Press under stress
For a commercial media outlet, the major source of revenue in Pakistan is advertising. With the arrival of the internet and the liberalisation of the airwaves – a near-global phenomenon – the commercial press is under stress.
In fact, with the arrival of the internet, newspapers the world over were faced with a Catch-22 situation. While an online edition, potentially and theoretically, could bring global audience – particularly the diaspora in the case of Pakistan – and boost readership within the borders, it also meant a cut in circulation. For almost a century, the business model for the commercial press has been such that the per copy production-cost of a newspaper far exceeds its market price. The differential is compensated by advertising revenue.
More circulation attracts more advertising. True, there is a niche market. Often high-brow newspapers all over the world, despite comparatively low circulation, earn more revenue because they attract big advertisers who are interested in reaching economically well-off consumers.
But in general, more circulation brings more revenue for the newspapers. Until the 1980s, 50 percent newspaper revenue in Britain came from advertising, while in the US it was 87 percent. The global average was: 57 percent from advertising, 43 percent from circulation.
The internet has harnessed large readership for mainstream newspapers but has undermined their circulation. Between 2004 and 2009, the US newspaper industry lost 34 percent while the UK industry lost 22 percent of its readership. Consequently, press advertising revenue is shrinking.
Circulation figures in Pakistan, jealously guarded by the Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC), are not merely hard to get but cannot be trusted either. It is, therefore, difficult to claim if the press has witnessed a decline in terms of circulation.
However, the number of publications has definitely declined. For instance, there were 1571 publications in 1999. By 2008, 1,199 had survived. True, the number of dailies went up from 269 to 324 but weeklies, fortnightlies, monthlies and the rest declined in numbers.
More ominously, the Pakistani press is definitely losing commercial revenue. However, one cannot blame the internet alone for that. In fact, the advent of privately-owned commercial TV is taking its toll on press’ commercial lifeline. The decline in advertising spend for the press and the rise in TV’s share of advertising spend has been considerable.
While overall spending during 2007-08 to 2012-13 has steadily gone up from Rs25.5 billion to Rs35.85 billion, print’s share has fallen from 33 percent to 22 percent. For TV, it has gone up from 47 percent (Rs11 billion) to 61 percent (Rs21 billion).
The reason for the shifting ad spend is simple. Television outdoes all other mediums in terms of its outreach. While the internet reaches three percent, radio seven percent, and newspapers 18 percent people, 73 percent spend time watching television (cf Orient Blue Book 2011-12).
According to Gallup-Pakistan, of the 26.5 million households, 21 million have a TV set (cable penetration is estimated at 11.5 million). On average, Pakistanis spent 2 hours and 48 minutes watching TV during 2013 (up from 2:37:00 in 2012). These figures offer a clue to the magical hold of the idiot box over Pakistani society.
With low literacy and disappearing entertainment possibilities, TV compensates for cinema, sports, and newspapers. Cartoon networks have become convenient baby-sitters for housewives.
Critics may point out India where, despite over 800 channels, the press continues to grow. This is due to rising literacy and very low prices. In fact, readers can almost recover the cost by selling newspaper as raddi (recyclable material). However, to rescue the press – and it must be rescued for many reasons – cutting costs will not be the only solution. There is also the need to promote a culture of reading.
The writer is a freelance contributor. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org