THE printed newspaper is in a hard place. Many have disappeared from the face of the earth. Many more are struggling to survive in the harsh landscape.
Most of you know the story well enough. But it bears repeating here.
In America, 2,000 newspapers have closed since 2004, industry authority Penny Abernathy tells 24/7 Wall St.
A national stalwart, USA Today, reckons more newspapers will slip into the abyss, forever silenced by dying revenue. (It is likely USA Today, which once boasted a circulation of 2.5 million, is also making plans for life after print.)
In India, and perhaps in China, the decline is many miles away. A speaker at the Wan-Ifra India 2019 Conference said “between the last two IRS studies (India Readership Survey), around 16 million readers have been added for printed newspapers and 7.8 million have been added for magazines”.
My mother does not care much for these statistics and pronouncements.
On the old, round marble table-top in the dining room, she reads the NST religiously. Much she does not take to, but much still does she appreciate.
She is 84, though. May I find a 24-year-old like her?
Do young people read the printed newspaper? Do they read anything at all?
About these queries, there is reason to be optimistic. In Singapore.
A survey of 1,000 19-year-olds by The Straits Times and the Singapore University of Social Sciences found that more than half read newspapers. “Nearly one-third of respondents said they read e-newspapers, while a fifth said they read print versions.” That is quite comforting.
But that’s in the island republic.
What about not too far away in Malaysia? More than a year ago, before the 14th General Election, a high-level politician from the BN administration told editors something that gave them a sense of foreboding.
He said that once a person got used to a digital device and the information and entertainment universes it led to, he/she would be unlikely to spend time elsewhere.
Truth be told, many of us were aware of this narrative long before. But his message still struck hard in the heart.
So, are young Malaysians ignoring Print for the digital domain?
I am unable to find research on this subject. So I must needs rely on anecdotal evidence and my own inquiries.
I speak to a few young people. Urban they are, aged between 20 and 40.
By their own admission, they seldom pick up the printed newspaper. Or even look at it.
Loke Yew Ken, a 38-year-old accountant, says it is because he reads mostly on the Internet.
“I read a newspaper only when I see it on the table, either in the office or a cafe.”
For him, the Internet is a logical choice. “It is full of news and information but newspapers have limitations.”
Limitations? He does not say more.
The 20-year-old son of an old friend looks at the printed product only when he is doing research or an assignment.
“I get everything else online,” says Ilham Raimy, a student,
Two words keep popping up in my engagements with the young individuals. And from conversations I have with parents of teenagers: “cursory” and “convenience”.
The Internet is convenient. And cursory reading is, well, fast and easy.
Now don’t be too hasty to wear that scornful look and deride this generation. Well before the Internet came along, editors had found out that too many readers looked only at the headlines. If they were lucky, the readers would go on to consume a few paragraphs. But that was about it.
People were in a hurry. And impatient. It was true then. It is true beyond doubt now.
With such a hasty look at the text, whether in Print or on the Web, what happens to our mind? How does it shape our thinking, or the way we express ourselves on key issues of the day?
Let me say this: I believe the terribly shallow conversations on social media are the continuation of a downward spiral that began years ago, when thinking went to sleep and inequality woke up. The pace in both directions is accelerating. Some self-proclaimed ‘brilliant’ leaders are surreal advertisements for this disaster.
If we follow this path to the end, then THE END it is. We would become like the brainless Eloi in H.G. Wells’ Time Machine.
But if more people started taking the time to read deeply, to think rationally, there may be reason to hope. Context, subtext, history and destiny will be weighed, not grated into nothingness by blades in empty heads. For did not the same Singapore survey also find that “those who read books and newspapers are more likely to hold stronger opinions on domestic and international issues”?
We need to have more thinkers and articulators to tear into inequality and every other dreaded human condition. The printed newspaper may be in a hard place, but it is also certainly one more weapon in the armoury to build a thinking generation. Don’t dismiss it too easily.
The writer is NST production editor