Fall of news­pa­pers and the gulf in dig­i­tal age

China Daily (Canada) - - LIFE -

Afilm about a strug­gling news­pa­per won the Academy Award for best movie of the year, but evenHol­ly­wood’s highest accolade can­not do much to save a busi­ness in de­cline. In­deed, Spot­light, which put the spot­light on a strug­gling news­pa­per’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion divi­sion and is based on the true story of fi­nan­cially chal­lenged The Bos­ton Globe, may turn out to be more of a vale­dic­tory com­mem­o­ra­tion— a nos­tal­gic, poignant farewell— than the im­pe­tus for an in­dus­try turn­around.

And talk­ing about farewell, The In­de­pen­dent (print edi­tion) bid us ex­actly that onMarch 26. But news is here to stay, in all sorts of for­mats— the news-bites are smaller, though, judg­ing from re­cent trends. Have con­cen­tra­tion spans short­ened, or is the short form a ne­ces­sity in an age of small screens? The on­line ex­pe­ri­ence fa­vors en­ter­tain­ment and eye candy— some­thing snappy, some­thing sweet. Quips, tweets, vi­ral videos and catchy sound-bytes win the clicks that earn rev­enue. Long-form writ­ing, re­flec­tive, in­ves­tiga­tive or oth­er­wise, if it cir­cu­lates at all, is mostly can­ni­bal­ized from a shrink­ing pool of news­pa­pers and mag­a­zines.

The tra­di­tional news­pa­per— a cu­rated daily ag­gre­ga­tion of di­verse sto­ries deemed news­wor­thy by an edi­tor work­ing with in-house writ­ers, lo­cal re­porters, for­eign bureaus and sup­ple­men­tary selections from wire ser­vices — is look­ing like a thing of the past.

In­deed, though it was not its cen­tral point, the Spot­light re­veals a news­room un­der pres­sure as a fancy edi­tor is brought in to “stream­line” op­er­a­tions. Ef­fi­ciency ex­perts of this sort­may in­deed slow the rot at some pa­pers, but it seems a stop­gap mea­sure de­signed to buy time and pla­cate share­hold­ers.

Dig­i­tal reach is deep and global — one of the most ex­cit­ing as­pects of on­line pub­lish­ing— but the news­room is get­ting small and shal­low. Orig­i­nal con­tent is cheaply re­placed by chopped-up and re-cir­cu­lated sto­ries, re­plac­ing the col­umn inches of lo­cal, in­di­vid­ual voices that once an­i­mated news­pa­pers.

Ad­ver­tis­ing, long the prop of keep­ing a pa­per sol­vent, has moved else­where, mostly to the In­ter­net. Classifieds, a not in­signif­i­cant source of in­come, and a fea­ture with a strong lo­cal fla­vor, have like­wise gone vir­tual.

It’s a time of par­a­digm shift. The sleek newnews ecosys­tem of vir­tual ze­ros and ones cir­cling the globe at the speed of light has ren­dered anachronous a la­bo­ri­ous busi­ness based on pa­per, ink, print­ing presses and de­liv­ery trucks. News­pa­pers, which in their hey­day con­sumed for­est af­ter for­est of trees for newsprint, are be­gin­ning to tum­ble and fall like trees, suc­cumb­ing to ris­ing costs and de­plet­ing rev­enue.

Many news­pa­pers are hy­brid now, with on­line ver­sions out­pac­ing the print orig­i­nals, but if re­cent his­tory of dis­con­tin­ued print edi­tions teaches any­thing — The Chris­tian ScienceMon­i­tor, The Bal­ti­more Sun, The Ob­server — the on­line edi­tion is a black­hole spin­ning per­ilously close to its be­lea­guered part­ner, ready and wait­ing to gob­ble it up.

News­pa­pers will not dis­ap­pear com­pletely in the face of com­put­er­ized news any­more than the ra­dio did with the ad­vent of tele­vi­sion, but they will like­wise oc­cupy a smaller niche. The shift from read­ing a cu­rated, some­what stuffy and opin­ion­ated lo­cal “rag” over a cup of cof­fee to us­ing a smart­phone to pe­ruse an im­pos­si­bly wide net of in­for­ma­tion, and mis­in­for­ma­tion, ac­cord­ing to the nar­row dic­tates of re­cir­cu­lated whimsy and ir­re­sistible click­bait is hap­pen­ing now. The col­lec­tive of shared read­er­ship, which for cen­turies has given iden­tity and voice to towns, cities, coun­tries and lin­guis­tic com­mu­ni­ties is be­ing eroded, re­placed by the frag­mented nar­row cast­ing of the In­ter­net.

The In­ter­net is an in­for­ma­tion Tower of Ba­bel— at once a won­der and a cause for con­cern as it erodes com­mu­nity and at­om­izes in­di­vid­u­als to the point of shred­ding the so­cial fab­ric. De­spite the hype of vir­tual com­mu­nity, there’s a pal­pa­ble dis­con­nect in the dig­i­tal age, as more and more peo­ple dis­ap­pear be­hind screens, look­ing to ful­fill them­selves on­line, only to lose touch with those around them.

The au­thor is a me­dia re­searcher cov­er­ing Asian pol­i­tics.

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