This story was originally published on The News International on May 7, 2023
One of the founding fathers of the United States of America, and the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, sternly believed in the power of the media to keep governments in check. He believed that the governments — including the government of the US — would “prey off their citizens like a wolf on sheep” if they go unchecked by an independent media.
Without doubt, an independent news media plays an extremely important role in the functioning of democracies, and keeping the governments in check and accountable to the citizenry. In modern times, where digital platforms are rife with misinformation, hate speech, and organised, often very political, disinformation, the role of media to produce high-quality, public interest journalism has become even more crucial. However, the ability of the news media to perform this critical function almost entirely depends upon two factors, i.e., first, needless to state, media’s ability to operate independently, and second, the news media’s ability to sustain itself economically. In popular public discourse, the latter is not necessarily seen as a “media freedom” issue, a misconception which couldn’t be farther from the truth. Thus, in understanding and analysing media freedoms, the presence (or absence) of a favourable economic environment is often overlooked. As a result, the modern methods of censorship — such as indirectly controlling the revenues, and distribution of media entities through non-media actors such as intermediaries — often remain below the radars of most media freedom watchdogs.
In other words, in order to function, news media entities need to sustain and grow as independent businesses. Like all other businesses, they are dependent on the policies made and implemented by the governments — the very entities news media is tasked to watchdog — especially when the governments are among the largest advertisers.
Unfortunately, the current state of the country’s media economy doesn’t present a very rosy picture. Overdependence of traditional media on advertisement revenue, including government sponsored advertisement, remains high. More importantly, the innovation in content monetisation and revenue generation on the end of broadcasters and publishers also leaves much to be desired. Overall, the mainstream news media seems gasping for the figurative air when it comes to revenue. This spells trouble because at a time when public interest journalism is needed the most in the country, credible newsrooms are struggling to keep the lights on — some are facing the threat of closure, others are barely floating. Revenue streams that allowed the media entities to keep their operations going through a steady income without having to compromise their editorial integrity have either evolved or completely dried up.
However, all is not lost, yet. ‘Digital’ is still seen by most as a medium that can “save” journalism — but the hope isn’t without a catch. Overall, the economic growth does look promising. Digital ad-revenue in Pakistan has increased from Rs 4.5 billion in FY2015-16 to a whopping Rs 20 billion in FY2021-22, representing a growth of more than 500 percent in a little over 6 years. All the while, the ad-revenue of broadcast and print has either dropped or has remain stagnant. Thus, the hopes associated with digital aren’t necessarily unfounded. The catch, however, is that most of Pakistan’s ad-revenue is currently going to Google and Meta. Together, the two companies are taking away almost 85 percent of Pakistan’s current ad-revenue pie, almost Rs 17.6 billion, according to the latest figures. More importantly, a quick analysis of this trend reveals that the percentage has been on a constant rise — Rs 12 billion in FY2019-20, Rs 14 billion in FY2020-21 and Rs 17.6 in FY2021-22.
Essentially, this means that while digital journalism is becoming popular in the country, and most conventional and digital-first media entities are reaching hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of consumers through digital platforms, all of them, are dependent on what we call Big Tech for their content distribution. More importantly, it means that Google and Meta are taking away the lion’s share of the digital ad-revenue and earning millions by using the journalism content created by digital news media outlets, all the while, giving back figurative peanuts to news media outlets, whose content they use for their traffic. This leaves the news media, quite literally, either starving to death or dependent on them for life while they earn off the content of these outlets.
This is, in summary, why media sustainability is so vitally connected to media and digital freedoms, and the reason global and local media watchdogs should, in addition to the traditional idea of media freedoms, incorporate the sustainability of the media in their advocacy actions.
However, it’s important to note here also, that the challenge of media’s economic viability, isn’t merely about making ends meet, or garnering innovative business models. Rather, it is the ability of media entities to function effectively in serving their communities sustainably, and building an ecosystem that allows them to generate a steady income to meet their expenditures without having to make editorial compromises. Simply put, the news media can only play its extremely vital role if its business model allows it to sustainably produce public interest journalism, without having to make compromises to “protect its commercial interests” — which remains a challenge for most media entities at the present.
The writer is the director and founder of Media Matters for Democracy. He writes on media and digital freedoms, media sustainability and countering misinformation