ends up being a misleading factor. The point here is not to debate Alexa’s chosen criterion, since these four determinants are used globally to rank websites, but to evaluate the possible tricks of the game, cracked by some highly ranked websites in the country, despite being younger, weaker and low in content quality than their older, stronger and high quality providing competitors ending up at lower ranks.

Traditional platforms taking a pasting

Another possible reason for the traditional news platforms’ lower viewership can be their contentment with their initial popularity and absence of any new effort to maintain or improve their rankings. Owner of Urdupoint.com, Ali Chaudhry agrees to the slack behaviour on the part of the websites that have lost traffic. “Big brands [like Jang and Nawa-i-Waqt etc.] lack dedication, that’s the main reason they are behind us. We have a staff of 75 dedicated only to this portal, that works 24/7.”

However, he also attributes his website’s success to being viral on social media. That brings us to the point where social media is in fact now shaping the news industry instead of acting as an aide in imparting information. That also comes with its own costs to the society in addition to the costs to the media agencies.

A report by Emily Bell and Taylor Owen, “The Platform Press: How Silicon Valley reengineered journalism” discusses the impact of social media in great detail. It says, “Publishers are continuing to push more of their journalism to third-party platforms despite no guarantee of consistent return on investment. Publishing is no longer the core activity of certain journalism organizations.”

The increasing influence of social media has not only made getting advertisements difficult for traditional media houses but has also caused loss of branding and lack of audience data. While Facebook promises greater insights into the readers’ data its own functionality is based on algorithms that can only ensure exposure of ‘wanted’ or ‘liked’ content to a particular user instead of complete access and independence of choice in reading news.

On top of it, the fact that ‘viral’ content – a phenomenon brought on by social media, encourages lower quality content and discourages higher quality news reporting. The report also mentions that these new publishers are now making more content than ever without any regards or control over which content reaches which reader. Social media platforms also create filter bubbles – that is to say that a particular Facebook user is most likely to only come across news shared by people in their friends’ list and according to their likes on Facebook brought by the algorithmic workings.

Perhaps the only benefit of social media to news outlets is the speed and efficiency with which these platforms reach the audiences. With increasing difficulties in determining the target audience, along with ever–rising competition in the creation of news content, traditional media houses are looking ahead at even more challenging times. While the advent of internet and social media were assumed to be sources of easy and quick information for the general public, instead their convergence with journalistic institutions has ended up in bringing to the fore the worst in both – fake news and low-quality content in attempts for higher advertisement revenues. The report said that only two ways appear in sight for news organizations to remain in business in modern times: either maintain their own subscriptions and develop an exclusive readership or take their dependence off publishing as a means to make revenues.

How quickly can Pakistan’s publishing industry adapt to this strategy, only the time would tell. For now, the only fact staring one in the face is that the news industry is up against a stiff challenge as social media sites take on the role of being the primary publishers and the arenas creating viral yet low-quality content continue to operate unchecked.

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