Print media: dead as a parrot

How many movies you’ve seen, books you’ve read, after-dinner chats you had in the past 10 years were based on conspiracy-theories, urban-legends, word-of-mouth (WOM) sound-bites, e-mail hoaxes and other hard-to-substantiate sources? Now, let’s reverse this question – how many conspiracy-theories, urban-legends, WOM sound-bites, e-mail hoaxes and other hard-to-substantiate sources turned out to be the real, tangible and provable truth?

Here’s one: in the last 3 years you must have read in various online publications, that print media is oribund. In one of my recent pieces on the issue, “A terminal case of over-optimism“, aired 18th January 2016, I said that “Print media executives have many more reasons to toss and turn in bed all night than causes for a good night sleep. After all, their industry’s future looks bleak.”

I wrote the piece after The World Association of Newspapers (WAN) invited leading newspapers executives to list current trends that – they feel – will play a major role in the future of their business, they came up with a list of 66 trends. I kid you not: sixty-six new trends, ushering a promising future in an industry that’s been gasping for air for at least 10 years.

Finally, even the hardest, toughest believers began to realise how dead, buried and decomposing is this parrot they keep trying to revive. A recent BBC piece (“Scottish newspapers ‘in crisis“), is the latest in a string of stories describing how advertising money – the life and blood of broadsheets – is increasingly migrating online. Quoted in the piece, Andrew Neil, Former publisher of The Scotsman, says “I think they’re [printed papers] definitely in decline. It’s gaining in speed and it could well be as fatal as it was for the shipyards of the Clyde.” Neil alludes to the emotive debates surrounding the shipyards on the Clyde, owned by defence company BAE Systems, who considers selling it off due to mounting losses because of what BAE terms “overcapacity in the British shipbuilding industry.” It is feared that, should the shipyards be sold off, the new owner may retrench a large portion of the workforce.

Reporting from the Future of News workshop at Princeton University, Corante’s Kevin Anderson offers a summation of Princeton’s Paul Starr’s opening talk. Starr on print media: “They are living off aging audiences and obsolete business models. As older audiences die off, all of these news organisations face a mortal threat.” There you have it, dying shipyards to dying readers, the death scene is set in a host of blog entries reporting on the Princeton workshop.

However, Starr (quoted by Kevin Anderson) makes one surprising statement – “bloggers rely on old media” he says “[j]ust as any parasite doesn’t want to kill off their prey.” I strongly disagree. Bloggers don’t relay on old media at all – they rely on other bloggers. Using guerrilla tactics, bloggers access information from all possible sources – mostly from other guerrilla warriors. Print media is at best 36 – 48 hours behind the events and its commentary stratum is even older, a few days, perhaps even a week. In a world where readers expect both news and commentaries in ‘real time’, bloggers rely now, and will continue to rely in the future, on immediate, firsthand sources like eye witnesses and citizen journalists.

According to Starr, future online news-worlds will rely on two modes of communication: news (covering breaking events and real time, immediate reporting) and broadcast (offering ongoing commentaries and expanded information.) I tend to agree with Starr here, mostly because I feel that most users are set to migrate to cellphone-based news consumption within the next 12 to 18 months. It makes sense to assume that text (post-web, mobile publishing) and sound (real-time online radio and podcasts) form part of a simple migratory path from today’s Web life, where users are almost exclusively desktop-and-browser reliant, to a near-future world of online existence, one that is solely based on mobility.

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