Sunday, November 11, 2012

Adaptability, the key to survival: Print vs online media

A year that has already seen the demise of one print institution – Encyclopaedia Britannica – has now marked the end of another. Newsweek magazine will publish its last print edition in December and re-launch in an all-digital format in 2013.

This, along with the continued decline in major print publication sales numbers, has made some believe that this is further evidence of the decline of the print media. They say the spell of the slow death of print publications has begun, thanks to the proliferation of smartphones, tablets and to a certain extent, feature phones with Internet access.

The proponents of this view believe that the physical wares – newspapers, books and magazines - will no longer be the primary or most profitable means of delivering and interacting with media; news, fact, entertainment or education.

Their arguments expand further. “It’s not that print is bad. It’s that digital is better. It has too many advantages: Omnipresence, speed, permanence, search ability, the ability to update, the ability to remix, targeting, interaction, marketing via links and data feedback. Digital transcends the limitations of - and incorporates the best of – individual media. More important than any of that, of course, is that digital reduces the incremental cost of production and distribution of content to zero. And as every newspaper can tell you: It’s impossible to compete with free”.

We’ve all witnessed a major shift in how content is produced and disseminated - especially over the past five years. From the death of major newspapers to the migration of magazines to tablets and eBook Readers, there’s certainly cause to assume the end of print is imminent. But is it? This debate has gone back and forth for some time now.

Whatever side you fall on, it’s undeniable that how we consume content continues to evolve – and publishing industry executives have obviously taken note. My personal belief is that print media will never die, but digital platforms will continue to play a big part in the publishing world.

Maybe the digital media is overtaking the print media, but I believe the reasons may be a bit different than most people think. As I sat on my couch reading the Sunday Observer and watching a replay of the T-20 cricket match, it occurred to me that the true source of the demise of print media might be a little more subtle.

Twenty odd years ago, I remember longingly my early mornings. The routine; roll out of bed around 5am, go for a jog, come back by 6am, grab the two newspapers off my doorstep, head down the garden to the reclining chair and begin reading, from the first to the last page. Time seemed to slow down as I made my way through the various sections of the newspaper.

Even then, I had the urge to share. If I came across an article I knew someone would like, I would expertly tear - yes, there’s an art to tearing newsprint - the article out and fold it away in my pocket. Later, I would pop it in an envelope with a handwritten note saying “I thought you might find this interesting…” and send it to a colleague, friend or relative.

Flash forward 20 years. Sitting on the couch in the living room each morning (of course, after the usual exercising session), but barely able to get through a few sections of the newspaper, I come across an interesting article - Share market down for the second week. I immediately think I’d like to get some opinions on it from some professionals I know. What goes through my head?

I walk upstairs, look up the article online and then email/share/Tweet it. And that’s when it strikes me. Here, truly, was the demise of the print media. Not because it’s easier to get it online. Not because digital alternatives are equal or superior (they’re not). It’s because digital media makes it easy to do one very important thing: Share.

Ever since the first murmurs about electronic media, print media has always felt an undue threat, first from the radio and then from the television. And now the Internet is seemingly up against the vast and widely spread print media.

When the radio came in the early 1930s, everybody felt that newspapers would become obsolete. When television came in the 1950s, people and even experts felt that nobody would get the time for or feel the attraction of the written word, but everyone was wrong. Each media has created its own time and space across cultures and around the world. However, the print media too, be it the newspapers or books, has been able to hold its own.

Consider this - the circulation figures of major newspapers around the world have only increased over the years; publishers too come up with a deluge of books and new magazine titles pop up from nowhere every day. Alternatively, there are thousands of television channels, even more radio stations, and the infinite Internet.

In this deluge of information, where every media is fighting for attention, who wins? Nobody actually! Thanks to the distinct features, the ease of use and the reach of every media, they all have created a specific target audience or readership for themselves. There is a little bit of appeal for everyone in every media.

Information, knowledge, entertainment, fun, and serious business – all these things can be found in every media now. It is left to the audience to choose what suits them. There lies the competition, which nobody has won yet. And nobody might ever win it completely.

It’s true we are bombarded by images and sounds from various electronic media, which has shortened our attention spans. This quick deluge of information suits many of us who are hard pressed for time and because of this, very few people get the time to read. Everyone wants content in a flash. The Internet has proved to be the most effective media here, where knowledge is literally at your fingertips.

You type what you want, and you get the results in milliseconds – in whatever form you want. There are now online editions of most standard newspapers. This is also the reason you have eBooks now, but how many people have access to the Internet? In Sri Lanka, it is less than eight percent. Internet access remains unaffordable for the majority of people, and cyber cafes, though increasingly spreading, are still limited to urban areas.

Where do the rest of the people go? They turn to newspapers, the television or radio. However, it is only a matter of time till the fast-spreading Internet is accessible to the rest of the people and a majority will look to it for most of their needs. In such a scenario, is it just the print media that is dying? Is it not television and radio too? Although, it is the print media which seems endangered, it is a fact that the success of any media tells upon another media. It is only a tug-o-war going among these, where the centre gets oscillated between the ends.

Each has been devising ways to deal with the plus points of the other. Television is getting interactive, radio is getting more gripping, newspapers and books are trying to get more attractive with the incorporation of visuals and graphics and interactivity to some extent, and all of them together are going online. Adaptability is crucial for existence.

The bottom-line is, if the print media continues to adapt to the changing media habits of people and corner its target readers well, it will survive. And it ought to do that for its own good. Somehow, there is a feeling that even if it fails in that task, the power of the written word will always be supreme.

So, print versus online? The changing times point to online, with print as a luxury. During a time when going green is all the rage, why shouldn’t it apply to the media as well?

By Lionel WIJESIRI -