The end of newspaper reporting will produce a landscape so barren that it will be terrifying, says Aakar Patel.
Illustration: Dominic Xavier/Rediff.com
I will write in this column, as often as I can, about the future. Meaning what we can anticipate in the next few years, when most of us will still be around.
It is said that those of us who will live on to about 2045 or so might live forever. That being the year by when it will have been possible to create an artificial intelligence so superior to man's that all of our problems, including the biological, will be resolved.
But 2045 is far away. Three decades of change at the pace of technology's exponential growth will produce a world a hundred times more different in 2045 than 2016 is from 1986, a year I remember vividly. And we will explore and speculate on some aspects of it in time.
Today, let me look at a shorter time frame and at a field I know well: The medium this column is being printed on. (The column first appeared in Business Standard newspaper.)
How long do newspapers have? My guess is another four years.
By December 2020, we will all (those of us who are still around) have written our farewell columns.
The newspaper will have lost the paper. The physical object will no longer exist and the reason is not that difficult to understand:
It will make no economic sense. It already makes no sense. A 24-page broadsheet newspaper costs about Rs 14 to produce -- that's just the paper and the printing. It sells for Rs 4, of which a part is spent on distribution.
Who or what pays for the other 80 per cent? Advertisements, which must also pay for the other costs: Journalists and staff, plus the things a business needs.
This model is becoming unsustainable given the competition from modern media, which is appropriating a larger share of advertising every year. And it is being helped along by the shrinking number of newspaper buyers and readers in India.
The annual readership survey has not been published in India for over two years, but we don't need data to notice that fewer people bother with newspapers.
This trend of newspaper decline has been recorded in Europe and America for decades, but because the newspaper there is not cheap (being about Rs 40 or more per copy) the decline has been long and slow.
In India, it will come so quickly that it will take us aback.
Unless existing readers can be convinced to pay more for their news, and this has been tried unsuccessfully so often that we can forget about it, there is a grim inevitability about the trajectory of the industry.
The only thing left is to guess when the thing will crash. My money says before December 2020.
The question is: Having lost 'paper', will the newspaper retain at least 'news'? No, it cannot.
No daily news publication today makes enough online subscription and advertising revenue to sustain a team of editors and beat reporters, the core of a newspaper.
When Donald Trump won, publications like the New York Times and the Guardian pleaded for money from readers, saying their reporting was particularly needed in this time.
It has come to this. Newspapers are begging us to keep them in business as the water goes over their heads.
It could be argued that something will replace the newspaper, or already has, for instance television news or social media.
The limitations of the TV format have made that industry focus on debate and opinion rather than reporting. This will not change.
And Twitter, however many people are plugged into it, is no real substitute for a network of reporters who work on beats.
Crowd-sourced and unedited and unverified information is a different thing from the formal and focused material produced by beat reporters paid to return to the same material daily.
So we must assume that 'news,' as we now know it, will also vanish with the newspaper.
There are probably 5,000 or so full-time newspaper reporters in India today. Their input will go missing.
There will still be opinion and analysis, as there is also today online, but the hard stuff will be gone.
This will cripple democracy and human rights.
Issues already underplayed or ignored by media today, such as the happenings in Kashmir, the Northeast and the Adivasi belt, will disappear from the national conversation.
Of course, rural stories have long found no place in English papers, but the end of newspaper reporting will produce a landscape so barren that it will be terrifying.
The interesting thing is: Most of us will be around to see it.
The cultural move to digital is also affecting other areas. It may surprise readers to learn that Bollywood revenues are flat because the number of tickets being sold in cinema halls is falling.
One would think that it is a growing industry poised in a decade to take on Hollywood. No. Fewer Indians are going to the movies.
That number has been dropping for several years so we cannot blame demonetisation or anything else.
The fact is that people are watching and listening to stuff on their mobile phone. The material there is often just as entertaining as what is to be found in the multiplex -- and it's usually free.
There is some scope for film producers to make a little money from digital -- Netflix, the caller tune, the ringtone, the wallpaper and so on.
For the newspaper proprietor there is none and he will have to start making hard choices across India only a few months from now.
Newspapers will lose first paper and then news, and the first sinkings will be coming up soon.
The best thing about a quality newspaper is, for me, its serendipity.
You flip its pages and come across unexpectedly, on your own, without a link from someone else, a good read.
I will miss that most, and I hope I can provide a few such moments for you in the time we have together.