ik aur dariyā kā sāmnā thā ‘munīr’ mujh ko
maiñ ek dariyā ke paar utrā to maiñ ne dekhā
With online behemoths – both of the ‘search’ and ‘social networking’ variety – undercutting the ad spaces of all print journalism, and with one towering oak tree of a news brand after the other falling loudly, some within the sector pinned their hopes on another, older form of sustenance: paid subscriptions. Sometimes modern problems need older solutions, they reasoned, because nearly all of the modern solutions had been tried out, and had failed.
In theory, this logic adds up. Yes, it would be a tall order to eke out subscription dues from a customer base that is, by now, completely used to free news content (the oldest millennials turn 40-years-old this year) but at least it would be an ideal worth pursuing; a light, even if elusive, at the end of the tunnel. With shrinking ad revenues, the news outlets are becoming more and more beholden to the few advertisers that remain. With subscriptions, rather than advertisers, driving revenue, news outlets would be in a position to politely tell overbearing advertisers to leave after offering them a cup of tea.
Independent journalism. Advertising-financed outfits serve the advertisers; reader-financed outfits serve the readers. Alas, even this model might not yield objective, independent journalism because, in this post-truth era, many of the readers, much like most of the advertisers, don’t seem too invested in the truth.
Permit me the vanity when I say this, but there are currently many eyes on Profit. I am not referring to those captains of industry and commerce or the regular, discerning readers who have come to rely on our content. Instead, I am referring to those within the news industry, looking at Pakistan’s first publication in recent times to take the plunge and hide the premium bits within its reportage behind a paywall. Will it or won’t it work? Yes, business and economy reporting is a bit of a niche, but a success could still be a proof of concept for the rest of the news media.
Before we hopefully win this bet of ours, one thing has become painfully clear: the readers can be more fickle, not less, than the large advertisers. A report making conclusions unflattering to a reader’s political persuasions can yield a prompt cancellation of subscription. In the times of yore, tempers would have cooled down by the time one has gotten through to one’s newspaper hawker at the end of the month, requesting a cancellation. Now, the ease of digital activation that we have worked so hard on turns out to be a double-edged sword, with readers as easily able to opt out of our subscription as they are to leave a fuming comment under a news feature.
The New York Times faces this in its reporting, with its left-leaning readership not taking kindly to conservative viewpoints, hence driving their coverage. And plenty of examples of conservative papers around the world, whose readers are offended by space given to liberal voices.
So what, you may ask. A tribalisation of news outfits might not be ideal but at least all ends of the spectrum would have found their voice. Political science professors cite ‘interest articulation’ as one of the benefits of having political parties, so why not let that articulation of interests go one step further? Won’t sparring publications yield a more spirited and lively marketplace of ideas? No, it won’t.
For starters, no one is going to believe anything that is written in another paper, even if it is not an opinion piece, but an expose relying on solid, incontrovertible evidence. Second, more dangerously, a publication might play fast and loose with the truth and objectivity to retain the support of its readership. It will go further and further to the end of the political spectrum where even the relatively reasonable adherents of a political ideology might feel underserved as compared to their more extremist neighbours. This further slide towards right or left will first lead to inflexibility and then to a hard-as-granite echo chamber completely impervious to opposing ideas and, more dangerously, objective reality.
We at Profit have had some passionate champions, the sort of influencers who had urged their friends and families to subscribe to our publication, cancel their own subscription on the basis of just one (yes, one) news feature. And they publicly announced it, urging others to do the same.
This was the best case scenario that we were hoping for? I’m afraid so. This is the ‘other river’ from Munir Niazi’s couplet at the beginning. So what should we do?
Well, several years ago, we were the only publication that properly covered the HBL’s fiasco at its New York office. Yes, HBL, Pakistan’s single largest advertiser. As we noted, in our editorial at the end of that year: “Since the New York episode, till this goes to press, HBL hasn’t come out with its next advertising campaign. ‘Pakistan Today’ may or may not be a part of the next campaign. Do we care? Yes. Would we do things differently? No.”
We would like to say the same to offended, uncomfortable readers.
Do we care? Yes. Would we do things differently? No.