Downsizing, firings, and protests; Pakistani news industry faces fight of survival

Media organizations forced to do cost rationalization & strategic adjustments as government cuts down advertising spend
Published 11 Nov, 2018 12:53pm

If one types “Waqt News” on Google search bar, one of the top articles that show up is titled ‘That’s all folks! Waqt News is Dead’. It’s an ironic spin on a very serious situation. So far Waqt News has been the most prominent and largest casualty with 185 redundant employees. It’s not just Waqt News, other channels have started to bleed as well. The new government has cut down on advertising budgets by 80%, and the business model of our channels was more or less dependent on that revenue flow. It’s a dire situation where channel owners will have to be shape up or face the same fate as Waqt News.

Due to lack of cross ownership rules, news channels are owned by companies which also run popular newspapers. While their sales (advertising) have decreased, the cost of their imported raw material has gone up due to the increase in cost of dollar. It has proved to be a double whammy. Moreover, pressure on real estate developers has meant that industry is also not investing in advertising as much as they used to.

A lot of analyst believe that the business model of these channels is languid and banking on governmental hand offs is no way for a whole industry to operate. Furthermore, the salary gaps between the top anchors on these channels and the general staff is also extremely irrational. It is reported that after increasing economic pressure Dunya TV has cut down the salaries of Moeed Pirzada, Mujeebur Rahman Shami, Wajahat Saeed Khan and Kamran Shahid by 35%. In response, Moeed Pirzada has resigned from his position. Murtaza Solangi let go by Capital TV a few weeks ago.

Anchor and expert of the popular show Bol Bol Pakistan Nusrat Javed and Gul Meena have been let go by Dawn TV. Similarly, two other hosts Baqir Sajjad Syed and Jawad Ahmed Siddiqi have also been shown the door. Mehr Bukhari’s salary has been cut off by 25%. Even the top dog of the industry Geo is facing the crunch as they have decided to end their contract with Talat Hussain, Imtiaz Alam and Shahzad Choudhry. There are reports that Suleman Lalani, Nasir Baig Chugtai, Haroon Leghari will also be relived off their duties.

It is not just the big names who have faced the music. As per reports, Dunya News has thus far fired 188 employees. They have cut off 4 Bureaus including Hyderabad, Sukkur and DI Khan. At Dawn 8 bureaus have been shut and its overall hours have been cut from 600 to less than 500. While, the new entrant in the market, Hum News is set to lay off 150 people employees (from News and Entertainment). It is estimated that about half that number has already been handed their termination letters. Hum Network was profitable by 6 crore a month but with the opening of Hum News, the network has reported a loss of 8 crores.

Express has also terminated 200 employees in their cost cutting operation. They have merged their TV, print and bureaus. They are in a tight spot especially as they recently launched their English channel. Even the industry leader Geo has had to let go 100 people. Daily Times, is also facing a similar situation. A well-publicized case is going on in the Supreme Court about non payment of employees salaries by Daily Times.

Industry experts say that TV industry’s revenue has been stagnant for the past 2 years, while cost have gone up. On the other hand, there has been a growth of over 300% in the entertainment industry, which has meant 37% revenue has shifted from news to entertainment channel.

Some in the industry are also skeptical about such moves by the government and see it as their policy to punish those critical of them. Press freedom in Pakistan has been under attack for a considerable period of time and many a journalist have questioned strong arm tactics from State authorities. It is also claimed that the government owe media outlets 8 billion rupees in print and TV advertisements. There are those who also believe that this step would force media outlets to get their act together and transform the revenue model of the industry.

Adding another dimension to the story is protests by employees. There have been protest against Dunya TV by a Joint Action Committee of journalists. Bol TV which has always faced pressure in terms of employee salaries also faced similar protest outside their offices. If the protests grow it would put pressure on the government to find a short term solution. In the long run however, better management and a sound business plan has to be devised by media owners or we would see many of these news channels go out of business and in the end, it’s the employees who would suffer.