Opinion / Op-Ed Contributors

Fall of newspapers and the gulf in digital age

By PHILIP J. CUNNINGHAM (China Daily) Updated: 2016-03-31 07:33

Fall of newspapers and the gulf in digital age

Electrification and the mobile Internet will help make cars become more than a transport tool, industry experts say. [Photo provided to China Daily]

A film about a struggling newspaper won the Academy Award for best movie of the year, but even Hollywood'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 on March 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 sort may 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 new news 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 Science Monitor, 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 re-circulated 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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