Monday, March 1, 2010

The 'Out of Business' Business

Add one more media victim of the economic slump. The daily Business Day has ceased publication, as of Friday, 26 February.

What's that you say? You didn't even know such a paper existed? Well, to be honest, neither did I. I mean, there's a ton of papers out there which come out with dummy editions just to keep their "declarations" (permissions to bring out a publication) going. And, despite its claims of challenging the (pretty mediocre-ly produced but solid) standard-bearer of financial journalism in Pakistan, Business Recorder, nobody really thought it was anywhere close to doing that. But what makes this shutdown interesting is actually that the paper was owned by PrintOne, the communications arm of financial behemoth Jahangir Siddiqui Group or, as it is now known, the JS Group. PrintOne's chief executive was Nadia Munawwar Siddiqui, whose marriage apparently coincided with Business Day being shut down. PrintOne had acquired the two and a half year-old paper from Tauqir Mohajir (who also at one point put out the daily Financial Post and the defunct Diva magazine) only in February 2009. The current editor, Qaiser Mehmood, had been drafted in from his longtime job at Voice of America.

The human cost: nine sub-editors, five senior editorial staff, nine reporters (Karachi and Islamabad), about 10 newsroom production staff and some marketing staff laid off. But more than the modest numbers, it was the manner of the shutdown that raised a few eyebrows (at least among those within the organization).

According to an insider account, the staff had been told earlier the same month that a "formal launch" of the paper would take place in February in Karachi as well as Islamabad, to coincide with the opening of the paper's printing press in Islamabad. And that a new surge in distribution and marketing would take place with spots on CNBC and Samaa TV. Materials for this were also apparently displayed at the paper's offices. However, misgivings among the staff sprouted when an executive was overheard inquiring about the sale price of the existing press at a JS Group event. The management assured the staff that the sale was taking place only so that a new press could replace the existing one. By mid-February, however, rumour mills had gone into overdrive when staff discovered that only 500 copies of the paper were being printed daily. But despite everyone expecting an imminent shutdown, management continued to tell staff their fears were unfounded. Then, on February 25 came the notification that publication would cease the following day (sort of mirroring the shut down of another financial paper Business Today, owned by Sultan Lakhani). The official website of Business Day still forlornly features the last published edition.

According to the insider who supplied us the information, the management executive who came bearing the news said that the paper had been shut down because of multiple reasons, including poor business returns but also including, bizarrely, "the wedding of the chief executive."

Of course, given the size and name recognition of the paper (or lack thereof), it would be foolish to second-guess the business rationale behind owners deciding to wind up a venture. But there are some important lessons for journalists to be learnt from this incident. One, never trust at face value what management is telling you. Two, corporate houses get into media for reasons usually other than a passion for journalism and those reasons can change overnight. So, if one is being lured into a spanking new media venture with promises of great lucre, one should go in at least with one's eyes open.

Finally, one should accept the fact that media is business for its owners. Even the old established media houses are certainly not in it for charity. But is it too much to ask for media houses to be slightly more sensitive to people about to be summarily turned out for no immediate fault of theirs? At the very least, could they not be NOT given false assurances when corporate decisions have already been taken?


Ahsan said...

"Two, corporate houses get into media for reasons usually other than a passion for journalism and those reasons can change overnight. So, if one is being lured into a spanking new media venture with promises of great lucre, one should go in at least with one's eyes open."

Hahaha. I love these snide little potshots the Pyalaites take. Come on yaar, if you're going to shame, at least take a name.

Umair Javed said...

The demise of print journalism is such a sad sad thing....and please stop taking thinly veiled shots at the Lakhanis, they hired a lot of people from my undergraduate class....i see it as philanthropic employment...keeping the unemployment rate low etc etc hahaha....

Alpha Za said...

That really sucks for the people who are now unemployed, kind of makes you wonder how the smaller papers are now going to survive and if Pakistan isn't in the midst of a media 'bubble' particularly as most of the channels are new and are losing money hand over foot.

I wonder if these are the last casualties, or are there more to come?

CPM said...

@Ahsan and @Umair Javed: Oops! Sorry guys, I can completely see how you would read that as a "thinly veiled" / "snide" potshot at the Lakhanis. But I was actually not thinking of just them. I meant it in a larger sense of business owners from other disciplines (Salman Taseer, Tauqir Muhajir, Taher A. Khan, Haji Razzaq et al spring to mind too) getting on the news media bandwagon. Really.

Of course, the problem is compounded because many of the traditional media owners have now spread their wings into other businesses, which is as much of a conflict of interest.

Omar R Quraishi said...

hmmm - umair i wonder from where do you get that print journalism is dying - a paper like business day was hardly read by anybody -- dawn (maybe out but certainly still around), the news, nation and daily times are still around and i think they will all be around for a while

Americanising Desi said...

quite a shocker this shut down has been!

Umair Javed said...

@Omar...I was referring to the world wide trend.. for example when an American institution like the Chicago Tribune was forced to declare bankruptcy and sell their building and when you have newspapers in the UK shifting over their focus to website editions as opposed to the actual paper versions.

I know its not going to happen anytime soon especially not in a country like Pakistan where the market for the English press can only grow larger. But i just find the trend of watching the news as opposed to reading it a little.....err.....crass?....(and i sound at least twice my age..i know)

Omar R Quraishi said...

umair -- yes i know in the US it seems all downhill but as you say yourself in pakistan it's a bit different -- as for how old you sound or dont sound well the thought never crossed my mind

JJ said...

A newspaper shutting down is not an unexpected occurrence in the current economic environment; austerity measures taken by corporates result in shrinking ad revenues which can severely dent the profitability of such ventures.

Also, 500 copies is not an exceptionally low figure. I could be wrong but the circulation of Business Recorder is less than that amount. Revenues from retail sales typically don't cover more than the distribution cost of the newspaper.

Omar R Quraishi said...

Business Recorder -- less than 500 copies -- seems a bit too low

Anonymous said...

Cafe Pyala, I really like the way you write and love reading your blog.

I see the closure of these media publications from a different light. I think its unfortunate as you have pointed out for journalists, editors and support staff. I do think you conveniently forget to consider the views of business owners themselves (yes I'm sorry at the end of the day, I do think these so called experiments need to make money. Like one of the bloggers pointed out the Chicago tribune went bust, the New York Times is in trouble [with the demon Murdoch out to swallow the publication] and the BBC would be but a fart in a hurricane were it not supported by the UK Government).

I think people on this forum in their potshots at the business owners forget to acknowledge that the Lakhanis, the Taseers, the Saigols and Rehmans have had the courage to invest in such ventures, and I, a Pakistani, do believe we need to give them some credit in helping develop for the better the media industry in Pakistan. Quite apart from the fact that some of these ventures were doomed from the very start (I am sure there is tremendous mismanagement in these organizations), I believe this one-sided stance of sympathizing with the journalist while demonising the entrepreneur is unfair and getting quite monotonous.

Wyseguy said...

I was wondering if the Cafe Pyala community would like to address a trend that I've seen in Dawn.

Has the loss of money over the last three years led to Dawn hiring more left wingers who would work more cheaply as long as their voice got out?

Just wondering.

wyseguy - tlw said...

I'll elaborate.

If the news on this site has been accurate on how Dawn has been losing money, would the website like to address that as Dawn has been losing money in the last three years, it's editorial content has become more decidedly left wing. Not just the obvious inclusion of Nadeem Paracha, but amongst the general tone of the editorial contributions (and definitely the Dawn Blog contributions), having Benazir's ex-press secretary Kamran Shafi as the Tuesday editorial special, as well as a host of observable political positions the paper has taken on present day issues.

Just as an example today, here is an article from today's online edition written in a style reminiscent of old Desi Surkha tracts:

Pakistan's New Left

So yeah, it comes back to the question, is Dawn hiring left wingers cause it's cheaper?

Or inversely, is Dawn losing money because it's voice is trending very far to the left for Pakistan?

Or (just to increase choice) are left wingers so cheap to hire, that Dawn chose this path to save money (penny pinching?) but it resulted in the deterioration of their paper?

Omar R Quraishi said...

anon above - r u an owner/management persion yourself

wyseguy - u obviously have not been around for that long or you wouldnt have made your asinine comment above -- i doubt it if you ever heard of mazhar ali khan, i a rehman or ahmed ali khan

and btw having an article on 'pakistan's new left' doesnt necessarily make the paper leftwing

Hamza said...

wyseguy: Nadeem Paracha and Kamran Shafi are both opinion writers, so their columns on Dawn's opinion pages don't suggest that Dawn has become a more 'leftwing' newspaper. As far as I can tell, the standard news articles at Dawn always remain fairly non-biased.

A standard news/reporting article at 'The News', on the other hand, and I'm pointing at Ansar Abbasi, Saleh Zaafir, etc, are so loaded with the author's right wing bias, that I struggle to understand they are published in the news/reporting section.

Wyseguy said...

The standard news articles at Dawn always remain fairly non-biased.

Thnx for defining the metrics Hamza. Maybe I should redefine my question to ask if the Op Ed section of the Dawn newspaper has become more left wing.

Wyseguy said...

u obviously have not been around for that long

define long?


Oh come on, asinine on a blogspot page? Thats the definiton of an comment on the internet. Myabe I was being facetious, its the internet, who cares?

mazhar ali khan, i a rehman or ahmed ali khan

Never "heard" of them, because aside from IA Rehman, I've never "Read" their name in Dawn. IA Rehman is a head in a major Pak Human Rights organisation? I also vaguely recall him writing favourably about the MQM. I also don't know about Mazhar Ali Khan, cause I do not recall "Reading" his name. I do read Mahir Ali and I remember many times he lapses into retro Marxist analysis.

The reason I'm on this site - I might mention - is because I like the Pak media, and am interested in how its machine keeps working.

And while we're at it debunking myths, heres another one for you guys to look at from a Pak Channel Streaming website. The statement is facetious but certainly fodder for cnspiracy theories (murmurs of the US Gov funding Geo TV)

However the question is as to how can dozens of TV channels run profitably in a country, where the total volume of the advertising industry is not more that six to seven billion rupees?

So yeah. Is the channel bubble currently bursting in Pakistani media or is there some MNC directed foreign financial activity at hand thats been busted by the web admin of a streaming site with too much time on his hands? LOL.

WyseGuy said...

Here is the offending article. There's an archive full of these conspiratorially (Jamaat lite?) toned pieces.

Omar R Quraishi said...

oh well -- mahir ali has been writing for dawn for more than the three years according to which dawn veered red
the rest of what i said pretty much stands as well

Anonymous said...

anon above - r u an owner/management persion yourself

No. But I've worked as an auditor for media organizations. Does that answer your question? Or were you just trying to point out that my opinion is possibly coloured because I'm not a journalist?

Omar R Quraishi said...

anon -- how in the world could i possibly know whether u were a journalist or not -- but u sure as hell sounded like management and hence my question