Opening up windows in a fortress

Updated 18 Jan 2018

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It was during Saleem Asmi’s tenure that Dawn Islamabad edition was launched. Here he is seen at the launching ceremony talking to Ahmad Ali Khan, his predecessor, who was the guest of honour on the occasion. M. Ziauddin, who at the time was the resident editor in Islamabad, is seen on the right.
It was during Saleem Asmi’s tenure that Dawn Islamabad edition was launched. Here he is seen at the launching ceremony talking to Ahmad Ali Khan, his predecessor, who was the guest of honour on the occasion. M. Ziauddin, who at the time was the resident editor in Islamabad, is seen on the right.

THE newspaper was already a fortress when I stepped into the office of the Editor at Dawn in early 2000. It wasn’t easy as I was replacing the venerable Ahmad Ali Khan who had been there for more than a quarter of a century and had his mark stamped on just about everything – from editorial discretion to the manner in which Dawn journalists were expected to behave. And it was hard to tweak what had already been a success. In fact, there was no point fixing what was not broken. Maintaining the status quo was apparently a viable option. A Hobson’s choice.

But times were changing. Actually they had already changed. Dawn had flourished for the most part in an era where the competition had been of low intensity ever since the Pakistan Times in Lahore and the Morning News in Karachi had been taken over by the state-owned National Press Trust (NPT). But then The News came out from multiple stations with multiple value-added satellite products followed by The Nation and, then, The Daily Times. There were new challenges and we needed to do anything but status quo. It was still a Hobson’s choice.

The former two of the newspapers named above had come out in the 1990s when I was the News Editor. The Dawn transformation, as such, was a gradual phenomenon. We realised that we could no longer continue to dedicate the front page exclusively to foreign news. The localisation of our coverage – especially in terms of news display – took some time; and this time was spent shedding the baggage of self-censorship that had crept in during the long and tough Ziaul Haq years.

It was an effort, I remember, to convince the editorial leadership at the time to have news reports and, indeed, a photograph of some national significance on the front page. We had apparently mastered the art of saying between the lines during the censorship years to such an extent that even when we had no more fetters to worry about, we didn’t know what to do with our freedom.

I had my own reasons to feel confident about treading the path, but, as I said, not everybody was willing to get onboard. The good thing is that professional competition was working on my side and Dawn started to take some hesitant, though not reluctant, steps. The Dateline series that was initiated for our district correspondents was a major step towards broadening the scope of news coverage. They had their linguistic limitations but then there are always sub-editors to fine-tune the raw copies. It takes some doing, but that precisely is our job, I would often find myself telling the naysayer in that phase.

Even after retirement, Saleem Asmi picked and chose his spot on the social circuit, lending his voice to causes that remained close to his heart.
Even after retirement, Saleem Asmi picked and chose his spot on the social circuit, lending his voice to causes that remained close to his heart.

Layout and design were not areas that Dawn editorial had ever felt enamoured with. So it was, again, a hassle to go for bigger pictures with four-colour printing, background screens, reverse headlines and even playing around with the column width. Today, they are all part of everyday life at Dawn, but those were different times and it’s funny that I am only talking about things that happened just about two decades ago.

Another turnaround that I thought was necessary and long overdue was the coverage of Human Rights. This apparently was a fallout from the Zia days when the state itself was against giving anybody any right and that explained its distaste for any coverage on that count. It made editorial sense to me to stop publishing press releases coming from entities that were practically one-man parties, and use it for the real stories related to abuse of rights.

And when things were so grey in the domain of Human Rights, one can well imagine what it would be like for Art and Culture. Their coverage was practically considered beneath out editorial dignity. But changing times came to my aid again and we were able to walk this road as well. In the domain of magazines, Gallery was a full-scale publication dedicated to the subjects and it was well-received. It had its share of critical acclaim. Today when I see such coverage consuming ample space – sometimes beyond that – on Metropolitan and National pages of Dawn, a wry smile is what I often end up with.

Talking of magazines, Books&Authors was something I really feel very happy about. Book reviews and excerpts had been a part of Dawn for long, but they were rather scattered and abrupt. By bringing them under one umbrella, along with Urdu-language titles and inclusion of authors in terms of their direct contributions and interviews, struck a chord almost immediately with the audience. When we slightly adjusted the focus by encouraging fiction over current affairs, it was like shedding another piece of editorial arrogance.

But while indulging in all these acts of rather ‘soft’ journalism, there was no compromise on the staple diet of hard news that is part and parcel of any newspaper worth its name. The interview of Osama bin Laden we published in November 2001 was a World Exclusive and was quoted widely and wildly across the globe.

It was his first interview with any journalist since the infamous 9/11 and he had a lot to say to the West. Publishing it was a tough call to make as the Editor, but I think the right call was made. The same applied to the decision to publish the complete report of the controversial Hamoodur Rahman Commission. It was some vindication of the decision when other newspapers followed suit.

With the changing of times around the turn of the century – millennium, actually – it was also time to adjust the workflow at Dawn and it was just in the fitness of things that we went through a process of internal devolution of authority where section heads were encouraged to act like team leaders and take their own decisions.

I quite cherish a remark that was narrated to me by Zohra Yusuf, a Dawn friend, who quoted Zubeida Mustafa, a very senior member of the Dawn family, as telling her that I was opening up windows in what had for long been a fortress. If I was able to do that, I guess my job was done.


The writer is a former Editor of Dawn.