Thursday, 20 September

Media Migration: Will newsprint survive in the age of the Internet?



Media theory divides human civilization into four strata – verbal, written, print and electronic communication.

These layers have been transformed via cross pollenization and influence. But, if it took several centuries to go from the verbal to the written word, the transformation process was much quicker in the last century.

At the start of the 20th century, humankind was jolted by the advent of the telegram. By the middle of the century, TV became a household item. By the end of the century, the widespread accessibility of the internet ushered in the technological advances we have witnessed this century.

The quick development of technology first impacted the activities of news outlets, since reporters mainly circulate information for a wider audience, using technological resources.

The development of technology is not subject to any spatial or time constraints. Every new computer and telephone gadget or improvement that comes along can be found in almost any electronics store in a matter of days.

In the recent past, people in Armenia associated the receipt of news with reading newspapers. The Armenian word lragir (written news) describes this succinctly. In today’s technological age, however, news can be obtained not only in written form but in its audio-visual-photographic versions, in slide shows, making information accessible in its minutest detail. Humankind’s primary medium of receiving information today is the computer, the telephone, and any item that connects to the internet.

According to figures released by InternetWorldStats, as of July 2012, 1.8 million (60.6%) people in Armenia use the internet. For comparative purposes, we should note that in 2000 the number of users was a mere 30,000. When compared with the rest of the CIS, Armenia leads the way in internet usage. Azerbaijan comes in 2nd with 50%; followed by Russia (47.7%), Belarus (46%), Kazakhstan (45%), Moldova (44.8%), Kyrgyzstan (39.9%), Ukraine (34.1%), Uzbekistan (30.2%), Tajikistan (13%), and Turkmenistan (5%). In neighboring Turkey the figure is 45.7%, and 28.4% in Georgia.

The rate of information transference has grown tenfold. Ten years ago in Armenia, the transference of information took a day to reach the public at large (the case with newspapers), or a few hours (radio and television). Today, it takes just a matter of seconds to reach a much larger audience than ever before.

Due to the development of technology, the dissemination of news and information is much more interactive as well. Every internet user now serves as a potential source of information or its disseminator.  Today, the audience is not merely a recipient of information, but also a sender. The dissemination process has broken free of its former chains, and has become as disorderly as atoms in space.

The present stage of technology, the electronic, has a number of noteworthy positive and negative features:

  1. Speed and coverage – In just a few seconds, dissemination can cover thousands of kilometers. People can communicate and exchange information via video, photos, sound and text, from two sides of the world. People can also follow events as they happen instantaneously in another hemisphere.
  2. Decrease of physical function – In the 21st century, it is sufficient for a person to have a computer linked to the internet to receive news from around the world. Sometimes, people living in one country can find employment in another. Their physical presence “on site” is not mandatory.
  3. Dependency – Connectivity has made technology a real dependency that is regarded as an illness. According to a TeleNav survey, Americans are willing to go without chocolate, alcohol and coffee for a week, but not the telephone. One third of respondents would forgo sex, 22% would stop brushing their teeth, and 21% would leave the house barefoot, rather than going “phoneless”. 66% of respondents confessed that they go to bed with their Smartphone. According to an earlier survey conducted by a British company called Interspereince, our dependency is so strong that people compare their days without the internet with foregoing alcoholic drinks.
  4. Impossibility of censorship – In the current age of technology, shutting down the dissemination of information or censoring it is impossible. It’s enough for the information to appear in social websites for its dissemination to become uncontrollable. Glaring examples of this are the Wikipedia revelations and Eric Snowden’s disclosures of classified documents which allowed people to get a glimpse into the operations of America’s secret intelligence agencies.
  5. Interactivity – Almost each internet website has a “comments” section allowing for reader feedback. Certain news outlets are totally based on the news reports from readers, from which the term “citizen journalism” arises. Every citizen is a potential citizen journalist who can disseminate news on any given event from on-site. The war in Syria is primarily covered through video footage taken by local resident on cell phones. A huge army of citizen journalists has sprung up in various town and cities throughout Syria.
  6. When the technological advance has transformed everyone, regardless of profession, sex, age or other affiliations, into both a bearer and conveyor of information, the question arises as to what technical, economic and content related changes must be made so that journalism maintains it primary functions.

 

Technical – The print media is today at death’s door. Even the giants of media, newspapers and magazines, are either on the brink of closing or are making the move to the internet. Print reporters are also making the same move, and are learning the skills of online journalism in order not to lose their place in the labor market.

If, in the past, the technical worker stood apart from the text writer, today, reporters with universal skills are competitive. In addition to recording and converting information to text, they must be able to film, edit, draw diagrams, and convey information to an audience in the most accessible, visible and interactive way possible.

According to Pew Research Center stats, traditional news outlets are losing ground as a source of news for Americans. In 2011, only television remained competitive with the internet. If the internet hadn’t yet become the primary source of news for the average American senior citizen, the internet had already become the main source of news for a majority (65%) in the 18 to 29 age bracket. This is a global trend, and it’s only a matter of time until the rest of the world catches up.

Gegham Vardanyan, a specialist with the Media Initiatives Center, writes that from the start of the 2013 presidential election, true internet TV and a truly competitive internet TV market took shape in Armenia. He believes that internet TV websites fill in the gaps of debate and analysis left by traditional TV.

Before the recent election, on-line live broadcasts were primarily associated with public rallies and meetings. Today, one can watch on-line debates, interviews, roundtable discussions, and conferences. There are three news outlets in Armenia that stand out for their on-line broadcasts – A1+, Armenia Liberty, and CivilNet. These sites not only cover the elections with live broadcasts, but also other important developments. Thus, people get the news uncensored and unedited.

Such live coverage of events and news also has a public impact. Availing themselves of such direct coverage, many no longer leave their house or workplace to participate in rallies, demonstrations, and other public events. On-line coverage replaces their need to be physically present at the event itself to understand what is taking place.

Content and Financial – To talk about these transformations, it is necessary to note that a news outlet’s content is directly linked to its financial policy and sources. Technological reforms have greatly impacted on the financial policy of large and small newspapers alike. German papers, after witnessing decades of continued development, are now in a tight squeeze. Today, they can’t decide on a new financial strategy; i.e., a replacement for newsstand sales and subscriptions, sources which financed their operation adequately for years. Subscriptions have gone down and papers no longer sell – the internet provides a comprehensive supply of news for free.

They have found the technological solution. A number of large German papers have launched their on-line versions, but they can’t sell the information contained therein.

32 year-old Christian Unger works at the Hamburger Abendblatt newspaper. He’s also started to write for the paper’s on-line edition. “The print media is offering everything for free on-line. In Germany, we see a growth in the websites of newspapers offering content on a paid basis – welt.de, bild.de, abendblatt.de, taz.de, and others. Nevertheless, readers continue with the mentality that everything is free over the internet. And given that there are still large and free websites like spiegel.de-and zeit.de, it will be difficult to get readers to pay. I work at Hamburger Abendblatt, and one must pay for its exclusive material. Despite this, the number of our readers is growing daily,” Unger says.

Advertising prices in the print media are decreasing, while ad rates in the on-line press aren’t going up. The German journalist says that there only a few news outlets in Germany not operating at a loss. “Video clips can help boost ad rates, and local advertising can also be of significance. The policy is the same, print reporters are becoming on-line media reporters. Often, they first write fort the website, and then fort the newspaper. The old hierarchy seems to be crumbling,” notes Christian Unger.

Christian Meyer, another German reporter, believes that it is still too early to describe what the on-line media is, because nobody knows what it might evolve into later on. “Right now, no one really knows where the road will lead. I believe that the print media will survive for a few more years. But, in the meantime, reporters must learn to adapt or else fall by the wayside. On the one hand, reporters are becoming more skilled, while on the other, the demands of the market are rising. I don’t believe that the press is doomed. Perhaps, it is just a matter of acquiring new skills. All inclusive reportage, a quality presentation and attractive packaging are also important,” adds the German reporter.

These large-scale changes can impact the financial policy of news outlets, upon which content and news policy is directly dependent. Technically going on-line is perhaps not a solution. All small and large European news outlets face a problem of organizing their finances. German reporter Christian Meyer also raises the issue. “In Germany, there is wide-spread discussion in the media regarding the possibility of selling on-line content. In fact, several outlets operate on this principle, but nothing has been clarified. It’s a completely new thing. I believe that even the largest newspapers haven’t decided how to conduct their business affairs.”

While business management issues continue to be debated in Europe, in Armenia, the financial policy of news outlets in Armenia has nothing to do with business. There are just one or two independent outlets financed by international foundations, the websites of political parties, TV and radio stations, and newspapers on the verge of closing down.

The media, financed by politicians and political parties, have gone on-line; with just one difference. Maintaining a news outlet today is cheaper than printing a newspaper. You don’t need a license to launch a news site; anyone can do it.

Information technologies have provided operating and experienced new outlets in Armenia the opportunity to develop, launch new features, and to avoid censorship. At the same time, hundreds of new sites have employed these new technologies to spread disinformation, slander and conspiratorial material; thus becoming tools in the hands of various forces.

There is no discussion in any Armenian news outlet about selling on-line content, given that here financial resources aren't derived from the sale of information, but rather derive from carrying out political favors/instructions. In this era of limitless and diverse news coverage, people aren't prepared to pay for receiving their news. In Armenia, the provider of news is ready to pay, so that their information, or political communiqués, can be sold to as wide an audience as possible. Good examples are the ads spreading through social networks, the diverse fraudulent attempts to attract “likes”. The buying and selling of information has moved from the market to the trading floor. If, in the past, sellers would place their wares on little tables, and buyers, browsing up and down, would buy what was to their liking, today the situation is totally different.

Social networks have been created where readers (potential buyers) have gathered, while sellers (news sites) offer their product. The more that product is interesting and attractively packages, the better it will sell. In these exchanges, the definitions, standards and content of information, as a product, have already been blurred. Manufacturing news coverage is no longer the monopoly of news outlets. The consumer is also a producer. Given these conditions, the rules of competition have also changed.

Media Initiatives Center specialist Gegham Vardanyan regards the advance of new technologies as a great tool, but only for news outlets producing quality content. “Technology allows reporters to improve content, and I would like to see news sites and the press develop in this direction. I am specifically talking about quality content, credible news coverage, those who assist media consumers, and not those who mislead or deceive …Because I am hopeful that in time, media consumers will start to demand greater quality on-online news, and that the demand-supply equation will balance out.”

Vardanyan believes that in the future Armenia’s on-line sites will also begin to sell their important content. “The development of online content of the print press will unavoidably impact their financial policy. It’s only natural that if newspaper owners invest in the on-line field, that market will also develop and, consequently, revenue expectations. It is also possible that we will see print media in Armenia in the near future demanding payment for their archival material on-line.”

Media specialist Samvel Martirosyan is convinced that as a result of these technological changes, all types of news media are gradually fusing together. “Today, it is already very difficult to draw a line separating various mass media outlets. There are sites that are not only on-line news providers but also photo agencies and on-line TV. The borders are gradually getting blurred. There is simply one differentiating mark – on what field are the resources of any given media outlet primarily being spent. One is spending more on television, another, more on a news site. Both are engaged in all fields,” Samvel says.

Samvel Martirosyan also stresses that as a result of the fusion of different forms of news outlets, the only loser is the print media. Both TV and radio can continue to operate on-line, but the situation of the print media is the most critical.

“Even in those countries where the print media enjoys a storied legacy of tradition, where it is accepted by wide segments of society as a way of life and operates as a self-serving business, even in these countries the print media is being forced to migrate to the internet. The print media is in more deleterious straits, given that newspaper print runs are only a few thousand at best and are falling. Newspapers, in essence, aren’t attracting a new audience Young people aren’t becoming newspaper readers. Consequently, their only salvation is to make the move to the internet,” Samvel concludes.


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