The objective was simple - to bring out a daily newspaper, a newspaper that was objective and neutral, and financially independent. And it was armed this objective that everyone came forward, eager and determined, at the outset of Prothom Alo. It may sound easy, but fulfilling these two objectives was as arduous a task as Thor Heyerdahl crossing the Pacific in his hand-built raft, particularly in the context of Bangladesh’s media. It wasn’t just back then, but even now for an independent media with self-respect, Bangladesh is as turbulent and fraught with dangers as the Pacific Ocean.
It was the year 1998. A decade hadn’t passed since the government of Hussain Muhammad Ershad had been toppled in a mass uprising. The history for media till then has been rife with ruts and precarious potholes. Just three months into the country’s independence, the wings of the caged media had been increasingly clipped with newspapers being constricted under the BAKSAL rule, the brutal assassination of Bangabandhu and family in 1975, followed by a decade and a half of military rule.
If a metaphor is required to illustrate this determination, Prothom Alo was like a green tree emerging from the heart of a hard rock
The open space of democracy is a precondition for a fearless independent news media. After the fall of Ershad’s military rule, democracy emerged from its cage, tentatively stretching its long constricted wings. The major newspapers of the country were, to the better part, the mouthpiece of one political party or the other. These were affiliated with Awami League, BNP, left-leaning parties, Jamaat and even the party of Bangabandhu’s cruel killers of 1975. The media was filled with their voices. Free and fearless media didn’t get the scope to spread its wings. That was the abysmal backdrop in which Prothom Alo emerged on the scene. The dream with which Prothom Alo was launched under such circumstances was indeed intrepid, courageous.
It was the sheer perseverance, the dream and the creative labour that made this possible. If a metaphor is required to illustrate this determination, Prothom Alo was like a green tree emerging from the heart of a hard rock. It was the farsighted investment of the late chairman of Transcom and Mediastar, Latifur Rahman, the strong leadership and extraordinary organising capacity of editor Matiur Rahman and the team of eager young journalists that made this impossible feat possible.
Within just three years of publication Prothom Alo became financially independent. It also became the top circulated daily newspaper in the country. That was indeed a time to celebrate. After all, Prothom Alo had passed the test of fire to prove that professional journalism could indeed be commercially viable too and that too in Bangladesh.
Just within a short time of this objective being achieved, this very objective opened up fresh vistas. So the newspaper was in place, surging ahead to the future through the ongoing experiences of the present. The question that loomed large was, can anything be done outside of the daily newspaper that would expand Prothom Alo’s media sphere even further? This was not quite a conscious effort for ‘product diversification’, to borrow from contemporary business terminology, but more of an urge to do something creative, a sincere compulsion to reach a greater community of people.
So the dream to establish a newspaper gained a new dimension. Gradually, almost unobtrusively, it took off on a journey to become a media house. Media takes news, information and entertainment to the people through extensive mass communication by means of various media. It basically has four paths: 1. Print media: This includes newspapers, magazines, books, etc. 2. Broadcast media: This includes radio, television, films, recorded songs, etc. 3. Digital media: Websites and social media are the main conduits here. 4. Outdoor media: This arena is entirely about advertising and publicity.
This horizontal growth of Prothom Alo spread steadily. It began with the classic print media, that is, the newspaper. Then the launch of Prothoma Prokashon in 2009 opened the doors to the creative world of book publication. Prothoma books have so far won 22 awards, including four of the prestigious Bangla Academy awards.
However, the year 2009 was especially significant for Prothom Alo. It was that year that Prothom Alo entered the world of digital media with the launch of its news portal prothomcom.com. I will come that later.
That is not all. Outside of the publicity-packed world of outdoor media, Prothom Alo spread to all niches of mass media. But behind all this, Prothom Alo’s beliefs, values and ideological stance remained firmly entrenched. Perhaps this is because it was the love of the people that accompanied them on this steady journey of success.
In 2011 Protichinta, a quarterly journal on social and political issues, was launched. Next came along the monthly magazine for youth, Kishor Alo, in 2013. In no time at all it became the country’s top magazine for the young. More monthlies emerged. In 2016 Biggyan Chinta and in 2020 Chalti Ghotona were launched. Then there are the many other publications like the special Eid issue Barnil and more.
Outside the print media, in the broadcast media Chorki is the newest feather in Prothom Alo’s hat. It was launched this year as a digital portal for cinema and has already taken off on a promising start. The future beckons encouragingly.
Prothom Alo had entered the realm of broadcast media earlier. In 2007 Transcom Limited had begun the FM radio ABC Radio and later this was attached to Prothom Alo under the mother company Mediastar Limited.
When Prothom Alo emerged as a newspaper in 1998, its readers were those residing within the borders of Bangladesh. Its online presence erased those borders. The consumers changed from national to international.
As I mentioned, in 2009 prothomalo.com emerged anew, but it was not the first induction of Prothom Alo online. The concept of a news portal in a digital format is relatively recent. In the eighties, there was a lot of experimentation but it was only after 2005 that seeds were sown for a well-managed news service platform in the world of internet. Then this gradually took on a clear shape with the emergence of various technological innovations.
The day that Prothom Alo was first published, on 4 November 1998, was incidentally the same day that marked the start of Prothom Alo’s regular presence on the internet. Literally speaking, Prothom Alo hadn’t erred in predicting the signs of the times. Next the print version of the newspaper went identically online in the e-paper form. Prothom Alo’s online presence radically changed its entire experience in growing as a media house.
There are so many dimensions to these changes. That discussion is for another day. Let’s just focus on one for now. When Prothom Alo emerged as a newspaper in 1998, its readers were those residing within the borders of Bangladesh. Its online presence erased those borders. The consumers changed from national to international. We watched with amazement how Bangla readers began responding on the Prothom Alo website, the website which became an extensive platform for communication among Bengalis worldwide.
Speaking of Facebook, there are two more interesting statistics. While writing this piece, till now Prothom Alo ranks at the 9th position globally among daily newspapers where the number of Facebook followers is concerned and 5th among South Asian media
If we called Prothom Alo’s first phase a horizontal expansion, then this phase is certainly vertical. The use of the digital sphere, its characteristics and experiences are so different and so fast-changing due to the constant advances in technology, that it cannot be compared to the print arena. In newspaper, the number of pages is limited. The news portal has no limitations. The newspaper relies majorly on writing accompanied by pictures, cartoons and infographics. In a news portal, there is so much besides the writing—videos audio, interactive graphics, etc, etc. And so much more is in the pipeline. There is only one way to read a newspaper—you buy it with money. But there are so many ways to access a news portal, and the social media has created even more lanes and alleys according to one’s tastes and preferences.
The manner in which readers have been pouring in through so many routes, Prothom Alo is indeed quite a significant advent in the map of global media. With 14 million users and 250 million page views a month, Prothom Alo is now the top Bangla media in the world. With 17 million followers, Prothom Alo is the top Bangladeshi Facebook page.
Speaking of Facebook, there are two more interesting statistics. While writing this piece, till now Prothom Alo ranks at the 9th position globally among daily newspapers where the number of Facebook followers is concerned and 5th among South Asian media.
Time passes and history takes radical turns under the pressure of so many events. Even dreams travel from one horizon to some new greater horizon ahead. It is that magical force of those changing dreams that has taken Prothom Alo from its first day on the voyage to becoming the world’s largest Bangla media house.