Visit any Pakistani news website and then go to a foreign one. What’s the one difference you’ll definitely notice? Contrary to what the boomer drawing-room expert who exclusively relies on WhatsApp for all sorts of information says, it’s not that the local media is doing lifafa journalism. The key distinguishing feature is that they ask you to pay to read.

Publications all over the world have made the move towards a recurring subscriber base. So much so that young outlets like or The Wire, which started barely five years ago, have put up paywalls. In comparison, even media powerhouses, such as Dawn or Jang, have refrained from it.

The only (relatively) major one is Profit, the business magazine of Pakistan Today, which rolled out a subscription model earlier in June 2020. “We felt that our content was worth charging for and expect people to pay for it,” says Executive Editor Babar Nizami.

However, it was a patchy start for Profit, which had launched its paywall along with The Wall Street Journal’s access bundled together. Unfortunately for them, the desired targets required by WSJ weren’t met and the business magazine had to instead partner with its distributor in India and raise the price a little bit from the initial rates to continue the same offering. The publication, however, stayed firm and instead structured the monthly plans with a lot of flexibility to the customer.

‘To make a shift to the subscription mode, the entire news industry will have to do it together’

The question naturally comes to mind is this: if newspaper readers are willing to pay for a publication, why do media outlets continue to offer their online product for free and practically ruin the market? The answer is competition. “If we start a subscription mode, most of our traffic will divert towards other organisations. So in order to make the shift, the industry has to do it together,” says Dawn’s Head of Marketing Hasan Akbar.

Mr Nizami shares a similar view and feels that if the biggest player in the industry, Dawn, takes the lead, others will follow. However, all outlets moving to put paywalls one after the other, in unison, sounds an awful lot like collusion and would put them in the same boat as our esteemed cement or sugar sectors. Except for one major difference, of course: media organisations so far had been offering their product for free.

But subscription comes with caveats, the most problematic of which is that traffic is compromised. “There is a trade-off between page views and subscribers,” says Mr Nizami. Fewer impressions make the platform become less appealing to potential advertisers. To try the balancing act, what Profit does is basically put premium content behind a paywall for a certain period (based on discretion) while the regular news is accessible for everyone.

“A lot of traffic actually comes from the breaking news, which is anyway available on other platforms. So there’s not much point in charging for that. Instead, the idea is to get the more curious readers who value the premium content to pay for it,” he adds.

For its income, relies on banner advertisements (rates based on per thousand impressions), which come from not only on-ground sales teams but also through ad exchanges like Google’s Admob. The former is far more lucrative as the media outlet can charge on its own tariff rate thanks to its market-maker position. On the other hand, the latter generally offers only 60 per cent of that price and is more commonly used for the website’s foreign audience, which forms a sizeable share of the user base.

“We are generally concerned about a lack of culture of paying for online news. Plus, there needs to be a proper structure that allows for recurring payments. You can’t do cash-on-delivery. So credit cards become our main option, which are not in big enough numbers,” says Editor Jahanzaib Haque.

What about carrier billing? “That’s one of the options, yes. If mobile wallets pick pace, that could be another,” he says.

To him, the biggest challenge is figuring out the pricing though. “We don’t really have any experts in Pakistan who can identify the right price point.” If we look at what happened after the initial three months of Profit’s paywall ended, his comment does make sense.

“We are exploring a number of possibilities, such as charging our US audiences but their overall share in the traffic is only 11pc. Or maybe put up the paywall by geography.”

The media outlet also has in place another source of revenue: native content. This means the publication charges for running press releases and marks the item with some disclaimer. This income stream was popularised by digital-only publications, such as TechJuice, MangoBaaz etc. According to Mr Nizami, Profit has also introduced it.

Native content has its own challenges, which are more editorial than economic in nature. Running press releases word-for-word in the same places as stories blurs the line between the two separate wings of a news organisation — marketing and editorial — and can often mislead the reader.

Hence, it’s important to identify properly that these items are sponsored content, which most publications do but to a varying degree depending on their own editorial policies (or lack thereof).

Meanwhile, Mettis Global, a financial news service that specialises in providing market-moving developments in real time, has gone for another route. Instead of opening the website to ad mediation platforms such as Google’s Admob, the website tries to stick to niche advertisers and leverage its some 150,000-strong targeted readers who rely on it for specifically following the economy.

“We haven’t actively pursued this channel either and instead stick to a handful of clients. For us, the news website complements our financial data terminal and that’s the area the company is aggressive on,” says co-founder Saad Bin Naseer.

Another avenue that many new media outlets often rely on is grant money, though that can’t technically be considered monetisation and should ideally be used only to build the initial product. One medium that’s becoming increasingly popular in other countries, especially among independent journalists but is effectively missing from the Pakistani media landscape, is that of newsletters. That in turn has two revenue streams: first is the subscription model and the second being advertisements.

With print media continuously shrinking every second day and the primary advertisement stream, i.e. the government, choking, it’s high time the Pakistani news organisations put some serious thought into their business models.

It should have been clear years ago that the status quo is not sustainable. Perhaps there’s still some time at least for the journalists who have spent decades bearing the brunt of their management’s incompetence.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, February 1st, 2021


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