Daily Star: Under your editorship, we got two leading newspapers in Bangladesh—Bhorer Kagoj and Prothom Alo. How did you plan the content of these newspapers, and their editorial structure and policy? How did you make them stand out in a market already occupied by several age-old, reputed newspapers?
Matiur Rahman: My previous editorship of the weekly Ekota, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party of Bangladesh (CPB), from 1970 to 1991, and my active involvement with leftist politics in Bangladesh brought me close to politicians, prominent journalists, litterateurs, and artists. I also had good experience playing cricket. These diversified exposures in life gave me courage to go for a venture like that of Bhorer Kagoj in February 1992. In a newspaper, you want to read various topics. Initially, I had to do everything from going through reports, building a fresh team of journalists, and finding ways to increase circulation.
Along with regular writings, we published some unique content in Bhorer Kagoj which had not been published in any newspaper before. For instance, many unknown and untold stories of 1971, unknown stories of the assassination of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on 15 August 1975, the jail killing of 3 November 1975, the coup of November 7, reports on corruption and human rights violations during military dictatorship, etc. We collected and published interviews and analyses of many eyewitnesses of those historic incidents.
I travelled to many districts of our country and organised group discussions and meetings with readers. I even spoke to newspaper sellers and advertisement agents to learn how I could increase circulation. I have met personally with business concerns who could be prospective ad buyers.
I also wrote a lot. I reported from the field, edited reports, wrote columns, took interviews, and wrote features and commentaries. Thanks to our hard work, Bhorer Kagoj became one of the top three newspapers of Bangladesh. When I left in 1998 due to some differences with the publisher, the newspaper’s circulation had crossed 100,000 and it had already reached break-even point.
Prothom Alo was founded on 4 November 1998. As its editor, I took only two months’ preparation before the launch. Around 80 journalists from Bhorer Kagoj followed us there. Around 50 of them are still working with us. After two years, the then Awami League government stopped giving us government advertisements. It was a harsh blow for us because government ads were a major source of revenue for newspapers at that time. The case was nothing different in the tenure of earlier BNP government.
The BNP-led government did the same to us after the election of 2001. However, within just four years of launching, Prothom Alo became the largest circulated newspaper in Bangladesh. We diversified our content and depicted every sphere of life in the newspaper—in-depth analyses, investigative reports and supplements featuring a variety of unique and engaging topics.
Daily Star: After the advent of new media, are journalistic skills still the same as before? What qualities should a journalist ideally have in 2020?
Matiur Rahman: Internet and social media have decisively changed the field of journalism. In close to five decades of my career in newspapers, I have never seen such a big change in the industry. Most of the reports in a newspaper have already been read on the internet by the time they reach the readers in the morning. This has changed the entire function of a newspaper. Now, a reporter of the print edition also has to know how to develop content for the online edition. They have to know how to make video content for the social media pages, how to take photos—in a nutshell, a reporter, at present, has to be an efficient multitasker.
Daily Star: According to several reports, print media is on the decline globally. Circulation is falling and newspapers are shedding staff members to cut operating costs. What explains this situation and is this a trend that concerns us in Bangladesh?
Matiur Rahman: Decreasing circulation of print media is a global phenomenon. It’s a reality we cannot deny. Print media is heavily dependent on private advertisement revenue, three fourth of its operational costs. With the global decline of print media, newspapers are not getting as many advertisements as they used to get several years ago.
On the other hand, despite the popularity of internet-based news platforms, still, we could not turn our online platforms into a sustainable income source. The print newspaper is still the major source of revenue for a print media house.
In this critical situation, we have to search for possible alternative sources of revenue. Along with this, we have to think of minimising our operating costs. It is a simple and basic business strategy. If you were an owner of a newspaper, you would have done that too to save your product. We are going through a transition. Skills, products and demands are changing on a daily basis. In such a time, if a journalist cannot update themselves with new skills, they have to pave way for more efficient hands. We have to accept this reality.
Daily Star: In The Vanishing Newspaper, Phillip Meyer coined a model called “harvesting the product” which suggests increasing advertisement rate while simultaneously shrinking the newspaper’s operations by cutting off manpower and circulation. What do you think of this model which has been adopted by many struggling media houses here and abroad?
Matiur Rahman: I don’t fully agree with this model. Print media still matters in Bangladesh. People depend on it to verify news, facts, figures and analysis. I am not saying that internet-based news sources or social media are unreliable, but that you get constant instant updates or breaking news online. The fact remains that when the news is published in a newspaper, it becomes much more credible and acceptable. That is why we say—print is proof.
People purchase print newspapers to understand the context behind and the analysis of the news. So, I believe that the future of print media in a local language still has a promising future. We are taking every step to increase our circulation, to reach more people.
We now publish 11 editions of Prothom Alo from three cities of Bangladesh (Dhaka, Chattogram and Bogura) to distribute the newspaper early in the morning to readers who live in all parts of the country and are from all walks of life.
However, to increase our revenue, we are trying to diversify our content. Prothom Alo has launched magazines for young readers, publishing supplements on different themes to reach maximum readers. We have launched a publishing house which has already published more than 500 titles. We organise competitions and events. We employ content marketing strategies.
In many countries, newspaper houses have been running other profit-making ventures like a digital business, e-business, money transfer, group tour, etc to finance the media house. I don’t think these ventures can hamper journalism. If you sell some of your content by honest means and publish it in a way that your readers can distinguish it from other content, I don’t think it compromises journalistic ethics. If you can diversify your source of revenues, it is not necessary to increase your advertisements.
Daily Star: When newspapers are so dependent on advertisements for revenue, how can they ensure that they are not biased towards their wealthy financiers?
Matiur Rahman: As I said, newspapers have always been dependent on advertisements for revenue. However, whether the newspapers will be biased towards its financiers or not will depend on its editorial and operational policy.
Newspapers should run on their own income. They should have a strict policy regarding receiving advertisements. We started working with our mother company Transcom Limited with the condition that our newspaper will run on its own income. Despite various pressures, we were progressing steadily with this motto. But in 2016, nearly 50 big companies stopped giving advertisements in our newspaper. Several of these companies have reserved their embargo on us till now. For the last three years, no mobile company has given any ad in Prothom Alo. At present Prothom Alo receives very few government ads and supplements. On the other side, we never asked for advertisements to some big companies to maintain our ethical stance. In this way, we have enjoyed a sense of freedom and have never been fully dependent on corporate houses.
Daily Star: Under several repressive press laws, do you think newspapers in Bangladesh can publish what they should publish?
Matiur Rahman: Problems related to printing etc. continue to prevail. But facing all these odds, newspapers in Bangladesh are working with courage. But it is an undeniable fact that we cannot write everything, nor can we say all of what we should. We cannot practice free speech and freedom of expression without fear of reprisals. We expected a freer and much more democratic environment as guaranteed by our constitution.
The government has enacted several laws such as the ICT (Amendment) Act, 2013, and the Digital Security Act, 2018 that pose a serious threat to journalism. Several journalists have already been suppressed using these laws. More than 50 cases have been filed against me. Mahfuz Anam, editor of The Daily Star, has been dealing with more than 80 cases filed against him in different parts of the country. These cases are still under trial in court.
Journalists around the world have been facing similar obstacles. In the United States, where freedom of expression has been guaranteed by the first amendment of the constitution, the president is pressuring newspapers such as The Washington Post and The New York Times from the White House. You will find similar incidents in India and many countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America. However, newspapers and journalists are still thriving amidst these threats. This is the beauty of journalism. Working and flourishing in this adverse situation is a good experience too.
Daily Star: Some media houses publish reports sometimes just to build or hold audiences, for instance, to strengthen their presence on social media or even to serve majoritarian politics. What do you think of this trend?
Matiur Rahman: You will always find some media houses that act as the spokesperson of some political parties or corporate houses. But these newspapers can never grow substantially. People can trace their bias and will start to avoid them.
You will also find the alternative stream—media houses for whom there is no alternative to unbiased journalism. We have proved that preserving good, independent journalism can also be a good business. Predisposed journalism can never grow and sustain.
Md Shahnawaz Khan Chandan can be contacted at email@example.com