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The Rediff Special/ Shobha Warrier in Chennai
Are newspapers going extinct?
January 19, 2006
The first recorded news report about India appeared in the august British daily The Guardian in September 1822 about something which had happened in India in April that year.
It took five months for the news to reach England but nobody complained about it being stale.
"But today, in 2006, if you are five seconds behind your competitor in breaking a news, you are in trouble," began The Guardian Editor Alan Rusbridger, delivering a lecture on 'Do newspapers have a future?'
Rusbridger's talk was mainly in reference to the battle for survival that the newspaper industry is fighting in Europe and the United States.
Rusbridger predicted the battle would reach India "very soon."
Even though his colleagues scornfully labelled the topic of the seminar -- organised by The Hindu -- as "ridiculous", and started lecturing on the "old-fashioned virtues of printed paper", he saw it as a reality.
He doesn't agree with his colleagues who want to believe that people would remain loyal to the printed paper because the Internet is a "place where you can't trust half of what appears there".
Rusbridger compared newspapers to second-hand bookshops.
"I love second-hand books. I also love second-hand bookshops. I love the musty smell of second-hand bookshops. People work there just for the pleasure of handling books. It is great to stumble across a book which you didn't know existed, and had been hunting for a long time."
So, what is the connection between second-hand bookshops and newspapers? There is a site called abebooks.co.uk, which sells new books, second-hand books, rare books, out of print books. It lists 80 million books and 13,500 bookshops. Any book you need will reach you within 48 hours, Rusbridger said.
And he found it was much easier to trace and buy books on the Internet than a second-hand bookshop.
"Something similar is happening to newspapers in the developed world with more and more younger people reading online, and by and large what they are reading is free," he continued.
The end result: "There is a sharp decline in the newspaper circulation, which has resulted in the revenues also coming down. Now, they want to charge more from the advertisers because less number of copies are sold, but the advertisers are not impressed with the circulation."
What should newspapers do in such a situation? "Like the second-hand book seller, we have to think about changing our business model."
According to Rusbridger, a San Francisco-based Web enthusiast or "a geek" or "a nerd" called Craig Newmark has developed a publishing model that "threatens to wipe out the newspaper industry".
In the early 1990s, Newmark started www.craigslist.org, a kind of electronic notice board, a place for people to exchange information, be it about buying or selling a house or a car, or a bike, or even finding a boyfriend.
The difference between what Newmark offers and what newspapers give is this: Everything is available free on his web site, for the buyers as well as sellers.
The Newmark business model is so successful that it now operates in 190 cities with three billion page impressions a month and 10 million users. From San Francisco, the savvy geek moved to several other cities in the world, which include New Delhi and Chennai in India too.
When the revenues of newspapers are declining with poor circulation and few advertisements, this web site -- with no editorial content -- carries six million advertisements at a lower rate.
"Such models are a threat to newspaper advertising and journalism," Rusbridger cautioned newspaper editors.
With the Internet spreading its wings, a revolution is taking place among the readers. They refused to be passive to whatever a newspaper serves them.
"We took the critical letters and dropped them in the bin. Then, this terrible thing called e-mail happened and readers started answering back more quickly. Journalist started reacting badly, and they were uncomfortable. The next terrible thing that happened was, readers started talking to each other and that too, without our permission and about us!
"Many of them are more interested in being a part of a forum or discussion than being a recipient of other people's opinions. Thus started the virtual community. This is particularly so among the young readers," Rusbridger said about the "woes" of a newspaper editor.
There are 24.5 million individual blogs – or web logs, or online diaries -- in the virtual world. And that number is going up by a million a month.
"Now, many of the smartest businessmen and women are working out ways to linking all these people together."
Rupert Murdoch has bought a teenage site for a sum of $18 million. Why? Because Blogs are almost the opposite of what newspapers are. Readers don't want to be passive receivers of news. They have opinions and they prefer talking about their opinions than being the recipients of a lecture.
While agreeing that some of these changes are wonderful, Rusbridger opined that to maintain a liberal democracy, people cannot remain ill informed or misinformed. "What happens if the citizens do not want to be informed? What if surface news grazing was sufficient for their purpose?"
People are surrounded by news: On radio, television, text messages, and the Internet. That is enough for most people. The question is, how much should they be informed?
"It is all very well to talk about the compact between the citizen and the legislator but voting doesn't seem to change very much. And the real power to the modern world and the real problems lie beyond my ability to do anything about them."
So, the question that readers ask is, 'Why do I need to know all this stuff?'
The apathetic reader
Who is the apathetic voter? The apathetic voter is the apathetic reader, says Rusbridger.
"The generation that isn't interested in voting is the same generation which isn't much interested in reading newspapers. That broad rage of information that a newspaper can give, and which used to be considered important to being a good citizen, doesn't seem to be important to this generation of 18 to 25 year olds."
But Rusbridger found that apathetic readers are not apathetic about everything. They have their own passions, obsessions and causes. It's just that the Internet caters to their passions, obsessions and causes better than the newspapers.
On the Internet, people can delve deep into their own subjects and engage with communities of other equally engaged people. And, they can also block stuff they don't want: "They said, 'We don't want to know anything about Africa!'"
When newspapers have such apathetic readers in front of them, they have two options, said Rusbridger.
Option one: Give people what they want. If they don't want difficult stuff, don't give them.
Option two: Turn the volume up to make the news more exciting, more striking and more pumped up so as to shock them and energise them out of their apathy.
"Do we have any responsibility to tell our readers the things they may not think that they want to know," he asks. "Would it matter if all newspapers turned up that volume key and started to shout rather than speak? If that happens, would the public debate be improved? If they don't have the time or appetite for such complexity, does that mean newspapers shouldn't give it to them?
"And, if they didn't, what would happen to the political process? Would that end up reinforcing a pattern of ignorance or carelessness about things that actually matter to us all? What would happen to the politicians? Would it frustrate straight politicians simply because they could not get the message across, or would we create a new breed of politicians who think they can get away with more or less anything because the public is switched off?"
But the most pertinent question from Guardian editor was: "Is it our business as editors and journalists, or do we simply concentrate the task of selling more copies? Is the market everything that matters?"
He answered himself: "As competition for attention grows, newspapers will have to try harder to persuade young people of the value of serious journalism: Whether delivered on screen, or on plastic paper -- which is going to be the next big thing -- or on old- fashioned dead trees.
"I can't think of a better case study than the war in Iraq. That is one example of why journalism matters. Almost everything else is going to change…"
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh
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