Changing the media landscape – article about ‘The News on Sunday’ for The News 20th anniversary issue)

Editor with Reporter: Probably discussing what to get for lunch. Photo: Rahat Ali Dar

For The News 20th anniversary supplement, published Feb 22, 2011.

The News on Sunday:  Changing the media landscape

By Beena Sarwar

The News on Sunday was launched in 1994, as The News on Friday, Pakistan’s first weekend newspaper – Friday was then a weekly holiday. In 1997, the name change itself reflected the ideological confusions that abound in Pakistan, where religion is freely used for political purposes, and as an excuse to retain the status quo.

Clearly, religion is conveniently dispensed with if it clashes with, say, financial interests, as when Nawaz Sharif, the country’s businessman-prime minister who was otherwise careful to keep the ‘religious’ lobby happy, reverted to Sunday as Pakistan’s weekly holiday. In doing so, he overturned a move made 20 years earlier by Z.A. Bhutto who had sought to consolidate power by playing the religious card. Nawaz Sharif’s decision was motivated by financial considerations, over-ruling the opposition of the conservatives. It indicated that anything is possible with political will, even reversing a decision taken in the name of religion.

Arif Shamim and Farah Zia in the re-furbished TNS office. Photo: Rahat Ali Dar

And so The News on Friday became The News on Sunday, or TNS. Over the years, TNS has documented and analysed many such issues, emerging as a platform for dissenting voices and for challenging and questioning the status quo.

The launch

When TNF was launched from Lahore, with additional pages published in Karachi and Islamabad, the idea (Imran Aslam’s) was to develop it into an independent weekly publication, along the lines of weekend papers like The Observer or the Independent on Sunday. Due to various reasons (eg pressures of keeping on top of weekly issues, lack of allocated resources, planning, and perhaps ‘political will’) this never happened. Besides, obtaining a separate declaration raised the issues of editorship and responsibility for a paper that was published in three cities simultaneously.

Once it became clear that TNF was not going to be entirely separate, a way had to be found to integrate it into the daily paper while providing the reader with a fresh new product. The solution was ingenious and bold. In order to change the name from The News to The News on Friday without changing the front masthead and thus avoid the requirement of obtaining a separate declaration, our designer, Khalid, placed ‘On Friday’ in a strip of grey just below the approved masthead logo of The News.

In Lahore, where most of the pages were made, our main designer was the talented and extremely patient Hameed (affectionately known as ‘Shastri’), who was close friends with Abdullah, the chief systems operator on whom fell much of the technical burden of transferring pages and pictures.

Changes

It wasn’t just the front masthead – the entire front page and the main newspaper body were also re-designed. The initial changes included larger photographs, bolder headlines, and complete stories that would not be ‘continued on page 5’ – and a two-page Special Report in the main paper (pages 14 and 15), with a 6-column introduction on the front page. The idea of having a limited number of stories on the front page didn’t work in an environment where we soon came under pressure to incorporate as many reports on the front as possible, never mind the continuations.

Eventually, pressures like the newsprint shortage (which led to a reduction of the main newspaper from 16 to 12 pages, as well as page-size from eight to seven columns) combined with an increase in advertisements led to some pages being axed or moved to different weekdays or sections, like TView and the international Flashpoint pages (both now defunct). Under such pressures, the Special Report had to be moved out of the main paper into the Encore section. These pressures also led to the front-page introduction of the Special Report being reduced to four, then two, and eventually to a single-column space on the front page, until the front-page introduction was finally removed altogether.

Many firsts

By then, TNF had introduced many firsts to mainstream journalism in Pakistan. We did this not just by going in-depth into serious political issues, but also by recognizing the significance of ‘fringe’ issues like art, culture and fashion as integral to the country’s socio-political realities. TNF always took these issues seriously, long before they became lucrative businesses — and therefore not to be scoffed at as frivolous pastimes — in their own right in Pakistan. The TNF contents, which were part of the intro, are also now incorporated in an advertisement.

While it lasted, the weekend newspaper presented refreshingly different layouts from the norm – media, design and communication students pulling the old issues out would find the transition interesting.

We put up stiff resistance from the editorial side, but in the end, although the commercial ads and ‘hard news’ dominated over our original concept, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the new paper impacted Pakistan’s media history in a huge way, its pioneering role catalysing a change that was perhaps bound to happen eventually.

The fact that TNF was conceived as an autonomous section with its own budget under its own Editor provided an exhilarating freedom and independence to a committed and enthusiastic young team. It took a lot of coordination to retain this independence, particularly after various cutbacks like the page reductions, and in times of political tension.

There were many other firsts with TNS – in one huge unwieldy broadsheet package, readers could pull out a travel page Footloose (where a regular writer was, and remains, Salman Rashid), or the literature page Literati. Under Shehzad Amjad, the Economy section metamorphosed into Political Economy – another pioneering section which addressed a concept that few in Pakistan had until then been exposed to.

There was a weekly two-page Sports special report under the legendary Gul Hameed Bhatti; special city editions in Lahore (Shehr), Karachi (Kolachi), and Islamabad-Pindi (Metro, now defunct, brought out by Karen Pasha who has since returned to the USA); and a page each of television listings and colour cartoons adding value to the package.

Changing the media landscape

As the dummies of Pakistan’s first ‘sectioned’ weekend publication started rolling out, rival newspapers began to wake up. In fact, many of our initial ideas first reached the public through these other papers, forcing us to re-think and re-design even before launch.

The launch of The News some years earlier had already created enough competition for its major rivals to re-vamp their front pages – the most obvious change being the move from black and white to colour (much to the disgust of conservative readers who likened the change to ‘candy’). The forthcoming launch of TNF shook up the other weekend magazines, and they began bringing out entertainment sections in an attempt to compete with Instep.

Instep

It was in TNF’s Instep section, headed by Fareshteh Gati-Aslam, that Pakistan’s broadsheet fashion pages were published – the very first two-page fashion shoot by the talented duo Ather Shehzad created waves and set the standards that others scrambled to follow. Glamorous and sophisticated fashion shoots until then had been the domain of a few monthly magazines. Our printing wasn’t always great but the impact of these full-size fashion pages was not to be scoffed at.

Fashion and entertainment journalism is a whole different ball game, especially in a society like Pakistan where wildly modern ideas frequently collide with old-world conservatism and moral values. The line between these two strands must be trod so as to keep readers abreast of the former while at the same time not offending the latter. In such an environment, fashion, entertainment and culture can become hugely political.

This was the first time that a mass-circulated broadsheet paper was publishing such fashion and entertainment pages in Pakistan. Being part of a newspaper, it was going into the homes of thousands of subscribers, to be pulled apart by all kinds of people and their families. Its subscriber base made it different from the monthly magazines that had until now been the only ones to print such fashion spreads catering largely to the elite.

The enthusiastic young team (that included Mohsin Sayeed and Reema Abbasi) were often culturally more attuned to the aesthetics of the elite monthly magazines. These pages also went to more conservative areas and readers, not just in Karachi but say, in Peshawar or Bannu, as our senior colleague Rahimullah Yusufzai, who often bore the brunt, was sometimes forced to remind us.

Special Report and more

Instep wasn’t the only section making waves. For the first time topical in-depth Special Reports were presented on a weekly basis – until now, such special reports had been the domain of the elite monthly magazines with their ‘cover stories’. With talented and committed reporters like Nadeem Iqbal, Khalid Hussain, Mazhar Zaidi (and also later Farjad Nabi) TNS presented such reports on a weekly basis, and has been doing so with regularity and passion ever since. Reporters went on special assignments to areas that were off the beaten track and returned with stories and photographs that English-language newspaper readers until now had little access to. Some of these investigative stories got TNS and its reporters into trouble too but on the whole, the attempt to be fair and include all points of view stood the paper in good stead.

Many of the reporters and editors who gained valuable working experience and on-the job-training at TNF or TNS now hold key positions at other organisations. Tom K. Maliti, a Kenyan student in Lahore (now a senior journalist back in Nairobi), was among the launch team, along with Sarwat Ali (our in-house ‘encyclopaedia’), and Alefia T. Hussain. Kamila Hyat, Asha’ar Rehman (now Resident Editor at Dawn, Lahore) and Arif Shamim (now with the BBC in London) joined a little later, and we pulled our journalist friend Farah Zia (the current editor) back from an NGO. The main photographer, Rahat Ali Dar, had the time of his life as we made it a point to publish large photos. Khalid Saleem (‘Butt Sahib’) the copy-paster turned out to be a talented graphic artist, and the page designer Hameed (now in Canada) had room to play. As in most newspaper offices, a key person remains the editor’s PA (in this case MMB, or Mohammad Mobin Bhatti). Some of these talented and committed people remain part of the TNS team, continuing to bring out a quality publication week after week – no easy feat.

Like anything new, the paper has had its detractors. The biggest complaint initially was the bulkiness of the product, and the variety of the sections, which never could be sorted in the right order. Eventually, however, readers got used to it. And even critics would agree that this newspaper has contributed in no small terms to raising and maintaining the standard of journalism in Pakistan, besides shaking up concepts and designs. Long may it last.

—-

Beena Sarwar was the founding editor of The News on Friday (later The News on Sunday). This article draws heavily from a piece she wrote for the tenth anniversary of TNS in 2004. Email: beena.sarwar@janggroup.com.pk

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