I Had been waiting for longer than usual for the van blaring “old newspapers” in my neighbourhood.
When it finally came around last weekend, I rushed out to ensure he did not miss me and started peppering him with queries as to the apparent long absence. A rather long litany of woes issued forth from him.
My piles of old newspapers awaiting his collection hit him like a gold mine, the van driver said. True enough, the inside of his van that was filled with all sorts of recyclable odds and ends was devoid of any newspapers until the minor windfall I showered him with.
“Nobody reads newspapers any more,” he lamented, his words hitting me with an odd sensation that I may be among the few dinosaurs still walking the planet.
Nobody seems to read newspapers the old-fashioned way anymore, that is. The news mass-produced daily on newsprint may be inexorably headed the way of the dodo bird. A news vendor I occasionally chatted with shared the same lament as the “old-newspaper” man. His shop-front used to be festooned with colourful magazines of all descriptions and a full range of local and national daily newspapers. What is on offer now are thin piles of local newspapers. He used to do brisk sales of a national business weekly from the nearby churchgoers on Sunday mornings. No longer.
Over in the heart of town, another old “mom-and-pop” news vendor decided months ago to close shop altogether and not because the owners’ lawyer son now sits as a “Yang Berhormat” in the Sarawak Assembly.
An entire business supply chain may be winding down as the onslaught of the so-called digital era takes a hold and everyone now seemingly gets his daily news fix virtually, online.
My sense of personal woe only deepens. My daily international newspaper which was faithfully delivered to my doorstep each afternoon over many years stopped getting delivered. The newspaper in question had decided to discontinue its print edition and offered to convert the remainder of my paid subscription to its online edition which I respectfully declined. Then the non-delivery of national editions of newspapers followed. The inestimable and irreplaceable joy of holding newsprint in one’s hands is no more.
Woe intensified as I find magazine and newspaper racks in established book-shops burrowing their way deeper into the bowels of such stores, their diminishing offerings staring rather forlornly from unobtrusive corners. This is a sad phenomenon not just in provincial cities but — as I increasingly observe — in metropolitan centres as well.
Is there not light at the end of such a bleak tunnel?
One can only hope there is, indeed. Increasingly, the nagging concern for most of us who get our news on social media these days is if what we are being fed is reliable news. “Fake” news has entered our lexicon in the same manner as other fake commodities have long been plied. Laws are catching up with this modern-day social menace and as recent terrorism-related events around the globe show us, the effects can be lethal and truly terrifying.
The initial worry of autocrats that social media will eventually instigate protests that will turf them out of power has morphed into a more generalised worry even among democrats that such a new media phenomenon is causing the radical and radicalised fringes of society to increasingly occupy the political centre where power used to reside before.
We may be on the verge of creating and empowering a social monster that passes for news nowadays. The fightback has started and can only gain in momentum, lest further and irreparable damage is done to many a nation’s body politic and social fabric.
The twin of freedom is social responsibility and while raw, unfiltered news spread freely in the virtual world may give forth a rather intoxicating sense of personal liberation, it is untethered to the usual social and behavioural norms that keep both individuals and society at large properly grounded.
News is hardly “neutral” and most ordinary people need more expert “opinion leaders” or news editors to analyse and interpret the news and put events in their proper context for popular consumption.
As greater popular appreciation returns for those among us who make news our business, the realisation may again dawn that nothing ever comes “free”, news included.
The reinvention of the news business may have only just begun. We may never return to the halcyon days of the print media but at least its demise may not be inevitable after all.
The writer views developments in the nation, the region and the wider world from his vantage point in Kuching, Sarawak