Thursday, December 22, 2011

News minus paper

This week the Nepali twitter-sphere and other social media were abuzz with comments on the price hike of some major vernacular dailies. The newspapers’ front-page ‘publishorials’ justified the move saying the hike was long overdue because of market inflation and rising production costs. Nonetheless, the publishers hoped that with their readers’ support they would be able to continue earning their “trust” and further enhance the “quality” of their products.

While some editors gently posted announcements of price hike in their social media accounts, many tweeples saw the collective move by the newspapers as “fishy”, and some social media hounds described it as “cartelling”. I commented it was an “insane” cent percent increase, and an “amazing consensus” among newspapers that previously seemed always in a price war. But then the key words in the publishers’ notes that grabbed my attention were “trust” and “quality”.

Indeed, any professional with some experience in the news business knows how indispensable these concepts are to the works of journalists, and how familiar, clichéd or uniquely journalese they have become in newsrooms. In this article, I would like to comment on the larger forces affecting the “newspaper” business universally and in Nepal, as well as on local newsmaking in a rapidly globalizing world. This is not another article attacking the price hike or defending it. In a market economy, the consumers themselves will ultimately reward or punish a product, a brand or a service.

The real issue at the heart of many print readjustments in recent years is the increasingly uncertain future of the “news+paper” business. Mainly because of stunning breakthroughs in new media technologies, in particular, the Web 2.0 multi-media applications that enable near-total real-time information-sharing and interactivity, the crowds are clearly virtual-bound. Consequently, we see a rapid erosion of the “paper” part in the old arrangement of print journalism. Hardly a day passes without us having to hear a report or a study from the Western world alerting us about the accelerating decline of print or the imminent death of newspapers, or more free newspapers clogging mega city subways, and those newsroom staff cuts that have become as routine as falling stock prices or trees shedding their leaves in winter.

Yet, somehow, in Nepal or India or other developing nations, we were seeing a spring season; print actually was making strides with increased circulations and expanding ad revenues fueled by economic growth and not the least important, rising literacy rates. Many journalists and experts did not see the reason to even dwell on gloomy predictions. Typically, we were told that the new media never replaced old media; radio or newsreels or television did not kill newspapers, and the Internet wouldn’t either. As long as we produced “quality” content, we would continue to earn the “trust” of our readers to survive any competition, etc. Whatever those terms meant to anyone!

We were not alone in our print zeal or optimism. Foreign investors entered “emerging markets” like India or Kenya, and actually launched local editions of their newspapers and magazines. In Nepal, such foreign venture started ten years ago, with the launch of The Himalayan Times and soon after with Annapurna Post. The beginning of a partnership between this newspaper you are reading and The International Herald Tribune, the global edition of The New York Times, also served to reinforce the sense that Nepal’s print prospects were not disappointing, if not fully bright.

However, it was always questionable in an informal economy like ours how new publications with significant investments in an already overcrowded market would survive and sustain. Around 2000, Kathmandu was already cited by some news watch groups in the West as having one of the highest concentrations of newspapers for any city. Add to that the launch of at least five large dailies in the past four years.

The aggressive marketing and the price war (selling it almost free to grab more readers) led many skeptics to suspect that many newspapers did not care about profits, since they were actually only dekhaune dant, the visible teeth of investors with dubious sources of funding. Whatever the truth, lacking a transparent system to track and analyze market trends in the business that still remains proprietorial or family-owned, we cannot say much about the real state of our media economics today and we cannot predict much about the future of our newspapers.

Now, however, the price hike could be a rare indicator of where we might be headed. There are several factors in play, but chiefly, I see three forces shaping the evolution or transformation of our print news. The first is the increasing penetration of the Internet. The other is the increasing literacy rate. Both are constrained or cultivated under a given economic condition. These are conflicting forces, literacy being about print and the Internet becoming more and more about audio-visual or aural in addition to being print.

We now have one of the highest rates of Internet penetration in the developing world. Latest data show that the number of Internet users increased by 54 per cent in the past year. By October 2011, a total of 13.49 percent Nepalis had access to the Web, mainly via mobile phones. Newspapers in Nepal may eventually become their own victims. Now readers, including their print subscribers, have increased access to their free online editions. As users get accustomed to the new technology and the “free meals” online, the foundations of print journalism will be rattled further, possibly sparking off more price reviews and adjustments. But that is not going to be of much help as long as the crowds are lost to the Web.

Sooner than later news investors will have to focus on a business model on news minus the paper, focusing on the prospects of online news. Apart from some individually-driven entrepreneurship, and some experiments in starting print publications with online pre-launch demonstrations, we have yet to see big investors trying anything of Web-only journalistic substance here in the country. We have hardly anything even remotely resembling Slate or Salon or Tehelka, the trend setters in online journalism in the US and/or India. Sure, there were some early birds, like but such portals as well as the online editions of many print outlets have not been able to catch up with new tools and majority of them still do shovelware, publishing what they already put out in their print versions.

On the other hand, the increasing literacy may actually foster a fascination for newspaper reading among the neo-literates leading, in fact, to more increase in newspaper readership. It also implies discerning readers, who may demand quality to place their trust in a particular media. The noted American newspaper critic Philip Meyer, in his book The Vanishing Newspaper (2001) wrote that newspapers are “in the influence business,” not the news or information business. In other words, “quality” in journalism increases social influence and credibility, which leads to circulation and profits.

Unfortunately, one of the devastating effects of the global structural change of media, despite technological breakthroughs, is the decline in quality of content. Critics have noted that conglomerization, concentration, homogenization of content, with the overarching phenomenon of globalization, have intensified status quo and conservatism for the sake of corporate greed. To cater to artificially created huge market niches, or consumer communities, these media have undermined variety, depth and breadth in the information they cater to the public. As a result, many local communities, be they individual countries or regions within or across the countries, have started to look critically to this monoculture phenomenon.

In our region, we hear similar complaints now and then. The “paid news” controversy in India, and advertisers’ interferences or influences in news coverage of certain brands in Nepal are but few examples. Our newspapers also routinely recycle international content while ignoring local issues of relevance.

There are many other important issues concerning quality and the public roles of newspapers. In the days ahead, let’s hope our newspapers, as members of the “influence business”, will help to influence attitudes and perceptions of their readers and consumers regarding the proper measures of “quality” and “trust” in our context and what to expect of the news (paper) in the long term.

Published in Republica, Dec 21, 2011