On the 10th anniversary issue of ICE Business Times, Tawhidur Rashid sits in conversation with esteemed editor Matiur Rahman to know more about his career path from a humble beginning to the acme of print media.
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?
When I am talking to you, we are preparing to mark 21st anniversary of Prothom Alo on 4 November this year. This has been an amazing journey. I never really thought about success or being successful. There was a constant fear that worked in me. I tirelessly did what I had to do. I had lost 8 kilos from the stress; my blood sugar was high accompanied by other problems, even before publishing the very first issue. The anxiety weighed heavily on me and marred my social encounters and I could not laugh freely at that time. 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 success or people will love it so much and it will create such an noteworthy impact.
I started my professional career in journalism in June of 1970, when I was appointed the Acting Editor and later as the Editor of Weekly Ekota (till mid-1991) – the mouthpiece of Communist Party of Bangladesh (CPB). Traveling 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 regime. I was involved in almost all activities related to the movement, be it writing or distributing leaflets, having posters printed, or being present at the processions. However, I was always at the last row of the processions. I never partook in slogans or giving speeches on any political stage. I spent over 3 decades in politics without delivering any public speech.
I have always been enthusiastic about sports, ever since I was a school student. I had a keen interest in all aspects of sports and athletics. I used to play cricket myself. My interests and activities were quite varied; I had an interest in sports, cultural activities, as well as politics and I, would also write a little and was also involved in producing publications for seven years and published two special booklets from Sangskrity Sangsad (1968 and 1969) especially the 21st February booklet. Those were signature publications by the then East Pakistan Students Union (EPSU) on the eve of the Language Day. So even before my formal introduction to journalism in 1970, I was already immersed in numerous aspects of it. From 1970 to 1991, I was directly involved in politics. I was a central leader of the then EPSU and later worked for CPB as a central leader for nearly 20 years.
In 1992, I became the Editor of the daily Bhorer Kagoj (February 1992 – August 1998) and on November 4, 1998, the first issue of Prothom Alo was published. As I mentioned, it was enshrouded in uncertainty, I had no idea what would come out of it. 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, doing business 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 more than one hundred thousand copies on our very first day. The circulation increased gradually over time. Today, all together in print (6.6 million) and online (1 million), Prothom Alo is read by 7.6 million readers every day. It is a great learning experience.
Amidst all the uncertainty, one thing we had as a beacon: We had to make Prothom Alo the number one newspaper with financial viability. It will not stand the test of time if it was dependent on any single person, organization or political party or on the government. These would not be the right thing to do and it will help us to get acceptance from people. Our founding principle was that Prothom Alo would have to be independent, unbiased and financially viable.
In three and a half years, we reached the break-even, which is possibly a unique case for a newspaper in Bangladesh. After that, we continued our effort to make it self-reliant. However, I must mention the rich history of print media in our country. During the ’50s and ’60s, we had Dainik Ittefaq, Dainik Sangbad, Bangladesh Observer, and later quite a few other respected newspapers in circulation. Our newspapers have played a crucial role in promoting changes in society and the national interest. The inception of Prothom Alo was simply a natural progression in that journey. What we are today is a joining of many streams in time and space.
We were very fortunate to have Media Star Limited as the parent company, headed by a person as remarkable as Mr. Latifur Rahman, our Chairman and Managing Director of Media Star Ltd. They had the vision and courage to grant us full freedom in our journalistic operations and business, which is one of the underlying reasons behind our success.
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.
We must not forget that we have had financially successful newspapers in Bangladesh. The Dainik Ittefaq, Dainik Bangla was profitable throughout 1960 to 90s. Bangladesh The observer was the same from 1960 to 80s. Currently, we have a few others which are also self-reliant.
We did not have any specific business model, nor did I have any training in journalism and publication. I had never taken any courses in business studies. The only business exposure I had was at a seminar in 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. Everything else I learned was due to my effort to learn.
For a newspaper to be economically successful, its circulation needs to increase. This, 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. To be precise, 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 began to get clear as I spoke to different stakeholders including advertisers, distributors and sellers and of course readers in general. That knowledge aided in the growth of Prothom Alo.
What would you consider to be the biggest obstacle in your journey and how did you overcome it?
There isn’t a country in the world where journalism doesn’t face obstacles and our country is no different. I remember Weekly Ekota came to a closure in 1975. It resumed publication again in 1979 but was shut down by the Ershad regime for 2 years from 1986. In 1993, BNP prohibited all government advertisements for Bhorer Kagoj. We took to the streets and held processions and finally, the government lifted the embargo. Prothom Alo faced the same fate in 2000 during the AL government and again in 2002 when the BNP came back to power. Therefore, we have faced many such difficulties over the years. Even now, there are many ongoing cases against me and my colleagues for which we have to make court appearances. We are often intimidated and we have to go on amidst the uncertainty. Sometimes large and multinational organizations are barred from placing their advertisements with us. These are the challenges that I face regularly but we have to take that as part 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 professionals. At the end of the day media in Bangladesh, be it print or television, 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 and readers in general and listened to what they had to say.
Ever since I was a student I was somehow associated with Dainik Sangbad. From 1988 to 1991, I wrote reports and columns regularly for Dainik Sangbad and some other weekly newspapers. In comparison, I had no business experience, which I had to learn myself except for the 2-day seminar I mentioned earlier. After 2010 we participated in quite a few seminars and conferences in India where we garnered knowledge from many renowned journalists and newspaper professionals. From all these and subsequent internal discussions, we penned down the business policies for Prothom Alo. We picked up this simple philosophy that, diversification can help a newspaper to survive with sustainability. The digital platform is one more example of an important source of sustainability. Perhaps digitalization is the way forward. The print media is embracing new challenges and increased online presence might be the solution.
And perhaps we are slightly ahead of some of our colleagues in this respect. Our parent company Media Star Ltd. brings out two more monthly magazines titled Kishor Alo for adolescents and youths and Biggan Chinta for young science enthusiast. Besides, it also publishes Protichinta, a quarterly journal. Another enterprise is Prothoma Publications which has published around 500 titles. We also arrange big events in partnership with like-minded national and multinational organizations. These initiatives have helped us to remain sustainable and relevant to the same.
The prothomalo.com is the most visited Bangla online portal in the world. Besides, we have an English portal en.prothomalo.com for our English readers. We have more than 14 million followers in Facebook, 1.4 million followers on Twitter and 1.3 million subscribers on Youtube and in some other social media. This indicates our strong foothold on the web. We always need to be on the lookout for alternative and innovative avenues and capitalize these web presences.
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?
I disagree with the term ‘dying’. As I said earlier, the newspaper industry is embracing new challenges. publishers, editors, and journalists from all over the world, including us, are trying to introduce new content to keep it relevant. And to keep people wanting more, we need to improve the standard of the contents – reporting, feature, columns and writing style. We have to keep our readers engaged by keeping us contemporary. Only giving the news to the reader is not enough, we must also provide commentaries and analyses. We are making the 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 relevant in the changing scenario by remaining self-reliant. Finally, the media will remain relevant because ‘Print is Proof’.
At the same time, a growing digital platform is undeniable and has opened up a world of immense possibilities. In Bangladesh, 65-70% of the news is read through mobile phones as it is the fastest and most preferred medium for people. Therefore, stakeholders in this sector have to keep an eye on the changing landscape. Keeping this in mind, we are emphasizing 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 positive future of journalism. Journalism will remain beyond the medium, be it in print, online or whatever form. That is why we have to invest in journalism.
A new buzz word seems to have been created, which is ‘content’. How would you define content? What are the features of good content?
Currently, every segment of journalism be it news, column, commentary or interview is the 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.
We are seeing that more and more news organizations are going behind a paywall, how do you, as a journalist and reader view this shift in paradigm?
A simple fact is that one has to pay for content i.e. 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.
Most of the news media organizations, the newspapers, in particular, are shifting to the subscription-based model behind a paywall. Though some contents still remain free for a wider or detail access to content, a reader must pay. Prominent global newspapers like the New York Times during its time of financial hardship managed to refinance but initiated paid digital subscription model which is now largely contributing to their income. Washington Post has done the same. Both have made diversification not only in the content but also in the business model and have opened up new business avenues.
News organizations in Bangladesh have to follow the same to survive in the long run. We have to create new contents in audio and video format. 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. We also started selling books through online prothoma.com.
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?
It is going to be extremely difficult and I am skeptical 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. In this backdrop, a lot depends on how we, the 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 Indian newspapers, 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 always do ethical journalism; we take every measure not to publish any wrong or misleading 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.
You have met a lot of great individuals throughout your life, please tell us about the one you fondly remember.
In the 60s, as I was involved in student politics, cultural activities and cricket, I had the chance to meet many political leaders and 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 the present Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and as well as the former Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia. 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. Besides, Indian Prime Minister I K Gujral, Former Chief Minister of West Bengal Jyoti Basu, Nobel Laureate Economist Amartya Sen, Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, Cricketer Nawab of Pataudi Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi; Actress and Director Nandita Das, Human Rights activist Asma Jahangir, actress Kabori Sarwar, Singer Runa Laila are just a few names I have had the honor of meeting and interviewing.
I have had indeed a good fortune of meeting many renowned people but there is one singular meeting that holds a special place in my heart. Of course, you remember Shaheed Noor Hossain who was shot and killed on November 10, 1987, while protesting against Ershad Regime. 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)’. On a day in late December, I was on my way from my Bangshal office to Monipuripara (near the parliament house) to visit artist Quamrul Hassan where he used to live. I went there to drop off some books and a gift to him. I took the same auto-rickshaw back home. When we were crossing Hotel Sonargaon intersection, the driver turned to me and asked, “Sir, are you a journalist?” I got surprised and wanted to know how he anticipated about who I was! Upon inquiring, he identified himself as Shaheed Noor Hossain’s father – Mojibur Rahman. It was as if I felt a jolt. Noor Hossain was just killed very recently and everyone knew him and his legacy. This was a great influencing encounter. When he dropped me off at my Larmini Street home, I invited him to my house for some snacks and had a conversation with him. It was the start of a memorable relationship which lasted as long as he lived. We became family friends and regularly visited each other’s places on various social occasions. I 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. That incidental meeting and the exchange of experiences and emotions taught me a great deal in my life. This meeting has etched its mark on my life. Later Poet Shamsur Rahman and I co-authored one book on his life which includes three poems by the Poet and articles by me.
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?
My life revolves around Prothom Alo. I’m with it wherever I am, whether I’m at home or on the move or I’m actually in office or not. Prothom Alo has evolved into a large organization. If you break down the content in terms of different categories, it is a lot of material I have to comb through. Every day we publish 20/24 pages main newspaper along with an 8-16 pages supplement which includes feature articles of different subjects. There are a lot of preparations behind this news and features that require a lot of planning and editing.
You asked about 30 minutes but if I were to just read through morning newspapers while sipping my morning tea, 60 minutes would pass easily. Most of the time, I take some of the writing assignment back home. So, it takes an hour in the morning to prepare 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 though all this, I take the time to read up on some good articles or essays or listen to songs because it is also important to satiate one’s heart and mind.
Do you have any message for journalists and readers?
Being a professional in the newspaper, I pretty much ‘eat, breathe and sleep’ with the news and newspaper. But, as an individual, I have things I like to do outside of this world. Besides reading books and journals, I like listening to songs, watching cinemas and study paintings which inspires me and helps me to keep going. Anyone is, of course, free to choose and accept whichever suits him/her. But I will make a request – amidst all and everything, we should hope and work towards a building better Bangladesh which will become a properly democratic and law-abiding nation. My request to my readers and to my friends would be – this is our country and so we should all do our very best to make this a developed, humane and democratic nation. It’s my sincere request that we give our all for the betterment of the country. We want Bangladesh to progress, not only in cricket but also in other aspects too.
What is the best the advice you ever got?
In every person’s life, the mother plays a crucial and pivotal role. So does the father. But for some reason, thought of our mother springs more readily to mind. There are many things I have learned from her. But if I am to speak of someone whom I hold in high esteem and who have 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 a great intellectual. I learned a lot from him and I think of something about him daily. If I were to pinpoint one lesson from him I always keep with me and follow, is, to be humble, polite and to listen to people. Having said that, I want to go back to the ideology of this great man and say that, to be humble, helpful and polite is ideal.