NEWSPAPERS do not merely report events. They reflect civilisation and culture. Much of human struggle in modern times, political or otherwise, is recorded in newspapers. With the abolition of taxes on British newspapers in 1855, availability of cheap newsprint and inexpensive postal services made British newspapers available to the masses at low price. This paved the way for revolutions in many fields of human endeavour.

Some of the ideas copied from the British journalism in the Pakistan-India subcontinent include low-priced newspapers. Two of such Urdu newspapers launched in the subcontinent proved to be harbingers of modern journalism in the subcontinent: Akhbar-i-A’am and Paisa Akhbar. Both were weeklies, later on became dailies and both were priced at paisa one. Akhbar-i-A’am was launched on Jan 1, 1871 from Lahore and, passing through ups and downs, closed down in 1930. It was the first newspaper in the subcontinent that was priced at paisa one, showing the other newspapers how to popularise the habit of reading newspapers among commoners: simply by making a newspaper affordable for the common people. It was something already known in the west as ‘penny press’.

But Paisa Akhbar has a different story. Munshi Mahboob Alam, Paisa Akhbar’s founder and editor, was an ambitious and innovative person. He had launched an Urdu weekly named Himmat in 1888 from Ferozwala, district of Gujranwala. Soon he began publishing School Master, another Urdu weekly. Then he realised that a low-priced but good quality Urdu newspaper was the need of the hour. So he renamed his weekly Himmat as Paisa Akhbar and moved on to Gujranwala. The first issue had the print order of only 100 copies. Being the owner, editor, publisher, printer and even the hawker, Mahboob Alam had to do every job himself. His brother helped him hawk the paper. Soon he began publishing Zameendar-o-Baghban-o-Baitar, too, an Urdu magazine on agriculture and allied fields. He moved to Lahore in 1889 with his publications. Soon the circulation of Paisa Akhbar began to grow and with it the advertising revenue, something not very common in those days.

Going against the practices in vogue, Mahboob Alam changed the size of Paisa Akhbar, drastically reduced the annual subscription, forcing the other newspapers to reduce their price. He started publishing interesting articles translated directly from English newspapers and giving the excerpts of news prominently. He added many new features to attract the readers. Brief and interesting informative pieces made the paper very popular and, as put by Muhammaduddin Fauq in his book Akhbar navison ke Halaat, Paisa Akhbar became subcontinent’s Titbits, a popular British magazine that used to publish interesting pieces taken from different books and periodicals. According to Tahir Masood, contemporaries of Paisa Akhbar could not achieve what it did through innovation, though it had in a way followed Akhbar-i-A’am. But the circulation of Akhbar-i-A’am could never cross 3,000 mark while Paisa Akhbar at its peak had a circulation of 13,000 copies, a great feat for Urdu newspapers in those days. Tahir Masood writes that Paisa Akhbar was one of the most commercially successful newspapers of its time. In Lahore, Paisa Akhbar got a building constructed for its offices and printing machines, a special post office was established there by the government and the street on which the offices were situated was officially named ‘Paisa Akhbar Street’. Until a few years ago, that street in Lahore had retained its old name (this writer is not sure about the present status).

Mahboob Alam launched newspapers and magazines for different kinds of readers and became the owner of a chain of newspapers. In 1893, he launched Shareef Beebiyaan, an Urdu monthly for women. In 1895, he started Intikhab-i-Lajawab, a sort of digest of interesting facts, figures, jokes and informative pieces. In 1895, he started publishing The Sun, an English weekly. He also began publishing Bachon Ka Akhbar, an Urdu monthly for children, in 1902. This chain of newspapers served as a training school for new entrants in the field of journalism and many of the trainees later became well-known journalists, working for well-reputed newspapers.

Munshi Mahboob Alam, also known as Moulvi Mahboob Alam, was born on Feb 21, 1862, in Moz’a Bharoki, near Wazirabad, Gujranwala district. His father died while Mahboob Alam was in college and he had to struggle to earn a livelihood. His paternal uncle used to publish a magazine, which he handed over to young Mahboob and his brother. Mahboob Alam kept on educating himself and passed Munshi A’alim, a degree in oriental learning. In 1886, Mahboob Alam established a printing press and the rest is history. Mahboob Alam launched in his life 10 newspapers and magazines and wrote some 50 books, including two travelogues. The first travelogue describes his travels in Europe in 1900 and the other his visits to Iraq and Arabia in 1907.

Munshi Mahboob Alam died in Lahore on May 27, 1933. He and his Paisa Akhbar will always be remembered in the history of Urdu journalism for their role in modernising Urdu journalism.

Published in Dawn, May 20th, 2019