I’ve always felt a particular guilt that, as a journalist, I’ve struggled to keep up with the news in Pakistan.
I’m first-generation Pakistani American and culturally, at least in the Pakistani diaspora, our main topics of conversation are politics, religion, food, and getting married.
I grew up in a household that follows Pakistani news every night. I used to help my grandfather load Dawn.com, the website of Pakistan’s most reputable newspaper, so he could read the news and catch up on cricket scores. My family had always had a satellite package that included PTV (owned by the Pakistan Television Corporation), Geo News, ARY News, and others until streaming made more channels more easily available.
But the Urdu spoken in TV news is much more formal than the Urdu I learned to speak at home, making it difficult to understand quick roundups and impossible to follow discussions, where interruptions and yelling are common. Urdu-language newspapers are available in some neighborhoods in major cities in the United States, but often (and rightfully) cover their local diaspora communities and are inaccessible to me because I can’t read Urdu very well. English-language coverage in Pakistan, a country with a news cycle as busy as the United States’, is widely available, but lacks the context a casual reader would need to understand the full impact of an issue.
So with lots of shame, I’ve had to explain that while being Pakistani is a big part of my identity, I’m not well equipped to talk about Pakistani news. That’s common, I imagine, in lots of diasporas, but hard for me to swallow as a journalist.
More recently, I’ve followed major stories by following journalists and regular people on Twitter who live in the country and are reporting or are outspoken about news events. But opening Twitter to scroll and sift through jokes, memes, and hot takes is an extremely chaotic way to find news.
So, knowing all that, you can imagine how thrilled I was, after years of wanting to stay informed, when I stumbled upon The NewsRun, a daily newsletter that summarizes Pakistan’s major stories of the day.
Anam Khan, the founder and lead writer for the NewsRun, has lived half of her life in Pakistan and the other half in the United States. While her family lives in Pakistan, she lives in San Francisco with her husband. Even though she has deep, personal roots in the country, she felt disconnected from the Pakistani news cycle and didn’t like feeling uninformed. And she, like me, found the current offerings difficult to consume for similar reasons.
Every day, each newsletter covers between one and three major stories from the day before. The top story is broken down into an outline, including a one-sentence summary of the story, a paragraph of details, bullet points of context, an explanation of public response when relevant, and a defined bottom line. The other stories are usually shorter, covered in one or two paragraphs. The newsletter is laced with links to local reporting from both English and Urdu news sources. Khan also creates Instagram slides for the top story with bullet points about the issue, and then directs followers to the newsletter for more information.
These days, the newsletter also includes a daily coronavirus case and death count in the country. Khan also uses Twitter to see what’s trending when she’s picking stories, to get a better sense of what stories to write about and what people need clarity on. Because news in Pakistan can be negative and draining, Khan tries to include some positive news stories as well.
Khan first had the idea in 2017 while she was still living in Pakistan. When she moved back to the U.S. in 2018, she started writing drafts and sharing them with friends for feedback. She soft-launched it in the middle of 2018, but didn’t start marketing it until 2019, after workshopping it and making sure she could deliver the same quality everyday. The NewsRun has a Patreon for subscribers who wish to support it, but for now Khan mostly funds it herself.
Khan, whose background is in marketing and strategic communications, is all about “smart brevity.” She’s been an avid reader of TheSkimm, Morning Brew, and Axios AM, newsletters that embrace a light, easy-to-read writing style. She said that at first, she started the NewsRun to serve Pakistanis like herself living abroad, operating under the impression that it’s only harder for them to keep up with the news because of the distance. Now, with thousands of newsletter subscribers, thousands of Instagram followers, and a 20 to 30 percent daily open rate, Khan has found that her largest readership is young professional men and women actually in Pakistan.
“I kept asking for feedback from subscribers and the ones in Pakistan voluntarily reached out to me and said ‘This is so much easier to understand. It’s a faster read. The way it’s written is clear and it highlights all the key points I need to know, and helps break through the rest of the noise that I’m surrounded with in Pakistan,’” she told me. “Even though they get a lot of news living in Pakistan, there’s just so much of it and they’ve been bombarded with it every day and it’s also very cluttered, which the NewsRun isn’t. So I started to see that this is something that Pakistanis in the country also need.”
One of the big challenges for Khan is the time difference. Living in San Francisco, she’s usually 12 hours behind Pakistan, and now 13 due to daylight savings time. She starts working on the newsletter around 11 a.m. PST and sends it to her fact-checker/copy editor in Pakistan, who edits when she wakes up. Khan schedules the newsletter to be sent out in the early morning for the reader, so subscribers in Pakistan will get it around 9 a.m. their time, while I get it around 6 a.m. EST.
Another challenges is not repeating and putting out more of the same, jargon-y language that Khan is consuming. That’s where her communications background is particularly helpful.
“In communications or in marketing, you’re telling a brand story,” Khan said. “Whether you’re a journalist or working with clients, either way you’re telling a story is just in a different context. So in working on the NewsRun, I’ve applied the skills I’ve gained over time working communications, by focusing on clarity, by focusing on objectivity, by starting with a strong lead, which is not only something you need to do for journalism, it’s something you need to do in communications as well.”
While English-language coverage from within Pakistan is cluttered, foreign coverage of Pakistan tends to lack nuance and sticks to a specific narrative that Pakistan is “a nuclear armed nation that’s unreliable, unpredictable, unsafe, and vulnerable to militant activity and terrorism,” Khan said. American news outlets do newsletters really well, but flub coverage. Pakistani news outlets cover the country extensively, but don’t necessarily engage news consumers in meaningful ways. Publications have newsletters, but they’re often automated with a photo, a headline, and a one-sentence summary that links back to a long-form story.
Khan sees the NewsRun as a unique product that fills those gaps.
“A lot of publications have websites or other touch points,” she said. “The NewsRun’s main product is the newsletter. I specifically did it that way because I wanted to reduce touch points for people. Rather than logging onto a website or scrolling through a cluttered newsfeed, the NewsRun is a single touch point. People get it in their inbox every morning and everything they need to know is compiled onto one platform and broken down in bite-sized format so that they don’t have to scour the internet to read the news. Everything they need is already right there in front of them.”
While the NewsRun’s newsletter is its main product, Khan also occasionally produces deep dives into major issues. One from September explains what Pakistanis can do to end rape culture, in the context of a particular rape case that sparked national outrage. There’s also an interview section on the website that includes Q&As with Pakistani entrepreneurs. During the pandemic, Khan has started hosting virtual roundtables with Pakistani and Pakistani American students to discuss the issues that most affect them. A recent roundtable discussed the experiences of religious and ethnic minorities in Pakistan:
Currently, the NewsRun’s daily newsletter doesn’t offer too much of its own daily reporting, although Khan often finds herself chasing down sources when other news stories are unclear. And, to be fair, much of the reporting and information already exists in Pakistan’s healthy offerings of digital news outlets. Khan is just helping make sense of it all.
In the next few months, she and her two business partners want to scale up by growing the subscriber base, monetizing the newsletter, hosting more deep-dive events, and talking to readers outside of the newsletter.
“I like highlighting stories that focus on gender issues, minority issues, humanitarian issues, because I want to give people living abroad a sense of what’s happening on the ground,” Khan said. “And then there are also issues in Pakistan that I want to raise more awareness about and highlight for local readers as well.”
— to www.niemanlab.org