Pakistan newspapers suffer as political campaigns move to social media

By Izhar Ullah  |  July 23, 2015 at 2:47 PM
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PESHAWAR, Pakistan, July 23 (News Lens Pakistan) -- The decision of candidates in recent local elections on Pakistan's northwest frontier to run their campaigns via social media has greatly harmed newspaper revenues, newspaper marketing officials and observers say.

In the run-up to the May 30 vote in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, candidates in villages and towns flooded social media with campaign messages. Supporters shared political banners, pictures and promises on Facebook to seek support for candidates running for seats on villages, tehsil (sub-district), town and district councils.

While free campaigning on Facebook and other social media platforms allowed candidates to avoid the costs and confines of conventional media and electioneering, professionals dealing in newspaper distribution and sales say the trend has dampened their circulation and commercial prospects.

Abdur Rauf Yousafzai, sales and distribution manager of the Express Media Group for Khbyer Pakhtunkhwa, said newspaper profits were being squeezed.

"Our newspaper revenue has dropped by 60 to 65 percent, compared to the national elections in 2013, despite the fact that the number of candidates in these recent local elections was much higher," Yousafzai told News Lens.

The Pakistan Advertisers' Society has said Pakistan has 13 million Facebook users, 72 percent of whom are male, with most of those men age 18 to 34. Of the 13 million users, 3 million are from Pakistan's commercial hub, Karachi. Second is Lahore, the country's second-largest city, with 2.6 million users, and Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, is third with 1.9 million users. Khyber Pakhtunwa's provincial capital, Peshawar, has half a million users.

More than 93,000 candidates contested 43,954 slots in local government polls across the province, according to the Election Commission of Pakistan.

Another concern for newspapers is the drop in circulation.

Yousafzai said that before social media, newspaper circulation figures increased annually. With the growth of social media, though, circulation has plummeted.

He said that candidates publishing newspaper ads buy extra copies – usually around 500 copies – of that day's issue, for their supporters.

He cited two main reasons for the jump in use of social media for political campaigns before the May 30 local government polls.

"Firstly, a large number of contestants for LG polls come from the middle and poor classes of society, and they can't afford to spend millions of rupees on newspapers ads," Yousafzai said.

"Secondly, the local elections to village councils are held on a non-party basis. The candidates are not supported financially by political parties, so they've opted for social media as a cost-free medium for their political campaigns," he said.

"Candidates interacting with supporters and political parties through social media have millions of followers on their pages compared to those who don't," Yousafzai said, adding, "It is free, so why would they want to spend millions on newspapers advertisements?"

Rahimullah Khan, 40, who won election to the Peshawar City Council, has been using Facebook to communicate with his supporters since long before the recent elections.

He uses his smartphone for hours at a time to directly reach supporters on Facebook, responding personally to their questions and comments.

"I haven't spent a penny on political advertising in newspapers. I get instant satisfaction whenever a user comments on my page saying, 'I'll vote for you.' This kind of interaction cannot happen through traditional media," Khan told News Lens.

He described live Facebook chats with his supporters as giving him "an edge over my rivals."

Advertising sales staff at some newspapers say they have witnessed loss in revenues.

"Our newspapers have seen a revenue loss of roughly 50 percent due to the decline in political advertisements since the 2013 nationwide polls," Shahid Khan, advertising manager at Naibaat media group, which owns a national Urdu-language newspaper and the Neo TV channel, told News Lens.

Javed Aziz Khan, a Peshawar-based journalist who closely monitored the campaign on social media, says its use as a campaign tool is largely restricted to educated candidates and supporters in urban areas.

"It is not being used all that much in rural areas, as the population there has little access to Internet," Khan told News Lens.

While Khan believes political campaigns on social media have an edge when it comes to promoting candidates in local government elections, old-fashioned campaign methods such as rallies and posters remain relevant.

"Social media could have a huge impact on election prospects of a candidate, but posters and rallies cannot be discounted yet," Khan said.

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