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What shall print publications do to survive?

Updated 23 Dec, 2016 08:28pm
Photograph by Arif Mahmood, White Star
Photograph by Arif Mahmood, White Star

Silence comes in many forms. It could be a deliberate act of not talking. It could be an involuntary restraint on speech, an enforced ban. It could simply be the absence of voices. Or it could be the drowning of one voice – or some voices – by many. You may be talking, but is anyone listening? Or, more aptly, is your voice reaching anyone at all?

The first form of silence is a mystic act: of deciding not to say what cannot be – or should not be – said. The second results from the actions of the state’s coercive apparatus. The third is a natural state of quiet. And the fourth is just white noise — a lot of it.

This last form – this white noise – is causing a deafening silence: that talks and does not listen, that shouts and does not stop, that hurts and does not apologise. When noise becomes an incomprehensible babble, it drowns the senses. It creates an auditory vacuum that registers no sound, no matter how loud. White noise is, thus, received, and perceived, as nothing but silence — it is like watching television on mute.

White noise, as is obvious, is noise by the electronic news media and the silence it drowns is the one a human mind requires to wonder, to think, to understand: the silence that news in print has afforded its audience for generations.

Minds dulled by television see the printed word as hieroglyphics from a forgotten age. A large number of people have stopped looking at print publications. Many others are doing it with decreasing frequency and dwindling regularity. If and when news audiences duck the auditory and visual onslaught of a television, they are grabbed by their thumbs by social media. When news viewers are not sitting in front of the idiot box, they are highly likely to be transfixed by their mobile phones, laptops and desktops in the same order of preference. The readers of news in print, therefore, are disappearing — here as well as everywhere else.

What shall print publications do to survive? The short answer: do what the book industry is doing the world over; add value by improving the quality of both the content and the packaging. While people read books online as much as they read news publications online, there is still a cultural and intellectual premium attached to carrying the print copy of a well-written and well-printed book. News in print must also consider becoming that — a prized possession, a collector’s item.

For a long answer, consider the commercial pressures on news in print. Advertisers who help newspapers and news magazines reach their readers at a fraction of their production cost are deserting print publications in droves, even when inputs – such as electricity, newsprint and human resources – are becoming increasingly pricier. As readership numbers are getting smaller, so are advertisers’ budgets for newspapers and news magazines. The print media’s business model that worked for decades seems to have reached its expiry date.

Yet, the need – if not the demand – for verified and verifiable news content that only print publications can create has never been greater. Electronic media’s predilection for the popular and the commercial, and the social media’s propensity to exaggerate and distort – if not entirely manufacture – reality, make it imperative that there be an antidote to their excesses. Print media alone has the time and the capacity to sift fact from fiction, distinguish information from propaganda and separate news from noise.

To continue attracting enough readers who can be sold to enough advertisers who then provide enough financial resources to keep newspapers and news magazines afloat, many (if not all) Pakistani publishers are pushing their publications in a different direction. Most Sunday magazines in English have been left with next to no content. The Sunday magazines of Urdu newspapers have always been a curious mix of politics, culture, fashion, showbiz, travel, fiction and spirituality – a bit of everything for everyone in a weekend readership – with the difference that editorials and advertorials have gotten inseparably mixed up in many of their pages in recent years.

But this whittling down of content is not bringing back readers. Bringing newspapers and magazines online has also not solved the problem. While advertising revenues are scratchy, competition is so intense and readership so fickle that even the fittest struggle to survive in cyberspace.

Print publications are faced with two more monsters: their cover price (a matter which, in Pakistan, is largely in the hands of newspaper hawkers) and chaperoning by the state’s security apparatus. Cover price has become nearly obsolete in the age of free online content, and pressures from the state in Pakistan have only intensified. Not that the state has not tried to block the production and distribution of the electronic and social media’s content. Yet, pulling the plug on newspapers and news magazines is much easier. They have a single mode for distribution: choke that and you can choke them out of life.

Caught between squeezing revenues and even more rapidly squeezing editorial freedom, print publications are being silenced into becoming something they actually are a cure to: a white noise that drowns the silence and a social media that looks busy in doing nothing, at least nothing meaningful.

This article was originally published in the Herald's December 2016 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.