The media industry is facing serious challenges. After two decades of boom, the downward slope is getting steep. Even large media groups are rethinking their strategies to survive. The smaller outlets are the worst hit.

The writing on the wall is very much visible in the shape of closures, layoffs and divestments. The media believes shrinking advertisement, both public and private, is the main cause of its troubles. However, the real causes of shrinking revenues are structural and need scrutiny.

The prime cause is the ongoing innovation in technology. Two decades back when TV channels appeared on the Pakistani media landscape, it posed the gravest challenge to print publications, which constituted the private-sector media at that time.

The only factor that sustained the print media in Pakistan was the public-sector advertisement. The private-sector advertisement started shifting to TV channels from the beginning. Even today, the main sustaining source for the print media in Pakistan is the public-sector advertisement. The print media is losing readership constantly and quickly. Actual circulation numbers that were once in hundreds of thousands have now been reduced to thousands.

Businesses are changing their customer outreach patterns and relying more on the digital media to engage with customers

Like print, the electronic media has also started feeling the crunch. Only the digital media is showing a constant increase in business. The rest of categories are showing a reduction in revenues. This trend is neither temporary nor limited to Pakistan. Digital platforms have the edge due to both professional efficiency and cost-effectiveness through constant innovations. Conventional print and electronic media are losing audiences to digital platforms.

The shared array of innovations is mind-boggling in the digital world. Conventional revenue sources of advertisement and subscription have evolved into diversified forms in the digital environment. The use of artificial intelligence (AI) in content and customer handling in a targeted manner has far-reaching consequences. It is posing a threat to mass communication models of the conventional media.

Leading media companies have already deployed AI for generating stories and making videos. In the future, this gap in conventional and digital technology will increase further. Virtual Reality (VR) gives the experience of news and fiction that leaves the conventional electronic media far behind. Similarly, the next frontier in journalism is data visualisation, a far more advanced way of storytelling than conventional text and video formats used by the traditional media.

The changing demographics in Pakistan are also facilitating technological change. Pakistan has the fifth largest population in the world with a majority of young people. They are literate and can handle digital technology easily. Due to the increase in audio-visual content and growing AI conversions, even the illiterate segment can handle the digital media well.

Smartphone, internet and social media penetration in Pakistan is lower than global standards. However, the share of this segment of the population (76.3 million internet users with 22.8 years of median age) makes it significant in absolute terms. This young lot is least interested in TV screens and print newspapers.

Interestingly, this segment is the prime client target of the majority of businesses. Pakistani businesses have been using advertisements on electronic media only for creating awareness. The digital media is about the more serious business of targeted engagements and sales.

Businesses are changing their customer outreach patterns, relying more on the digital media to engage with customers. The conventional media lacks this capability due to its broadcast nature. This trend will continue in the future, bringing more stress to the conventional electronic and print platforms. The only surviving kit for the conventional media consists of adapting to the new digital environment.

The conventional electronic and print media industry has to come out of its comfort zone. Creating a web portal and pages on social media and waiting for monetisation cannot be enough.

New digital business models require a change in content, format, operations, investment portfolios, marketing plans, audience identification and outreach. This means bringing more technology and the training of professional staff. This also requires new thinking in terms of hits and impressions while taking into account the limited attention spans and extremely fluid cyberspace. Each media company has to visualise a business model that suits its experience and must seek new partners in a digital business ecosphere.

The media industry also has to reorganise its conventional work environment and departmental demarcations in innovative ways.

The writer is managing director of Associated Press of Pakistan

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, , March 8th, 2021

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