Digitalisation: the printed word in peril? | Daily News


Digitalisation: the printed word in peril?

There was a time, or a period, when digital or virtual communication was scoffed down. But it has become the new norm in these troubled times. Willingly or unwillingly, most organisations have been compelled to switch to the virtual sphere. The PCs, laptops, smartphones and tablets/iPads have become more usable and useful beyond the like of Candy Crush Saga and Facebook.

Almost every newspaper in Sri Lanka has an online presence. However, the majority of the readership was still comfortable with the physical touch of the paper. COVID-19 transformed this spectacle. With curfew imposed, the paperboys and the paper stalls went into hibernation; the readership had to change their medium. They had to switch from much comfortable physical flip-touch to the scroll-down touchscreen.

For Narayana Gedara Sarathchandra residing in Weeragula off Yakkala, this was a strange experience. A senior citizen with the sixty-plus badge, the smartphone was definitely not his cup of tea. But the daily habit of reading at least one newspaper had been ingrained in him over the years. The absence of the physical touch of a paper made his heart grow fonder of the papers and yearning for an alternative medium. He had to step into the unfamiliar grounds, somehow.

“I got my son in law to send all the Sinhalese newspapers on WhatsApp. And I got my daughter to install the Adobe Acrobat PDF reader app on the phone. It is not easy, but it was something. I had a paper of some sort to read at least,”

Will he stick to that medium?

“As soon as they start the print editions, I will go for it. I am more comfortable reading the real paper.”

But the world thinks in different terms.

Losing circulation

The smell of such difference was out in the open when the celebrated US magazine Newsweek stopped its 80-year old print run in favour of going digital. The magazine was first published in 1933 and discontinued the print edition in December 2012. The cyberspace discloses that the magazine had been ‘struggling’ for years, losing circulation against the fast-digitalising backdrop.

And the rest of the newspapers, magazines and periodicals followed the suit. They had to. Going online meant more windows of neighbouring media opportunity for the traditional print medium.

The newspaper online offered an all-in-one experience to the hitherto-restricted readership. Breaking news went on the banner of the webpage. Television and broadcast experience were also embedded therein. The competitors and rivals changed.

Television and radio were no longer the rivals and competitors to the online newspaper; at least not much. The advent of social media coupled with citizen journalism made leeway into many channels of information. But soon, the credibility of such information came to be questioned.

The newspaper online regained its temporarily lost consciousness with mushrooming social media sites losing its credibility over fake news claims.

They were no longer ‘traditional media’. They earned the new niche, ‘mainstream media’, shared with the online presence of television and radio.

The world began to drift away from the printing process. In Sri Lanka, such a move came to be a trial run over the last few weeks. But it is not going to be so forever; at least not yet. The print run will recommence once the social life gets back to normalcy.

Sri Lanka’s entry into digitalisation

Sri Lanka’s digital conversion took off in the 1980s as a visible consequence of the advent of the open economy. The computer arrived towards the end of the 1980s. The mobile phone made its entry in 1995.

According to Nalaka Gunawardana, Sri Lanka had more active mobile phone subscriptions than people (124 per 100 persons), and around 30% of the population was using the Internet by early 2017.

Internet no longer required the command of English. It became more convenient with smartphone invading the market at affordable rates and instalment-payment options.

If we had only newspapers, television and radio before the 2000s (or only newspapers for the reading experience), the forthcoming years changed everything. We have more posts to read online than articles on newspaper pages. A cartoon or two was replaced by numerous Facebook memes. Opinion articles were replaced by blogposts. Information confined to the first few pages of the traditional newspapers was now available on ubiquitous websites and blogs.

All that meant one. The readership now had a richer alternative to the traditional newspaper. Would that mean an end to the century-old tradition?

Downfall of the print

The ‘decline of newspapers’ comes to the fore at this junction. Well, this is clichéd enough now that we have entered the second decade of the incumbent millennium, 2020. The industry has already been facing a downfall across the globe particularly in terms of advertising revenue. Since its first newspaper published circa 1690, the industry has had a fair share of rivals. Television and radio were major ones, but not as real as the social media sphere spreading its tentacles. A report by Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism reveals how the publishers of The Economist had to employ large social media teams to optimise posts (modernised broad term to define the traditional news articles) and maximise traffic (the cyberspace word associated with readership).

Katharine Viner, the editor of The Guardian, tackles this dilemma in an essay to her newspaper: “While the possibilities for journalism have been strengthened by the digital developments of the last few years, the business model is under grave threat, because no matter how many clicks you get, it will never be enough. And if you charge readers to access your journalism you have a big challenge to persuade the digital consumer who is used to getting information for free to part with their cash.”

The Guardian website claims to receive 38 million visitors. This is in contrast to the print circulation of mere 200,000 copies. Yet the issue still lingers. The 38 million visitors access the paper free of charge. The Guardian is among the very few newspapers that offer its articles free of charge. But not without some begging on their part with a disclaimer-like message appearing at the end of each article:

“… just when we need it the most. Millions of readers around the world are flocking to the Guardian in search of honest, authoritative, fact-based reporting that can help them understand the biggest challenge we have faced in our lifetime. But at this crucial moment, news organisations are facing an unprecedented existential challenge. As businesses everywhere feel the pinch, the advertising revenue that has long helped sustain our journalism continues to plummet. We need your help to fill the gap.”

The plea stretches for a few more paragraphs, leaving us to wonder how long The Guardian will continue its charity.

Thriving habit

With a whole world facing a heavy plunge in the newspaper industry, the World Economic Forum (WEF) points to one country where the newspaper industry is still thriving. The country to remember is none other than our neighbour: India.

The WEF recorded the following in 2017.

“Yet, in India, the printed word on pulped trees remains an amazingly healthy industry. India now has the world’s largest number of paid newspapers, and the number continues to grow, from 5,767 in 2013 to 7,871 in 2015. Over those same two years, 50 newspapers ceased publication in the US, which has less than a quarter of India’s print papers.

It is doubtful if that story would continue to be narrated that way. Like other countries, India too will have to face the inevitable.

Newspaper, either printed or published online, is deemed the guardians of democracy and the rule of law as an integral element of the fourth estate (on a different plane, blogs and social media are considered the fifth state).

They are the reliable mainstream media that provide information to citizens, assemble groups around issues, and play the de facto watchdog against wrongdoings of any scale.

When Marshall McLuhan coined the well-used phrase ‘medium is the message’ (and massage; pun intended), the Canadian Communication scholar proposed that the medium itself should be the focus of study.

McLuhan used the term ‘message’ to emphasise content and character. In his 1964 work ‘Understanding Media’, McLuhan argues that it is the medium itself that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action. McLuhan’s theory is decades old, but what it signifies applies even today.

For centuries if not millennia, humans have been reading. That is a practice still cherished by the Homo sapiens. The spread of literacy and diverse kinds of reading materials has come to a level that cannot be reversed. Humans read on the stone tablets. Paper popped in and the reading habit did only grow.

Mediums and media change, but the reading remains. Digital technology, that said, redefines the reading habit (though we are well past that stage). The medium would change; from the stone tablet through the papyrus and now to the digital tablet, but the ache for information would stay intact.


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