The story of bdnews24.com, a work in progress

rifaat newaz
Published : 30 Oct 2016, 07:00 PM
Updated : 30 Oct 2016, 07:00 PM

[Text of the 10th anniversary speech by Editor-in-Chief]

Thank you for coming.

It's been 10 years!

It's been 10 fantastic years since we began!

It's been over 10 tough years since we took over a soon-to-die company that was selling content as a news agency to a very few clients – mostly local newspapers and television channels in Bangladesh.

In the middle of 2006, we signed on the dotted lines to take responsibility for the members of staff in Dhaka, the number of whom I later found to be 86 and dozens of stringers outside Dhaka; none of them had been paid for some time. The argument from the employee-promoters was: save the jobs and the name. That's exactly the point those who initially came to me seeking to salvage the sinking news outfit, then branded as BDNEWS, tried to make. Of course they had gone to other potential rescuers, including some of the wealthy, politically-powerful media owners at the time.

We tried to save the jobs … but we did not save the name. We rebranded it.

We had a new Editorial Guideline in place. Most important of all, a new, no-nonsense, inviolable Editorial Process was established, with clearly drawn lines of responsibility.

Many of my colleagues who had been running the show prior to the takeover did not like the way we wanted to run it; they did not like being accountable to a proper process, so we decided to part company. That entailed some cost – a cost we had not anticipated.

I still remember the key dates to the eventual launch of Bangladesh's, arguably the world's, first 24/7 Internet-only news publisher with a newsgathering operation dedicated solely for the purpose.

Timeline:
June 2006 – Changes in the boardroom of Bangladesh News 24 Hours Ltd, the owning company of a soon-to-die news agency (BDNEWS) with a few clients in the print/electronic media

01 September 2006 – Formal announcement of takeover by a new management and a new editorial team; new logo unveiled; rebranded as bdnews24.com; Bangladesh's first truly dotcom company is born

12:01am, 23 October 2006 – 24/7 content made available to anyone, free of cost; Bangladesh's (or the world's?) first Internet newspaper and the nation's first 24/7 news-publisher takes off.

The anecdote about how the first-of-its-kind news venture came into being has been told time and again. This time, my colleagues have a different way to tell the story, again.

The story:
22 October 2006 evening
A five-day Eid holiday was to begin the following day. For five days, there would be no newspapers in Bangladesh. But the bdnews24.com newsroom would be up and running, to serve a tiny number of media clients, including the television channels focused solely on revenue-earning entertainment shows.

A traffic mess on my way back from Gulshan to our office in Dhanmondi got me stuck in front of the Prime Minister's Office. I picked up the phone, called a few people to book advert space on the front pages of leading newspapers. The message: We will be there with 24/7 updates while Bangladesh's news publishers will go for a five-day break.

Five newspapers carried the advert.

On the evening of 29 October, a colleague came up to me and showed me the most referred-to ranking site at the time which put bdnews24.com above any other website in Bangladesh.

bdnews24.com has never lost the NUMBER ONE slot since, according to server companies and of course Google Analytics. And we have never closed the site to the public. The service continues, without any break, for free!

A lot has happened in the 10 years as we tried to deliver news as it happens. A lot has changed in the 10 years. My son, when we took over, was 10 years old, barely taking any interest in anything called NEWS. Today, as he turns 21 this December, he tries to lecture me on Bangladesh's rural economy, talks about the state of affairs in American politics and discusses the challenges facing the British Labour Party.

The 14-year-old school girl I met at a social event then is today a 24-year-old confident corporate executive, pitching for multi-million dollar deals.

In June 2006, the former deputy leader of the 1971 Bengal Liberation Force would be celebrating his 60th birthday in a few months time. Next month, on the 12th to be precise, our young minister for information will be turning 70!

So time does fly. But not memories. The milestones. The statistics.

The numbers have grown, phenomenally, thanks mostly to technology. Our audiences have changed, and not just in size. The phones now are bigger, faster, cheaper and amazing multi-taskers. More people browse bdnews24.com than ever before on mobile phones or tablets or phablets. And the number is growing, literally, by the day. Google Analytics, relying on something that crawls the entire world wide web every 15 minutes, surprises me. The data and demographics, the audience profile, their choices and preferences are mind boggling.

Serving a new generation, a new kind of audience with its changing taste and temperament, is quite a task. And, for all these 10 turbulent years, we've loved that challenge.

We have had to innovate. Five years ago, we marked our birthday as 24/7 Internet publisher highlighting this aspect of our operation. We continued to do things differently. Let's look at the list of firsts, national and global, that we claim credit for.

Coming up with all these firsts has been a constant source of satisfaction and motivation.
But it has often been a cause for pain. Ours, unfortunately, is a country where copying is no crime.

Many years ago, a manufacturer, when I challenged him about a certain product of his company, told me that you could even get BSTI to certify a man as a woman if you wanted. I am not sure how much the situation has changed now.

An act of plagiarism is rarely punished in Bangladesh. We hear of teachers being appointed to top (our top) universities ignoring specific charges of plagiarism.

Copyright has no meaning to many people; violation is not considered too much of an issue!
Once I confronted the editor of a major newspaper, and asked him: 'Why do you copy-paste so many of our stories which my colleagues take great pains to produce?' He asked me, 'How many?' I said, 'Nine to 10 every day at least, according to my monitors'. 'No no, I don't think that many … maybe fewer.'

So he admitted, and maybe thought it was one of his fundamental rights.

Another editor, when served with a notice for publishing, without permission, content of a major international news agency for which we had the distribution rights in Bangladesh responded: "It's all available on the Internet!"

I told my colleagues who were dealing with the notice: 'Go tell him that Ramna Park is an open space, is big enough to build a palatial house … ask him to build one for himself.'

So I have been angry at times, helpless in most cases, because stealing our content to such an extent has meant a huge loss of revenue for us, and a lot of hardship as a result.

Then there is this issue of similar sounding news websites – ukbdnews, mybdnews24, realbdnews all sorts of news24s. Twitter has two accounts – bdnews and bdnews24 – both occupied by rogue political elements posting anything and everything opposed to our editorial standards and values. Our own handle @bdnews24com is losing out in this battle for numbers. I have simply failed to make people in very important positions understand that branding is of some value, that it takes quite a bit of investment of many kinds to create or develop.

But it is also a matter of satisfaction that we have been good enough to be copied by so many; there are so many sites today that have just followed in our footsteps.

Online newspaper, the phrase itself, was invented in the newsroom of bdnews24.com, some people may recall.

But we do not accept copyright infringement any more.

A major English newspaper's online edition even copied this notice of ours: Any unauthorised use or reproduction of bdnews24.com content for commercial purposes is strictly prohibited and constitutes copyright infringement liable to legal action.

I say this with some confidence because an English lawyer who is a personal friend of mine drafted this for me – for free of course!, based on a draft provided by colleagues.

At some point, we decided enough was enough, and started preparing for legal battle.

Just a glimpse of the examples that my angry, frustrated colleagues have put together.

In fact, we need efficient state institutions to create a facilitating environment for market players of all kinds, including the media. Rarely do I agree with anything the World Bank tries to tell us, apart from the very obvious. But here in this instance, I completely agree with the Chief Economist of the World Bank when he referred to "the familiar story" that "to sustain growth, an economy needs less government" … "but in Bangladesh … the real problem is [there is] too little of the type of government that the market needs" to keep performing better. I am sure what he meant broadly by that was, countries like ours needed more mature or more sophisticated regulatory regimes.

And, in my humble opinion, we need a more developed system for dispensation of justice, which is more aware of, and far more sensitive to, such crucial issues.

In fact, I have said on many occasions much of what I wanted to say or am trying to say today.

I know many of you complain about the quality of media professionals in Bangladesh. I am probably one of those few who publicly accept that criticism. And I accept we are no exception when it comes to poor quality in some cases when it is about form. Content is a different matter altogether.

When it comes to authenticity, there is no compromise. We continue to invest a lot in our editorial gatekeeping, in ensuring the quality of information, in making sure the ethical standards of journalism are maintained.

When we talk about fairness and balance, we mean it. When we preach credible source is of paramount importance, we practise it.

When we promise we will not link content to advertisement, we deliver on it. Our disgruntled advertisers will vouch for that.

The only problem is: we end up paying a heavy price in terms of lost revenue.

Our investments in the quality of our journalism have paid off. Our intrusion in the no-go areas in Bangladesh's establishment has given us the satisfaction that we have tried to do our job.

Our crusade against conflict of interest has cost us friends. Our stories have highlighted human rights violations and extra-judicial killings, consumer rights, environment and nature conservation.

One of the key no-go areas in Bangladesh is the media itself. We congratulate ourselves on our work on that front.

Neglected public health issues such as disability, autism and mental health have been very high on our list of priorities.

We take pride in the fact we are pioneers in child journalism. Our hello.bdnews24.com is an achievement the UN's children agency is also proud of.

But video journalism by these children is a global first. Again, Unicef is a pioneering partner.

While these are the humble CSR efforts of a poor company, our sport sites often fail to find a competitor in Bangladesh, thanks to a wonderful bunch of professionals. I am proud to have them as my colleagues.

We have advocated a uniform regulation for news providers regardless of medium. Ownership and licensing are two weak elements in our media landscape. We have sought to redefine the role of the media in setting political agenda. It's been quite difficult to convince many of our media colleagues that activism and journalism are different.

One thing we must make clear. We are not activists and so I do not say some of that familiar stuff on media freedom. In my view, as far as I am concerned, the media is relatively free in Bangladesh. Here the definition of media freedom is important. Whose freedom?

I do get phone calls. My colleagues get many more. It is natural that the PR executives, government or corporate, will try to do their jobs. And there are other elements that do intervene. Let them do it. Nothing is perfect in this country. We haven't yet learnt how to manage our traffic. My point is: we as journalists have to do ours. We need to learn, and equip ourselves, so we know how to deal with those "other elements" in the state.

Why can't we do it? The answer is very simple. The ownership. I have said this everywhere, here in this country and anywhere else in the world wherever and whenever there's a discussion on media freedom.

I repeat, the problem is ownership. It's the kind of people that own media outlets in this country that puts up all the barriers to free media.

And the blame has to be put squarely at the door of the politicians in this country. Some of the top politicians are sitting here right in front of me. They are my guests tonight … but we must remind them of their responsibility. We are accountable to our readers, viewers and listeners. Politicians are answerable to the people. And we represent the people when we exercise our freedom as media professionals. After all, freedom of the press or media belongs to the people.

Don't get me wrong when I blame the politicians for all the problems. They are our leaders, but they must be accountable to us when we raise questions on behalf of the people. Our unequivocal support for the political process is well known. Let me quote myself from a statement I made three years ago exactly here on his stage:

"Playing politics is not the media's business. We do not support any media entity getting engaged in changing regimes. We do cover politics, analyse or comment on political developments but getting involved directly should not be in our scheme of things.

"When people talk about a 'third force' – we would like to believe they are talking about a third political force. We have never supported a third force outside the political process. It is the responsibility of the politicians to protect the process. And the media must be in a position to support that. Because we have a stake. A free and functioning media cannot sustain without a proper political process."

I had said the same thing eight years ago, in 2008, when the military was virtually running the country.

Ladies and gentlemen:

We love the challenge of doing journalism in an atmosphere that at times refuses to be friendly towards new initiatives.

The government, for instance, spends more money on the Old Media. The government's advertisement policy is not just unrealistic, it is anachronistic. Newspapers selling not even 200 copies are getting government adverts while Internet publications with tens of millions of readers are overlooked.

The current practice means the government is wasting taxpayers' money because the return is almost zero.

Of the private companies, I would just say what I said eight years ago … exactly here on this stage. Because nothing has changed in the eight years.

"Worse is when we confront corporate corruption. We have been threatened time and again. We have been punished in various forms. My colleagues have been taken off the list of invitees to media briefings by some companies. It is very sad that big spenders in market communication can dictate news agenda in this country. Rarely do we find friends when we try to fight such behavior from some companies."

As I refer to our 2nd anniversary dinner, I would like to pay tribute to Dr C S Karim, a great friend of bdnews24.com and a great personal friend, who is no longer with us. Hannan Shah of BNP also passed away recently.

We also lost our very dear Baby Apa, our Social Affairs Editor Baby Maudud.

Ladies and gentlemen:

For all these years, we have been witness to history, while doing our job of writing the first rough draft of history.

The two top leaders confirmed to me they would be attending our event on that November evening of 2008. But things changed at the last minute. An advisor who had been appointed after the January 2008 sacking of four advisors called me in the morning to tell me how "we" should handle the situation. "We'll take them to another room when they arrive … and then .." I stopped him at that point … 'Brother this is my programme and they are coming to attend the dinner, nothing else … so let me handle it …'

I realized in the evening that I had made a mistake; months or years later, I learnt what exactly happened after that phone conversation on the morning of 19th November 2008. We all knew … that adviser was actually the mouthpiece for the military section of that government with a civilian façade.

Two of the advisors later confirmed to us that they had been turned away while being on the way to this hotel. Others refused to comment on what had gone wrong on that evening.

In less than two months, one of my two missing guests went on to become Prime Minister of Bangladesh and the other Leader of the Opposition.

Even much of today's audience in this room, I know, has little idea what it was like doing journalism in 2007-8. Talk about phone calls? The regime that our so-called civil society or at least a prominent part of it backed was notorious in its attempts to stifle and control the media. Our competitors were creating all sorts of bad examples in our media history. Do you want to take a look at the headlines? We are often blamed for having poor memories.

Eight years ago, I made another observation, and I can't help quoting myself.

"As we celebrate bdnews24.com we celebrate the power of the Internet. When we celebrate the power of the Internet, we actually celebrate people power. Internet is free and accessible to all, rich and poor, weak and mighty."

Good thing is, I no longer confront this question: How many people actually have access to Internet?

My standard response would be: How many people read newspapers in this country?

Today I wouldn't even try to raise the issue again. My colleagues did some investigation in the run up to our 10 anniversary. The falling numbers of print newspapers would be embarrassing for my friends who run or manage them.

According to BTRC, the number of Internet connections in Bangladesh is over 62.3 million, nearly the size of the population in the United Kingdom. You can well imagine the kind of audience we reach if we get anywhere near our share as the largest provider. The bilingual site with its landing page having English news has actually a much larger volume of Bangla content. Given the reach, volume and the depth of our readership reflected in our pageviews, time on site etc, we are aware of our responsibility in shaping our readers' cultural and intellectual taste – with the broader objective being: inform, educate and entertain.

As we celebrate 10 years of doing what we love doing, I reach a personal milestone. Last June, I completed 10 years with this venture, both as Chief Executive and Editor in Chief. Today I complete 10 years as Editor-in-Chief of the first Internet-only news publisher.

And with me, many of my colleagues who joined between June and late 2006 complete their 10 years. It's a privilege to have this wonderful bunch of people as colleagues. For some of them, no adjective is good enough.

Finally, there's one person who needs to be mentioned. Just one word for him — fantastic. A fantastic partner in the journey that never stops surprising us, even shaking us – with new challenges, new barriers. Asif Mahmood, thank you!

A colleague who flew all the way from London to be with us tonight wrote a piece some months ago that an Editor or head of a news outlet should not occupy the position indefinitely and suggested a tenure of 10 years or so. The suggestion has given me some food for thought.

Despite all the challenges, all the stress, all the hardships, all the threats – on social media threads or on IM or phone or even face to face, all the propaganda, all the uncertainty, it's been a terrific 10 years.

Thank you.

Thank you again for coming, and giving us the opportunity to say thank-you for all the support we have got from you, throughout the year, and for all these 10 years.

Thank you for being with us!

[Transcript of the speech by Toufique Imrose Khalidi, Editor-in-Chief of bdnews24.com at the 10 anniversary dinner at Radisson Blu Water Garden Hotel, Dhaka. 23 Oct 2016]

Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher