An Interview with
Prof Dr Seemi Naghmana Tahir
Chairperson Mass Communication Department, University of Karachi
With an aim to promote newspaper reading in Pakistan, All Pakistan Newspapers Society (APNS) observed 25th September as the National Newspaper Reading Day. The selection of September 25th is related to the publication of the first multi-page newspaper “Publick Occurrences” from the United States in 1690. The most significant purpose behind observing this day is to encourage reading habits in the country’s youth with particular emphasis on newspaper reading. In the context of this national day, Jahangir’s World Times conducted an exclusive interview with Prof Dr Seemi Naghmana Tahir, Chairperson Mass Communication Department, University of Karachi wherein she threw light on the issue of newspaper readership in Pakistan and the challenges faced by newspapers in this regard. Following is the crux of her thoughts she shared with our representative Mr Muhammad Atif Sheikh.
Jahangir’s World Times (JWT): Is newspaper reading on a downward trajectory in Pakistan?
Dr Seemi Naghmana Tahir (DSNT): It is, no doubt, declining. Actually, the readership of newspapers in Pakistan has never been hugely popular. Youth are the biggest chunk of our country’s population and we depend a lot on them as they are the people we may call trendsetters. As academicians we interact with them almost on a daily basis and, in the Mass Communication department, we have to repeatedly advise our students to develop the habit of newspapers reading. But, it is a painful reality that they hardly heed to that and that is why the trend of newspaper reading among our youth is on a downward trajectory. However, senior citizens and habitual newspaper readers will remain committed to their habit.
JWT: There is a strong perception that most newspapers are not neutral or unbiased. Do you agree with this? And, does this bias impact their readership?
DSNT: Surely, it does. If a newspaper has a tilt towards some person or party or even a viewpoint, it does affect its image ergo readership. You know, journalists play a role of a protector or a guardian in a society, as they keep a vigilant eye on all institutions of the society as well as the other three pillars of the state, i.e. executive, legislature and judiciary. The role of a journalist should be that of a referee but, unfortunately, most journalists have made themselves players instead. And, more perplexingly, they are blatant in expressing their biases with no signs of having the pangs of conscience. It is more ubiquitous on electronic where you will observe a clear tilt in the anchorperson. It is due to this that even viewers already know what will be the subject of discussion in a talk show and what will be the viewpoint of a particular anchorperson. I believe when the bias, be that of a newspaper of a television channel, will touch its extreme, the popularity of rating in our jargon will definitely nosedive. We rely on media because we expect that it will provide us with relevant information on various issues and will help us build our opinion about whether those are good or bad for us. But, when you already know that a certain newspaper or TV will try to foist on you its readymade opinions, it is all natural that you won’t prefer to watch or read that particular channel or newspaper which never hesitates to be a party. However, I still believe that the newspapers which do give due consideration to the concept of objectivity, especially in reporting and presenting news with maximum neutrality, will surely have more credibility and liking among the readers than those which give on-sided news and try to show you only one side of the picture through biased reporting and analyses.
JWT: How far have the news channels affected the quality as well as readership of the newspapers?
DSNT: As for the quality of the newspaper, it is indubitably true that they face a huge competition. Gone are the days when people would wait for the newspaper to get the latest information and news. Thanks to the digital age, you can get the latest news any time round the clock. So, maintaining their readership – let alone increasing it – at a time when faster means of communication like internet, digital media, television, radio are available to broadcast news 24/7, is a daunting challenge for the newspapers nowadays.
So, the newspapers need to adopt some radical measures to improve their work so as to ensure that readers maintain their interest in them; otherwise, they keep getting routine news almost every time. They had already known the news that the newspaper will be providing them the next morning.
Another perception is that only advertisements or commercial interests are at the top of the priority lists of the newspapers and the reader is hardly on it. How do you see this?
It is indeed a horrible development and a lot can be said about it. I would like to tell you that nearly 25 years ago, I read somewhere that a time will come when the editor of the newspaper will be replaced by its marketing manager. I didn’t buy that viewpoint as it was impossible to even think that the editor, who is like a basic pillar of a newspaper and whose thinking is the soul of the newspaper, can lose his importance and will be replaced by someone else. However, since we are living in an age that is characterized by market economy; therefore, we see that market forces are dominating the content to the detriment of the overall outlook of the newspaper. Even the owners think that why should they publish things that do not have demand in the market even if they are obligated to publish them owing to their moral and social responsibility. So, this emerging phenomenon is really disturbing and I believe it has also negatively impacted the readership.
JWT: Are financial and security issues faced by journalists also a contributing factor towards declining trend if newspaper reading?
DSNT: During recent months, the staff layoff has been seen in many newspapers in Pakistan. Newspapers that are published simultaneously from several cities are even eyeing to establish a single desk which means that the newspaper will be prepared in one city and published in others. It will, no doubt, affect the element of quality. Now the question that arises here is that do they care for quality or standard or they only want to publish the newspaper only because they have to publish advertisements to generate income and this is what the newspaper owners think and are content with. So, the steps several newspapers have taken to cope with the recent financial crisis faced by the industry have adversely impacted the quality of news reporting. After all, when a reporter will be covering multiple beats, instead of a single beat in which he has expertise, his reporting will definitely suffer and the quality will surely decline.
JWT: How far, do you think, the digital media has impacted newspaper readership?
DSNT: It is a known fact now that the online reading of many newspapers, especially those published in the English language, is more than the physical paper. Digital science has been the key to diverting people’s reading habits and today even many news channels run their interactive websites as an integral part of their policy. So, I think it has impacted a lot.
JWT: Are the readers shifting from online versions of newspapers rather than the print editions?
DSNT: No doubt, they are and there can be no two opinions about this. Actually, a number of newspapers in different domains are maintaining their online editions. You can buy only a few newspapers in their print versions. Today, cost of using the internet is extremely low and another feature that adds an impetus to online newspaper reading is the element of mobility as you can read a newspaper on the go on your cell phone. That’s why the number of committed readers of print editions is fast declining. With internet, people have a new whole world before them and they can read any newspapers being published from any part of the world with just one click.
JWT: It is observed that newspaper owners nowadays prefer to invest their time and money in news channels. Doesn’t this attitude adversely impact the quality and variety of the content of the newspaper which, ultimately, leads to a decline in readership?
DSNT: Absolutely right! This attitude is surely to the detriment of quality and variety of the newspaper content. After all, it is obvious when you would reduce your investment as well as attention on the newspapers and would expect an employee to perform multiple tasks, and one news desk to work in place of several, the quality would suffer. Short-sizing and decrements in salaries will definitely affect the quality which, in turn, would cause a drastic fall in the readership. It is a huge challenge for the newspapers. Some people say that newspapers are dying, it is no exaggeration and they are absolutely right in this assertion. If the current perilous state of affairs prevails, the day is not far when even the existence of many newspapers will be in danger.
JWT: How newspaper readership can be augmented in Pakistan?
DSNT: A fundamental and perhaps the most practicable method to increase newspaper readership in Pakistan is to promote education by improving literacy rates. The readership can be enhanced only when the number of literate people is enhanced. Unless we promote education, critical thinking and broadmindedness in the society, even thinking of newspaper readership would be like living in a fool’s paradise. Actually, newspaper reading requires that you have thinking capabilities and traits of critical thinking and that directly hinges on your education. In addition, newspapers, journals and magazines also need human and financial resources for their sustainable growth. They need also new blood to live. And, when you will provide for all that, the readership as well as newspaper’s circulation, would definitely increase and a sense of commitment and devotion of the workers would also be better. When they will realize that they have a large readership, they would pay special attention to what they report or wrote for the newspaper.