The suggestion that the virtual reincarnation of newspapers presents an existential threat to the physical newspaper itself, is not completely off the wall
Are newspapers in Pakistan as the traditional providers of news and views perilously close to falling off a cliff? The question has taken on a new urgency with the launching and successful operation of myriads of news websites across the world, including Pakistan. The suggestion that the virtual reincarnation of newspapers itself presents an existential threat to the physical newspaper, is not completely off the wall. Celebrity YouTubers, with journalists right in the middle, too are among a fast-growing tribe seeking to grab spotlight from the quieter, hard-driving journalists. Facing an uncertain future, newspapers and their editors seem to be suffering from exhaustion and ennui. The new technology has upended newspapers’ day-to-day operations. With no sure lifelines in view, it increasingly sounds more like a question of when rather than if.
However, those who have the optimism corner to themselves feel differently. Granted, they say, that the newspapers’ share of news delivery has sharply decreased. They are in the midst of a difficult transition. Things will turn around as newspapers make adjustments to adapt to the new environment. Didn’t the same sinking feeling surface when radio appeared in the 1920s? Many critics dubbed the 1950s as the Golden Age of Television. The newspapers survived that challenge and did not allow the new technology to disrupt their work. Editors and publishers have the imagination and potential to force their newspapers to undergo a much-needed transformation, and that transformation is happening under the force of circumstance as we speak. The challenge is this: newspapers now confront depleting advertisement revenues, major shift in consumer behaviour and a host of new-fangled, disruptive technologies. Newspapers are now experimenting with new survival mechanisms, some of this will work, others will not.
One imperative at this point is to reconnect with the youth who feel totally alienated from the newspaper and its content. Loss of credibility is a major problem. Also, the newspaper reading culture seems like a thing of the past. It is something generational. Newspaper editors and publishers have to focus on this demographic and get the young people back into reading newspapers. As the new millennium dawned, the young people started feeling disconnected with the newspapers. When asked when was the last time they read a newspaper, students in a media studies class taught by this writer would invariably respond with silence. This is often the case whether one is teaching in America, Singapore, Cambridge or Pakistan. Getting the youth on board once again will be a part of a success formula.
The society in Pakistan presents similar challenges to the newspaper industry. The disenchantment of the youth comes as a big hurdle in the way of efforts to rejuvenate the newspapers. Pakistan at the moment has the largest population of young people ever recorded in its history, says the UNDP. It is currently one of the youngest countries in the world and the second youngest in South Asia right after Afghanistan. The bulk of the same young population is fixated on the social media, new technologies and the internet. Along with changing the revenue structure of their enterprises, newspapers in Pakistan have to reinvent themselves in keeping with the orientations of the youth.
Some media specialists seem to argue in favour of a paperless model. According to them, all-digital news could work as a brilliant strategy. It is believed that newspapers in Pakistan on average spend close to 15 percent of their costs on the news gathering process. Raw material accounts for another 20 percent and the labour responsible for printing and distribution comes to around 40 percent. The printing cost is the most significant expenditure. The estimates can vary from newspaper to newspaper. In comparison, the cost of putting a newspaper online is rather minimal. It is worth noting here that the cost of producing an additional digital copy comes to almost nothing.
An online newspaper has obvious advantages: it enables the readers to interact with pages himself/ herself. As we all know now, readers can leave comments, watch videos, view photo slideshows and frequently opine, that is, leave their views to the newspaper. Additionally, there are multiple points of access that contribute significantly to the success of online newspapers.
How can newspapers stay relevant in the age of websites mounted by the world’s richest business entities and elites? There are success models like the Guardian, the New York Times and the Huffington Post, among others. People working as journalists and writers for our newspapers are professionals steeped in the tradition of robust news-gathering. They are defined by vigorous gatekeeping, fairness and balance, thus keeping zero tolerance for fake news for the most part. If newspapers can provide credible information in the new digital age that the youth and the rest of society can trust as credible and depend on, their role will remain meaningful in our individual and collective lives. The newspapers as we know them are here to stay!
The writer teaches media writing and communication at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS)