On the 10th anniversary issue of ICE Business Times, the business monthly sits in conversation with esteemed editor Matiur Rahman to know more about his career path and the triumphant journey of Prothom Alo. We are reproducing the interview here with permission from ICE Business Times. (Interviewed by Tawhidur Rashid)
ICE Business Times: Prothom Alo has had a long and steady journey and it can be safely said that it has been successful in reaching an apex, and has also charted new avenues in terms of journalism. What prompted you to embark upon this journey?
Matiur Rahman: I never really thought about success or being successful. As a matter of fact, there was a constant fear of failure that worked in me. I have no hesitation in saying that I had lost 8 kilos from the stress, even before publishing the very first issue. The anxiety weighed heavily on me and marred my social encounters and I could not laugh freely. I had no idea about this uncertain journey I was about to embark on. I just knew that I would try. I would give my best to bring out a good newspaper, one that would be unbiased and bear the voice of truth and courage. I never imagined that it would be such a successful newspaper or have this kind of circulation, or impact.
As a matter of fact, I started my professional career in journalism in June of 1970, when I was appointed the Editor-in-Charge of a weekly newspaper called Ekota. Travelling further back in time, one can see that I was actively involved in the resistance that started on 1 February 1962 in Dhaka University, against Ayub Khan’s military dictatorship. I was involved in almost all activities related to the movement, be it writing leaflets or distributing them, having posters printed, or being present at the processions.
However, I was always at the back of the processions. I never partook in slogans or giving speeches on any political stage. I spent over three decades in politics, but I never gave any speeches.
I have always been enthusiastic about sports, ever since I was a student. I had a keen interest in all aspects of sports and athleticism. I used to play cricket myself. My interests and activities were quite varied; I was studying, I had an interest in sports, cultural activities, as well as politics and I, would also write a little and was also involved with publishing. So even before my formal introduction to the world of journalism in 1970, I was already immersed in numerous aspects of it.
From 1970 to 1991, I was directly involved with politics, while working as the editor-in-charge of Ekota, of which I later became the Editor. In 1992, I became the Editor of the daily Bhorer Kagoj and on 4 November 1998, the first issue of Prothom Alo was published.
As I mentioned, it was enshrouded in uncertainty, I had no idea what would come of it and I also had no experience of running a daily before Bhorer Kagoj. All I had was the desire to do something good and exemplary.
My short stint at Bhorer Kagoj did not prepare me for the scale of planning, management, editing, teaching as well as learning associated with Prothom Alo. As it is, running a daily as opposed to running a weekly is very different. The magnitude of the operations at Prothom Alo was overwhelming. We printed 121,000 copies on our very first day. The number of copies gradually increased over time. Two years ago, the number of copies we printed was 548,000, making it a great learning experience.
Amidst all the uncertainty, one thing we had as a beacon was that we had to make this the no.1 newspaper and we had to make it financially viable. Nothing worth its value would be able to stand the test of time if it was dependent on any one person, organisation, or political party or the government. It would not be the right thing to do neither would it be an accepted or recognised newspaper. The founding principle was that Prothom Alo would have to be independent, unbiased and financially viable.
In three and a half years, we broke even, which is possibly a first for a newspaper in Bangladesh. After which we continued to make a profit. I guess from that perspective one could say that Prothom Alo has played, and continues to play an important role.
However, it is imperative that I mention the rich history of print media in our country. During the ’50s and ’60s, we had Dainik Sangbad, Dainik Ittefaq, Bangladesh Observer, and quite a few other respected newspapers in circulation. Newspapers have always played a crucial role in each of the historically important movements of our country and the inception of Prothom Alo was simply a natural progression in that journey and it is what it is today due to the contributions of many.
We were very fortunate to have Media Star Limited as the parent company, headed by a person as remarkable as Latifur Rahman, our Managing Director. They had the vision and courage to grant us full freedom in our operations and handling of finances, which is one of the underlying reasons behind our success.
ICE Business Times: Prothom Alo has now established itself as an example. It is something that people can refer to now, but when it first started, was there a frame of reference for you? And if you could also elaborate a bit about the freedom given to you by the parent company.
Matiur Rahman: We must not forget that we have always had financially successful newspapers in Bangladesh. I can confidently say that Dainik Ittefaq was profitable throughout 1960-80s. Bangladesh Observer was the same in 1960-70s, and currently, we have Daily Star which is also making a profit.
Therefore, we did not have any specific business model, nor did I have any kind of training in journalism, publication, and entrepreneurship. I had never taken any courses in business studies. The only business exposure I had was at a seminar in 1994 or 1995, on “How to increase circulation and advertisement revenue for medium and small range newspapers”. That was the only training I had in my bag of journalism. Everything else I learned was because I made the effort to learn.
For a newspaper to be economically successful, its circulation needs to increase, which in turn will bring in advertisement revenue. It cannot only rely on sales revenue since that only amounts to 1/4th of our total expenses. The rest you need to earn from advertisements, which one can get only if that paper is leading in its circulation. That is why we had the target to become the most circulated newspaper from the onset. You can say that was our business model.
As for the second part of your question, it is because of the forward-looking vision of the parent company, to grant us a freehand that we were able to work and learn and grow. My understanding of the daily operations and expenses expanded as I spoke to different stakeholders including advertisers, distributors, and sellers. That knowledge only aided in the growth of Prothom Alo.
ICE Business Times: What would you consider to be the biggest obstacle in your journey and how did you overcome it?
Matiur Rahman: There isn’t a country in the world where journalism doesn’t face obstacles and our country is no different. I remember Ekota was shut down in the 70s for two years and then after restarting, it was again shut down by the Ershad government in the 80s. In 1993, BNP prohibited all advertisements for Bhorer Kagoj, and so we took to the streets and held processions and were able to gain back our permission to run advertisements. Prothom Alo faced the same fate in 2000, and again in 2001 when BNP came back to power. Therefore, we have faced many such difficulties over the years.
Even now there are many ongoing cases against me in different areas, around 58 cases I think, where I have to make court appearances. Some cases are dismissed and then some new ones come to light. We are often intimidated and we have to go on amidst the fear. Sometimes some organisations are barred from placing their advertisements with us. These are the challenges that I face regularly but we have to take that as part and parcel of the job. Despite these challenges we have to continue doing what we set out to do and do it to the best of our abilities.
There were a few other obstacles that were quite fundamental; for example, getting a good journalist or finding business partners who understood the value in placing advertisements. It was something they had to be educated about and explained to. At the end of the day media in Bangladesh, be it print or mass, is not as successful here as it is in India for example.
In terms of overcoming it, there was a learning curve. I went and spoke to the journalists, news reporters of our time, spoke to them and listened to what they had to say. Ever since I was a student I was somehow associated with Dainik Sangbad. From 1988 to 1992 I wrote regularly for Dainik Sangbad. In comparison, my business experience was non-existent, which I had to learn myself except for the 2-day seminar I mentioned earlier. And after 2007 we participated in quite a few seminars in the sub-continent where we garnered knowledge from many renowned Indian journalists. And from all this and subsequent internal discussions, we penned the business policies of Prothom Alo.
I can add that we also bring out a quarterly magazine, we publish books and do some big events which all also happen to be an added source of income for us. We picked up this simple philosophy from those seminars that, for a newspaper to survive there must be many components surrounding it and adding to its income source. The digital platform is one more example of an important source of income. Digital is the way forward. The future of print media is bleak so we have to increase our online presence. And perhaps we are slightly ahead of some of our colleagues in this aspect. We always need to be on the lookout for alternative and innovative avenues and capitalise on them.
ICE Business Times: That is an interesting point you raise. Do you really think that print media is a dying format? And if so, what do you think the future looks like?
Matiur Rahman: I wouldn’t say that the newspaper is dying. Publishers, editors, journalists from all over the world, including us, are trying to keep print media alive. And to keep people wanting more, we need to improve the standard of the articles and writing. We have to keep our readers engaged by remaining contemporary. Only giving them the news is not enough, we must also provide commentaries and analyses. We are making a maximum effort to ensure the number of readers doesn’t decline, but in reality, print media worldwide is witnessing a descent. We are in a constant war against the odds to keep print media profitable.
At the same time, a growing digital platform is undeniable and has opened up a world of immense possibilities. In addition to print media, Prothom Alo has been putting emphasis on digital media. In the end, a permutation of print and digital is the future of the newspaper. There may be concerns about the future of newspapers but there is no doubt about the future of journalism. News and journalism will survive beyond the medium, be it in print or online.
At this moment, a mobile phone is a fastest and most preferred medium for people to receive news. In Bangladesh, 65-70 per cent of the news is read through mobile phones. Therefore, stakeholders in this sector have to keep an eye on the changing landscape.
ICE Business Times: If I may ask you something a bit more personal now; How do you spend the first thirty minutes of your day? And being such a busy person, how do you manage to complete your daily routine?
Matiur Rahman: My life revolves around Prothom Alo and my office. I’m in ‘office’ wherever I am, whether I’m home or in the car or whether I’m actually in office. Prothom Alo has evolved into a large organisation. Other than the daily newspaper, we have a big online presence, and then we also have monthly publications Kishor Alo, Bigyan Chinta and Prothoma Prokashana, which has grown into a large publishing platform. Then there are the quarterlies. Then if you break down the content in terms of the different categories, it is a lot of material I have to comb through. There are the feature articles and then also the preparation behind the write-ups and these are not sorted magically, a lot of work goes into the job of editing them.
You asked about 30 minutes but if I were to just read through all this while sipping on my morning tea, 60 minutes would pass easily. And this jumpstarts my process. Most of the time, I take some of my writing assignment home. I also have to read other books and journals as a writer. So, it takes an hour in the morning to prepare me for the day and depending on what I have to do throughout the day, the morning also sets the pace for my day. But even through all this, I do at times take the time to read up on some sports news or listen to a song because it is also important to satiate one’s heart and mind.
ICE Business Times: You have met a lot of great individuals throughout your life, please tell us about the one you fondly remember.
Matiur Rahman: In the 60s, as I was involved in student politics, cultural activities and sports, I had the chance to meet many intellectuals both at home and abroad. I have written many articles, analyses, commentaries but I was always, and continue to be, partial towards interviewing people. I have had the privilege of interviewing Nawab of Pataudi; I have interviewed the present prime minister of our country as well as the former prime minister. Recently I interviewed actress Kabori Sarwar. I have interviewed Runa Laila. I have been in conversation with the former prime minister of India, Manmohan Singh and also Pranab Mukherjee, who was the foreign minister at that time.
It is true that I have had the good fortune to meet many renowned people but there is one singular meeting that holds a special place. I don’t know if you remember Shaheed Noor Hossain who was shot and killed on 10 November 1987, while protesting. He was murdered beside the secretariat. On his chest was written ‘Shairachar nipat jak’ (Let autocracy be demolished) and on his back were the words ‘Gonotantra mukti pak’ (Let democracy be set free).
Around late December, I went to the Sangshad Bhaban area from my office in Bangshal, where artist Quamrul Hassan used to live. I took an auto-rickshaw. I needed to drop off some books and a gift for him. After which I took the same auto-rickshaw back. When we were crossing Karwan Bazar area, the driver turned around asked me, “Sir, are you a journalist?” I wanted to know how he knew. He replied, “I guessed”.
Upon inquiring who he was, he identified himself as Shaheed Noor Hossain’s father. It was as if I felt a jolt. Noor Hossain was just killed very recently and everyone knew of Shaheed Noor Hossain and his legacy, so this was a powerful encounter. I invited him to my house for some snacks and had a conversation with him. It was the start of a charming relationship which lasted as long as he lived. We became family friends and regularly visited each other’s places on various social occasions. We still have a close relationship with the family, I try to be there for them in any way I can.
This was a meeting that stirred something deep within me. I have written about him on three consecutive years on the same date. That chance meeting and the exchange of anecdotes and emotions taught me a great deal in my life so that would be the best meeting I have had and one that has etched its mark on me and my life.
ICE Business Times: A new buzz word seems to have been created, which is ‘content’. How would you define content? What are the features of good content?
Matiur Rahman: Currently, every segment of journalism be it news, column, commentary or interview is basically content. With the rapid growth in the usage of smartphones, content moves very fast into the hands of the readers. And whether you call it news or content, it is varied and when the media publishes or airs it, it has to be edited properly.
So given the variation in the presentation of these shifting content, the journalists of today have to be very skilled and diverse in that ability. The initial news content is prepared for mobile phone users, after that, it is edited for other platforms. Often the feature is turned into a video for the digital platform. A final version of that particular news with more insights is prepared to be published in the newspaper the next day. Therefore, a particular news item has to be prepared for multiple platforms. So, in some ways, a few things have become more difficult and on the other hand, technology has made many things a lot easier.
ICE Business Times: We are seeing that more and more news organisations are going behind a paywall, how do you, as a journalist and reader view this shift in paradigm?
Matiur Rahman: A simple fact is that one has to pay for good content. Honestly, it takes a lot of resources to create something good. At present, most content in Bangladesh is free to read as it is in many other countries. In the UK, The Guardian allows readers access to their news for free because they have a separate business model. They run their operation through donations and their pockets are deep which is why they have been able to cover the expenses of the organisation for more than three decades.
Other than a few exceptions like The Guardian, most news organisations are shifting to a subscription-based model. Recently, the New York Times was in trouble and rumour was that they will have to stop publishing. They got themselves out by taking a loan and paid content contributes largely to their income.
News organisations in Bangladesh have to follow suit that to survive in the long run. The amount of the subscription fees will greatly depend on the cost of creating the content. The e-paper of Prothom Alo used to be free but we have been forced to take it behind the paywall because costs keep rising. We are not earning a lot from it, but the aim is to introduce the idea of paying for content to the readers.
ICE Business Times: Fake news has become a major issue because of the rapid rise of social media, how can we stop it from spreading like wildfire and causing so much damage?
Matiur Rahman: It is going to be extremely difficult and I am sceptical of being able to eliminate it. Anyone from anywhere in the world can post something on social media without any difficulty. The ability to spread something is within a person’s grasp. Each person is unique and each is free to share his or her opinion, thoughts and photos. So I doubt that we can bring a stop to this. And since we cannot control the masses, a lot now depends on those, who have the professional responsibility to spread the news.
A lot depends on how we journalists treat a piece of news. We have to diligently and responsibly carry out our duties. I was encouraged by a campaign carried out by an Indian newspaper, whereby they wanted to endorse the slogan “Print is Proof”. Although that may be true, we cannot also discount some of the truth that raises its head on social media. It would be wrong to assume that everything on social media is untrue.
At Prothom Alo, we are extremely cautious about what we publish; and we are careful not to print any wrong information or news. I believe, if professionals like us stay vigilant about news which is unverified, harmful and damaging, we can reduce the negative impacts of fake news on society and country.
ICE Business Times: Do you have any message for journalists and readers?
Matiur Rahman: I, as a professional, not only work for a newspaper but my life is such that I pretty much ‘eat, breathe and sleep’ news/newspaper. But, as an individual, I have things I like to do outside of this world. I like listening to songs, the fine arts, watching theatre or the cinema and it is an aggregate of all this that constitute our lives. I will state that people are of course free to choose and accept whichever suits them but a request from me would be that amidst all this we should hope and work towards a better Bangladesh and also as a proper democratic and law-abiding nation.
My request to my readers, my friends would be that this is our country and so we should all to our very best to contribute to making this a developed, humane and democratic nation. And this request can be seen as coming from a journalist or a fellow citizen but it’s my sincere request that we give our all for the betterment of Bangladesh. We want Bangladesh to emerge on top, as victors, not only in cricket but also in other aspects.
ICE Business Times: What is the best advice you ever got?
Matiur Rahman: In every person’s life, his/her mother plays a crucial and pivotal role. So does the father but for some reason, it is the thought of our mother that springs more readily to mind. So needless to say, there are many things I have learned from her.
But if I am to speak of someone who I hold in high esteem and who has set the frame of reference from a point of view of shaping one’s principles then my idol would be Ranesh Das Gupta, a writer, journalist, and politician. There are many lessons I learned from him and I think of something about him on a daily basis.
If I were to pinpoint one lesson of his I always keep with me and follow, is, to be humble, polite, and helpful and to listen to people. And, Che Guevara, his approach to life, the sacrifices he made, his pain, his courage, his love for literature is commendable. Having said that, I want to go back to the ideology of Ranesh Das Gupta and say that, to be humble, soft-spoken and polite is ideal.
*For the original version of the interview you can visit—(https://ibtbd.net/matiur-rahman-editor-prothom-alo/)