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Print media will survive
Despite their ongoing problems and competition from online publications, printed newspapers and magazines still have a strong future.
Much has been said and written in recent times about the future of traditional print media. These days, some commentators seem to think that online publications will replace printed newspapers and magazines altogether.
Years ago, in the dark old days of 1994 when the internet was just getting started, I published one of the world’s first online magazines -- The Australian Observer. Back then, the picture was different. While many people believed the internet was just a passing fad, yours truly insisted that it would eventually replace print publishing.
How times have changed. Although I still think the internet will become the major force in communications, I now believe that print media will not die, but will maintain an important role in publishing.
This is not to say that mass circulation daily newspapers will all survive. It is obvious that they are now the bloated, costly dinosaurs of the media world. Despite Rupert Murdoch’s recent announcement that he intends to survive by charging for access to his content, the future for the big newspapers remains bleak. (While Murdoch might turn a profit selling premium content like that offered by the Wall Street Journal, the same cannot be said of his less-specialised publications.).
One of the big problems for newspapers is that they have lost their monopoly over certain services -- TV guides, sports results and classified advertising -- all of which are now offered (more efficiently) online.
At the same time, traditional print media are saddled with huge wage bills. Retrenchment is costly and takes time.
Despite all this, I am convinced print media will inevitably fight back. How? For a start, print has many natural advantages over computer-based publications. Consider the following:
Printed publications don’t suffer from the technical headaches that plague portable electronic devices – they don’t have limited battery life, they are not susceptible to reception black spots, and there is no need to wait for them to boot up before you can access their content.
Printed publications are highly portable and accessible – you can leave them on a coffee table, in the bathroom or take them on a long-distance train ride.
They lend themselves more easily to comfortable reading. Although some of us are happy viewing articles while sitting at a computer screen, many more people prefer relaxing with the printed page in a comfortable armchair.
Research indicates that most people retain much more information they take in from a printed page, than from a computer screen. It’s not clear yet why this is so, but experts say that the difference in recall is nevertheless striking.
Even putting all of these advantages aside, print media have other, possibly more important, advantages. This is illustrated by the fact that, even in the online world, the most popular information websites are still operated by big newspapers. They include the Washington Post, The New York Times, Time magazine, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times and so on.
The reason is not just that people are slow to break old habits, but that the quality of journalism produced by traditional print media is still well ahead of the combined might of all the bloggers that inhabit cyberspace. The bottom line is that before internet-based publications can overtake traditional print media, there will need to be a quantum leap in the quality of much online publishing. (This does not apply to sites like Mercatornet, of course. Although any publication will have the odd glitch, Mercatornet is operated by experienced media professionals and this is reflected in the consistently high quality of its articles.)
So, what are the sins of internet-based news sites? For a start, there is the endless trail of spelling mistakes and poor grammar that litters the online world. Much of what appears online these days is so full of errors that many articles and the comments they inspire are close to unreadable. You get the impression that many online scribblers don’t even give their ramblings a second viewing before they click the "publish" button.
By contrast, there is something about the permanent nature of print publications that urges writers to take more care with what they produce. The tradition in print-based publications of employing professional sub-editors to minimise errors also helps.
This aspect of print media forms part of a wider issue -- the need for clarity in written communications. The fact is that good communication is a great skill -- one that professional journalists, despite all their failures, have traditionally mastered. Most have been pushed and prodded from the very beginning to make themselves easily understood. An old mantra of newspaper editors is that if readers have to re-read a line or a sentence to grasp its meaning you have lost them.
Even those you would expect to excel in this area -- the so-called intellectuals who write online -- often fail. Instead of striving to make themselves easily understood, they often hide behind professional jargon in a foolish attempt to appear learned or profound. To anyone schooled in the art of communication, they simply display their ignorance of the most basic principles of good writing.
Finally, the worst failure of many websites is their cavalier disregard for balance. Young reporters in printed publications are trained to give both sides of a question. This does not seem to be the case for many bloggers. One eye seems to be all they need.
The fact is that online publishing seems to maximise the opportunity for biased, polemical writing. Printed publications have limited space and they don’t tend to waste it on rednecks venting their spleen.
These, in my view, are the main reasons why printed publications are destined survive and why we need them to survive. The ones that do will be those that consistently produce information that is easy to access, read and understand, and that give a balanced view of the real world in which we all have to live.
William West is a Sydney-based freelance journalist who has had wide experience in both print and online publications.
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