Print media: Is it dying?

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JOURNALISM, an undying passion of mine since I was young, is at a crossroads. Like any business sector, media has borne the brunt of the technological revolution and has evolved into a multi-faceted medium after being buffeted by the winds of change. What has taken place in the last two to three decades has not happened in nearly two centuries — when print was king despite the presence of other forms of media.

Today, dissemination of news is not restricted to a few mediums, as the advent of social media has changed reading and the spreading information by introducing a basic element that rivals all other forms — instant speed. But this speed comes at the cost of trust, as the handy tech gadget — the mobile phone — has become a versatile instrument for content transfer, but a poor substitute for the venerated print that still is the trusted source of news.

Journalism, ironically, runs in the family and it was the fact that my father was a seasoned journalist that tickled my fancy. It also triggered my passion to write, as I saw that he analyzed and wrote on subjects that made a difference to the community. I always tried to follow in my father’s footsteps, and my dream of becoming a journalist came true under the legendary editor-in-chief Khaled Almaeena, who opened the door for me to enter this field and provided all the support that I needed. He also shaped me into an independent thinker and writer by allowing me the freedom to express my views, but was there to pull me up with a steady hand to shape my course.

I entered the field late in 2002, when rumors of print journalism being on the verge of death with the arrival of online media, were making the rounds. Though at the time it sounded as if the event was imminent, print still lives on. But experts did sound the alarm that print was in danger of being pummeled by the oncoming technological storm and that media organizations should brace themselves for the impact on the silo that was print in the ever-changing scenario.

Last week, the oldest living editor-in-chief of Al-Jazirah daily, Khaled Al-Malek, fanned the rumors by sounding the alarm again that print media was in danger and that newspaper companies were suffering from a sharp decline of readership and advertisement. He urged the government to step in and provide the needed financial support so that these media companies could stay alive.

Al-Malek’s clarion call comes at a time when the industry has been pounded by major changes, not only technological. What used to be a daily morning staple with breakfast — the newspaper —is now a thing of the past. Not only because of technology, but also because of people’s reading, or should I say lack of reading, habit. Also, technology now allows a person 24/7 access to content and also gives him a varied choice at little cost. The day when a reader will spend SR2 to buy a paper to get news is long gone with the arrival of mobile news applications and SMS breaking news services.

In my early days as a journalist, many people looked at me with awe because I was pursuing a career that offered a service to people with a collated and condensed view of the world, while also being a conduit for the transfer of knowledge. Today, however, I nearly always receive sarcastic comments from people when they learn that I work in a newspaper. Many comment, without me even asking, that they stopped reading print a long time ago. They even go further by asking me why I am still working in a print newspaper. Others go even further by saying: “You guys still print news?”

Such comments are a clear indication that more challenges are ahead for this industry that needs to adapt to growing technology and modes of disseminating information, but also to adopt new strategies to sustain the interest of readers. In order for newspapers to stay alive they need to ensure exclusivity by coming up with unique content, in-depth analysis and hard investigative reporting, while becoming a complement to tech-driven media, whose only interest is sound bites. The trust deficit in such media can by reinforced by print with detailed information about the short bursts that pervade the new media.

In addition to the attitudinal shift, there is a major generation shift that has roiled the industry. The younger generation’s affinity for technology that has virtually turned into an addiction was something the people in print had not seen coming. The print media’s slow action and reaction time is one of the reasons for the position they find themselves in.

The other major reason is people’s apathy to reading and the brief attention span they display in everything they do. In my opinion, such people have no time, even if they have nothing to do, to read a newspaper or to spend time reading a well-researched article. They are easily distracted and the real challenge for the industry is to keep them focused and draw them into their fold.

The age of long articles is gone, people nowadays have no time to read lengthy pieces and prefer short ones. The biggest challenge for newspapers, in order to survive, is to shift their focus to cater to the young generation and adapt to their needs, with the older generation now relegated to the back seat.

So there is a need to pique the interest of the young while in the process transferring knowledge. It is this blend that will be needed in the future. The blend includes points of interest for this generation while educating them about the possible ramifications of any actions and linking the global dots in the various aspects that affect them or their lives. And every media house has to consider and bring about this shift.

Print is not the only industry facing challenges. The sale of watches is declining sharply because the mobile has made even the simple action of turning to our arm for the time redundant. But the watch is still around and is trying to stay in step with the times by becoming more of a fashion statement.

The same can be said about cameras, whose sales are declining, because people are now more inclined to take snapshots with their phones, and to take selfies which with a camera requires a timer and quick sprint to the position in which the photo is to be taken. Furthermore, the arrival of Google maps on the cell phone has nearly killed the print map industry.

As is the case with every industry, the wheels of technology are certain to grind some jobs into dust. There are studies that indicate that many jobs and industries will disappear in the future because of the advancement of technology. And those who stand and wait are sure to be left behind.

The fact that everyone loves news is the common thread that will sustain the link of this industry to people. But the industry needs to change with the times to maintain that link. I only ask: Are we in the media prepared for that?

The writer can be reached at mahmad@saudigazette.com.sa Twitter: @anajeddawi_eng


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