For the seventh episode of "Survive and Thrive," our guest is Said Nazir, founder and director of the Tribal News Network. It serves audiences that have very limited media access. Read the episode transcript here.
Welcome to "Survive and Thrive," DW Akademie’s dialogue with media managers on innovative and sustainable business models in a challenging global media landscape. We'll talk motivation, lessons learned, funding models, best practices, recipes for success and decisions – good and bad.
Janelle Dumalaon (host): And we're back with “Survive and Thrive: The Media Viability Podcast”. And as usual, we're talking about how hard it is for outlets to do just that, not just survive but thrive. I’m Janelle Dumalaon.
A materially challenging reporting environment, financing challenges and the project of training the journalists who will take over one day. Media organizations have to become masters at problem-solving to stay viable. As such, there is a need for media producers to learn from each other and ask how we're all adapting to the world we live in.
At this stage, I would like to introduce Said Nazir, director of the Tribal News Network. That's an outlet serving audiences near Pakistan's border with Afghanistan. We're very excited to get into your story, Said.
But first, this quick questionnaire: Your business model in a catch phrase.
Said Nazir: Yeah, so Tribal News Network is an organization, a media outlet that isn’t only relying on one income source but has diversified its sources of income. This is why we are moving ahead.
Dumalaon: We'll get back to that in a second. Did you ever have a moment when everything seemed lost?
Nazir: Yeah, I think in 2017/ 2018 we were heavily dependent on donors and there was shrinking space for them in Pakistan. They were facing restrictions and as a result, international media development organizations were getting out of the country. For us, that meant we were in trouble. It was a very bad moment for our organization. But I think we did manage that. We reduced our staff and came up with a new strategy to diversify our income sources.
And finally, what would you need to thrive in the future?
I think we should train our staff in business models – not only focus on journalism but also on business. We also should diversify our staff and find new ways of increasing our revenue sources.
Now Said, you've alluded to some of the challenges already. Today we're talking about what it means to reach especially rural audiences in an environment that can be kind of restrictive and also, how to build trust with the community while pushing for more openness.
Tell us a bit about Tribal News Network and the region from which you operate.
So, Tribal News Network is the brainchild of me and my partner. We had already been working in tribal areas. There was a quite popular radio station around 2006 to 2009. We both had a background in journalism - we graduated from journalism school. So we went to work at a local radio station and that’s where we saw great feedback from the local community because they were very hungry for local news.
But, unfortunately, other independent radio stations were investing in music and entertainment and not focusing on solving or giving news and information to the people who were hit by conflict and crisis at that time.
So, after seeing the audience’s feedback, we had the idea that we should set up a tribal news network with the aim of providing balanced, independent and relevant local news and information to those radio stations. In 2013, we established it with funding from an international donor.
The idea was to form partnerships with local radio stations to improve their news and information agenda at that time.
The mainstream media in Pakistan were sort of ignoring the problems of the local communities. They were just, like, focused on terrorism and big news like military operations. There was life there in the region, but it was overlooked by the mainstream media.
Coming from the region, having been born and raised in the tribal region, I thought that we should serve those people with the power of independent media.
Thank you very much for that comprehensive look into your outlet. It really does seem that you were able to close both an information gap and an access gap for audiences that might not necessarily have had very easy access to the mainstream media as you were talking about.
What can you tell us about the audience that you serve now?
I think we know our audience very well coming from the region. We have local staff, local journalists, and we even meet our audience virtually and physically from time to time to get their feedback.
We have around 1.3 million followers on Facebook. It’s a big platform for TNN these days. So, engagement is huge, we have millions of views every month and there are thousands of people who engage with our content. And we of course also moderate and get back to the audience with requests or questions.
All this to say that we know our audience and our audience also know us and trusts us.
Our digital platform is growing with viewers and audience. It’s growing because there are very polarized media here in Pakistan. They are taking sides but we at TNN have the mission to promote public interest journalism. We don’t take any sides. We try to be neutral in each and every story, and we’re honest with our audience if we do make a mistake on digital and social media.
And by now, whatever we share people trust. We’ve established TNN as a brand to trust, a sign of credibility.
I was wondering if you could give us a picture of the people who do follow your coverage, who are we meant to imagine as your typical audience member?
Members of a tribal community. Our target is to reach out to them, give them information and a platform. Eighty percent of people who follow us on social media are under 35. They most likely are jobless youth, university students, or women sitting at home. They’re reaching out to TNN because we are very relevant to them – and because we use their local language, Pashto, that isn’t usually used by Pakistani media.
So, this is the population we target. Also, compared to other media in Pakistan, we have increased the diversity at TNN. In those populations in the region, women are usually discouraged to take on a public role like becoming a journalist. But during the last four or five years we have worked hard to increase our number of female reporters. And this is why we also have greater access especially to women among our audience.
Still, it’s very difficult for women journalists to talk to women in the rural areas.
But we have more than 30 women journalists and female citizen reporters working with us and they cover a lot of issues related to women – and also to men.
So, in short, our target audience is young people under the age of 35, about 18 to 35. It includes women, it includes other marginalized groups like Afghan refugees or transgender people.
One more important thing about TNN is that we like to take risks and the initiative. We are the first media house in Pakistan that has hired a transgender person as a weekly program host.
That is very difficult in a conservative and very religious society like ours.
So, you've focused on youth, you focused on women. You also said earlier that it's quite hard to reach out to women in the community. You run into a lot of sensitive issues.
You've mentioned the conservatism, the religiousness of the communities. Perhaps you can describe to us this environment and how it affects both your audience as the people that you're reporting on and your coverage of the issues.
Well, when it comes to sensitive topics, we are criticized, but there are also people who come to our defense. I mentioned that we’re committed to balance and professionalism and not taking sides – but in a society like this, you have to take certain risks even while being professional.
With the passage of time, we have proved that people have changed their minds and they have changed their approaches. Having a transgender host was not acceptable for many people in the beginning. There was a lot of criticism and prejudice. Transgender people are very much disrespected – people think they are sex workers, beggars, professional dancers just dancing for money in the streets.
When we introduced Subiah Khan as a host I was even criticized at home by my sister and my wife. They asked me: Why do you engage a person that will lend a bad reputation to you? But I said no, she’s a human being like all of us. We must work towards respecting people’s humanity and acknowledging their equal right to speak and host a program on TNN.
And in the beginning, 90% of comments were against her and criticizing TNN. But now, after four or five years, around 5% of comments are negative and 95% are positive. That proves that we can change things. We have learned that we can turn things around.
I'm very glad to hear that. The level of acceptance has risen with your efforts as well, but I was wondering how you manage these risks. Earlier you were talking about your reporter that received threats because your reporter was reporting on religious sensitivities that eventually tipped into violence. A murder occurred when people were offended religiously.
How do you manage the risks for your journalists? That transgender colleague as well – how do you protect them?
Yeah, the reporter who was threatened online went into hiding for a few days after the story. We do train our reporters from time to time on security and how they can protect themselves digitally, physically and emotionally.
But also, we did get an acceptance for what he described in the story. We went to religious leaders and they said he was accused [of blasphemy]. And people from the authority that follow the religious leaders thought the same. But there was no proof, there was no court judgement and it was a mob. And we told that story.
With our transgender colleague, we gave her a decent job and she did very well. Transgender people are infamous in Pakistan for begging and sex work. But the program she did on social issues touched people’s hearts. So then there was a human connection and you could see that by talking about social issues in society – a noble task – people started loving her. She got popular and people maybe even set aside the prejudice they had against transgender people.
She proved that she is serving society, and she is doing a great job.
And for security, we of course train all our journalists, regardless of their identity, from time to time.
We are after all living in a very dangerous zone. We have to be careful about our security.
I can imagine that protecting your journalists takes up a lot of resources. And earlier you said that you managed to move away from being completely dependent on donors to getting about half of your financing from other sources.
Can you tell us a little bit about how you did that?
Sure. From 2013 to 2017/2018, we focused mostly on radio. And we were 95 to 100% dependent on donors. And as I mentioned earlier, in 2017/2018, donors where exiting Pakistan and we were forced to think about TNN’s future. My co-founder and I then worked on a business development plan together with an expert. We identified areas in which we could diversify our income sources.
The first thing we asked ourselves was: How can we achieve online monetization? So, we trained our staff in producing quality content which sells on digital platforms like Facebook, YouTube and others. That went well and we started earning money from these platforms.
The second thing we did was service contracts. We started applying for service contracts to earn money from them that we could use for our news operation. This of course wasn’t a new idea but the key for us was to keep a balance: We knew that we needed different staff to manage this revenue stream so that there wouldn’t be any influence on the editorial agenda.
What do you mean by service contracts?
You provide services to people, for example by producing a documentary for a company, providing training, and running media campaigns.
And that money – unlike grants – isn't earmarked for a specific purpose. Also, from grants you’re usually not allowed to make any profit.
And the third thing we did was to establish a popular radio station in a partnership. So, some money comes from the station and we give them content because that’s what we already produce. We have one to two staff members for it and contribute a lot of content to the radio station and it's in partnership with a local company.
Revenue stream four is that we started providing training. TNN is not only a news media organization, but also a training institute for most of the media houses in Pakistan. International organizations pay us to train people on different topics like constructive journalism, revenue generation, fact checking, mobile journalism, digital storytelling, crisis reporting etcetera.
And the fifth is partnerships with international news organizations which want to distribute news from and to the Middle East and other areas.
This is how we diversified and went from being 100% dependent on donors for our news operation to now a 45% dependency. We manage to generate more than half of our money ourselves.
With this strategy we also try to touch on every segment of society, not just the elite or not just the powerful people in the community. We target women, Afghan refugees, people that have very little access to media – essentially marginalized groups in the region.
This also helped us because we started training citizen journalists from different communities, like Afghan refugees. We do this with donor support: We, for example, trained women journalists with the support of Thompson Media and Free Press Unlimited.
And this citizen journalism approach means getting user-generated content. They’re not our staff, they don’t cost us money but they deliver very unique content. We, of course, still have to take care of editorial independence, and the authenticity of the content.
You mentioned that women were a key focus of your media development efforts. Why is it important for you to promote women in this field, and how do you do it?
I think women are the most ignored population here. All the decisions are made by men, whether political or economic. But as a media outlet, I think we should be inclusive. Around 50% of the population is women. And the media in Pakistan pay little attention to them in their content and programs, and as sources of information. Women are a silent audience – no one asks them.
When we started focusing on women, we did some research on what their information needs are and their favorite platforms to get information from. We then designed a training and focused on these things. In the beginning, 5% of our sources and the stories would be women. Now, we’re at 50%. The same for contributors: We went from 10% women to more than 40%.
I think with this approach, we attracted some donors, companies and advertisement because we have unique access to the female population. Reaching out to marginalized groups has helped our sustainability.
You've managed to reach women and Afghan refugees. You've also managed to engage them as citizen journalists. I wonder what sort of impact that has had on these communities in terms of women and Afghan refugees.
One impact we’re seeing is that we increased our following in the Afghan population. The other thing is that they’re now not only engaged with TNN – for example, as citizen reporters – but also with other media which is something that didn't happen before in Pakistan. There was no single Afghan journalist working for Pakistani media.
So, we helped increase their participation in Pakistani media overall. They now can express themselves, participate in the larger dialogue and be visible with their stories – stories that we, by the way, see a lot of engagement with.
In the case of women, we see that while in the beginning many were reluctant to join journalism, we now see more and more coming to TNN and wanting to join and learn new things. And again, with an increasing number of women reporters at TNN, we also increased the share of women among our followers in Pakistan.
We see in our social media statistics and metrics that their number is increasing and also that more and more comments come from women. This isn’t the case with many other news organizations in Pakistan. We are making TNN a comfortable place for everyone, where they can participate in dialogue and discussions and also contribute.
One more thing that’s different from other media in Pakistan is our use of user-generated content. In many other media houses, there are just a few reporters and they do everything. And they focus on men.
You've described a lot of the challenges that you've experienced at TNN. What would you do differently today?
I think I would promote women leadership in the organization. Also, I’d hire people with unique skills that can bring video to the organization. These are a few things that I would like to do.
It's clear that your outlet TNN has really experienced quite a profound journey, and because this is a media viability podcast and it is about how other media could learn, and what other media could learn from you. We have to go in a minute, but before we do, we would like you to name three best practice tips that you would like to communicate to our media colleagues around the world.
I would say: Build the capacity of your staff, not only in journalism but also in business because both the managers and the editors in your organization should know the business side of things. Otherwise, it’s difficult to make it sustainable.
Secondly, build partnerships and collaborate with other media houses as much as possible for your mutual benefits and to benefit the audience.
And my third tip is that you should be open to learning new things and be comfortable to adopt new technology, as it might make your work easier and sometimes cheaper. Nowadays, we have things like artificial intelligence that – although it certainly has side effects to it – could help reduce the workload and manage your organization without compromising your editorial agenda and journalism ethics. Technology tends to make things easier and we should be aware of it and train in it.
Let's see if I've got this: Build capacity, not just in journalism but in business. Build partnerships. And be open to learning and possibilities like those presented by tech without compromising editorial ethics. Thank you very much for those best practice tips.
Said Nazir, we’ll have to leave it there. Thank you so much for all your insight today and telling us about Tribal News Network. And thank you, dear listeners. We appreciate you joining us today.
This transcript of episode seven of "Survive and Thrive: The Media Viability Podcast" has been lightly edited for clarity.
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This podcast is produced by DW Akademie and is supported by the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ).
Said Nazir is currently participating in DW Akademie's Media Viability Ambassadors project.