Video Killed the Newspaper
My fourteen year old cousin Adil wants me to take him to the procession in Shahbag to commemorate the Iranian protestor who recently died during a procession in Tehran. “We have to make sure her death wasn't in vain. Iranians need to know that even in Dhaka we are right behind them.” I wasn't surprised at Adil's sensitivity to matters that invoke a mere shrug to our apathetic lot, nor was I surprised at his insistence on some sort of reaction to what might appear a slightly mature topic for today's average 14 year old. He's a smart, sensitive kid and his youth far belies the emotional intelligence I know he has. What did surprise me was how up to date he was on international affairs. After all, I never saw Adil reading a newspaper or a magazine and heaven forbid a book that was outside his classroom curriculum. “Wow Adil, you've really been reading up on Iranian politics haven't you. Did you go through today's editorial in the Daily Star?” Of course not, he replied with a look of contempt as if newspapers were for pensioners and the senile. “I just joined the Facebook group on Iranian politics and my friend Shiblee sent me an invite to the procession! Coming?”
Printed newspapers are fast losing ground to on-line versions.
Adil's apathy for all things print and his liking for technology pretty much sum up this generation's attitude to information and the print media in general. Every day I see it all around me: young people using the Internet to catch up on their latest news headlines, writing a blog about their reactions to the latest cultural or political event, and making videos and putting up pictures on Youtube or Facebook (facebooking has long since become a verb that even I find myself resisting with little success) to share with people half across the planet. Such a burst of technology savvy people bodes well for information purveyors worldwide; with a veritable click of a mouse, you can read, share and publish information, events and your reactions at a rate that was unthinkable even a decade ago. To old timers like me, this is both fascinating and a bit intimidating: fascinating simply because the networking skills of an average teenager (albeit from the upper class) would dwarf the best diplomat in the United Nations; intimidating simply because despite all my efforts to stay in the groove, I have a nagging fear and insecurity that one day I'll simply wake up and realise that my skills are simply not up to scratch in today's obsession with the latest technology.
But there's another sector of the economy whose fears about the advent of today's age of technology is both real and substantial: our print media. Long seen as the vanguard in the information peddling business, today's newspapers and print media in general have begun to see their circulation fall, advertisement revenues dip perilously, and increasingly having to cater to an audience that finds them irrelevant at best, and a downright nuisance at worst. For starters, even as just mediums of information, the print media simply cannot keep up with the latest technology, may it be in the form of the latest online blog or an sms service that delivers news right to your mobile phone. By the time today's news is published in tomorrow's papers, it is already old and useless. Besides, online videos, blogs and websites are not passive containers of news but sensitive to user participation and feedback: if you don't like the way a particular story is written, you can instantly write your own account or analysis. In the world of online videos and blogs, the audience too become the fact checkers and editors, doing away with people like me who sit behind a desk and spend long hours pedantically pouring over sentence constructions and grammar. Who needs me when Microsoft word or a moderately intelligent reader can make the slightest of corrections online?
The big fat irony of writing about the demise of the print industry in a newspaper magazine doesn't escape me. Newspapers will always have one major advantage over their online counterparts: analysis. Adil might log on and watch his fellow protestors in Tehran, but he's not going to get a detailed historical analysis of the movement for democracy in Iran through Facebook. Journalists make a living out of not only giving you the latest news, but also analysing the news through different filters ranging from history to economics. I read newspapers and periodicals not know what's going on in the world but why something is happening the way it's happening.
For teenagers, going on-line is a way of life
Besides, style matters. Opening up news sources to all the Adils of the world also means opening it up to all the idiots too. For every one blog that I find that's elegantly written, succinctly put and actually makes a point, I find ten others that is absolutely distasteful, has grammatical errors aplenty (another problem of our technology savvy generation is that they're horrible writers, maybe a direct effect of the Twitter effectwriting for readers who have one second attention spans) and downright sloppy with facts and figures. At least when I open the Daily Star, I can be sure of a certain degree of accuracy and elegance. With the Internet, it's prying through figurative fertilizer to get to that one gem.
Will style, perspicacity and knowledge be enough to save newspapers? Probably not. Each generation of readers (including the virtual kinds) bring along a paradigm shift and the current one has dramatically changed the rules of the game. It took hundreds of years for Gutenburg to invent the printing press and radically change the way people read and interact with news. It's taking a mere fraction of that time to bring the next level of paradigm shift and newspapers have to rise to the challenge, adapt and convince readers why they still count, something that's not really happening even now. But I'm not completely worried. When Adil comes back today and asks to know more about the Shah and the Iranian revolution of the 70s, I'll simply hand him my copy of Robin Wright's The Last Great Revolution. At the end of the day, nothing beats a great book.
(R) thedailystar.net 2009