Compiled by Ayesha Reza Rafiq
Mustafa Kassim hails digital platforms that promote engagement
Digital journalism is a segment of social media that has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years. The connectivity, fluidity and spontaneity of social media platforms facilitate the digital journalism model, enabling connection and discussion at levels that print media cannot offer.
In Sri Lanka, a growing internet audience has fuelled the growth of digital journalism especially in the last two years, says Mustafa Kassim.
He asserts that while print is the strongest contender in the local media, existing media houses are adapting to emerging digital journalism trends to maintain their relevance. A new wave of digital media platforms are also entering the industry, catering primarily to millennials by creating content that is both engaging and shareable.
Attracting audiences to digital journalism platforms is relatively easy as many are already signed into social media and access news, while content is shared by their contacts, the pages they follow or third-party contacts.
Kassim opines that “social media has become an important space for public discourse on what is being published on digital media platforms. Readers are not only going online to access content but also to share content that they can relate to, be aware of what others are thinking and saying, and engage in a larger debate around certain topics of interest.”
Nevertheless, the medium is not without its challenges. Kassim explains that “one of the biggest challenges for digital media companies is advertising prospects. While an online platform can be set up at a minimal cost, it becomes near impossible to grow and deliver better quality content with a restricted budget. This is often the case for most media start-ups.”
“Many advertisers consider traditional media to be a top priority because print and TV reach a wider audience in Sri Lanka. When they spend on online advertising, it is through mediums such as banners that do not generate sufficient revenue,” he observes.
Kassim advocates the content-marketing model that is becoming increasingly significant in digital media spheres. And he stresses: “Discerning online readers often doubt the credibility of media organisations that rely heavily on advertisers. They are unimpressed by ads and other promotional material that clutter news and lifestyle websites.”
“Content marketing is a solution for this [drawback] because it informs or entertains readers rather than merely promoting a product or service,” he declares, adding this could be a viable revenue model for digital media organisations “if they pay attention to the latest trends in content marketing and make it relevant to their platforms. Advertisers need to explore avenues for content marketing and understand the needs of this new audience, to be convinced without being annoyed!”
So journalists need to bring a somewhat different skill set to the table because as Kassim says, most readers today are “looking to stay updated and entertained amid their busy schedules. Research reveals that most readers rarely read beyond a headline especially on social media.”
Given the plethora of competing online sites, the focus must be on content that will hold readers’ attention. While the age-old journalistic maxims such as research, reliable sources, verified facts and well-edited content continue to stand true, readers are increasingly responding to multidimensional personalised content that uses videos, infographics, photographs, social comments and blogs.
“Tools to create and set up blogs, videos and infographics are more accessible than ever before, and they’re inexpensive. Creativity and quality are important because they help you win over readers. But what’s lacking in Sri Lanka is sufficient opportunity for journalists working in digital media to master creativity and quality – either at the university level or through independent courses and workshops,” Kassim laments.
As for potential and reach, he advocates that digital media platforms reach out to Sinhala and Tamil-speaking audiences more actively. As he points out, “they are grossly underserved in the digital media landscape.”
Media start-ups erroneously believe that “their audience is the urban-dwelling, English-speaking reader. They fail to realise that larger numbers exist in the Sinhala and Tamil reader base, both in urban and semi-urban spaces.” The Sinhala and Tamil-language websites and social media channels of Kassim’s venture Roar.lk are a testament to this argument, he avers.
The number of smartphone and mobile broadband users is increasing, and Sri Lanka’s online audience is growing more rapidly than ever before.
And Kassim believes that one of its most compelling features is possibly the role it plays in facilitating a nascent form of participatory democracy, where “constituents can play a more prominent role by engaging with policymakers directly, and writing to and about them – thus opening up an ongoing conversation.”