The big scoop on print media tragedy

Updated: 2013-08-14 07:55

By Tom plate (China Daily)

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The digital revolution roiling all media in societies plugged into the Internet is having a profound effect on journalism across the world. Paper has become the stone tablet of our time, not quite as hefty in weight but in other respects as cumbersome.

The effect of the digital revolution, however, is not universally even. Economies that are still rapidly developing will feel it less than those that are more mature. China seems to be launching newspapers or magazines almost every other week. In the US, in contrast, they seem to be folding or changing ownership almost constantly, usually in downward spirals.

Perhaps the digital revolution is hitting hardest in the US, where the media are accorded a special role. The towering importance of the news media in the US political system is well known but not often emulated around the world. It's the rare government that would welcome a media powerful enough to topple it, as The Washington Post helped to do to former US president Richard Nixon in August 1974.

And so it was not surprising that the sale of the financially troubled Post - the leading newspaper of Washington D.C. and one of the leading newspapers of the world - to billionaire Jeff Bezos for $250 million hit many of the Americans hard in the stomach. It is almost as if the Vatican had decided to sell itself to an international resorts corporation for condo redevelopment. The comparison is only somewhat of an exaggeration.

While the US' greatest newspaper, The New York Times, is still controlled by the Sulzberger family, which deserves the nation's gratitude for keeping it great, the country's most politically pugnacious paper has been The Washington Post, whose legendary editor - now "vice-president at large" - is 91 but, in a manner of speaking, still kicking.

My respect for the newspaper medium goes deep - to the way the entire daily package is put together in order to offer us a large picture of the world, and to the overworked and underpaid editors who work diligently to maintain professional quality control. Even a mediocre newspaper is no blog.

But will the digital media overtake the print media one day? In the US, that is already happening. Twenty years ago the paid circulation of the Los Angeles Times was roughly twice what it is today. All over the country, newspapers are struggling to remain stable and profitable. Magazines are generally sagging, too: Worthy Newsweek is out of the print business already, and Time, while struggling valiantly, is also in trouble.

Only high-end and specialty publications will be successful in charging for content online. Some might imaginatively consider expanding their product line; surely Bezos will try a different, more expansive approach with The Washington Post.

The transition to digital is invariably difficult. The New York Times is having success just offering a digital version of itself, but then again that is some self! Its management did not, after all, decimate its foreign-correspondent network and scissor out strings of editorial pearls, as, for example, has the fast-sinking Los Angeles Times. What genius that took.

The best strategy for a widely read publication, whose loyalty is based on the quality of the product, is to not compromise on the quality with serial staff reductions and editorial downgrades. A good example of the proper strategy is that of NewsCorp with The Wall Street Journal, a newspaper that is in better shape now than when the Bancroft family sold it to Rupert Murdoch in 2007. Cutting back on a publication's capacity for greatness is simply a slow march to the grave. Online alone, The Wall Street Journal has nearly 900,00 paid digital subscriptions. Why? Its editors make us think we cannot afford to miss it.

My trip to China last month was an eye-opener. Editors and journalists in China's print media are as scared to death by the digital revolution as any of us here in the US. But there is a difference. For starters, China's economy, though slowing, continues to expand, with an increasingly assertive and moneyed middle class demanding choice and variety (and a measure of relevance) in its journalism.

The other good thing is that journalism as a profession - as a worthy activity, something that one might do for a lifetime - is a plausible option for a young university graduate. Indeed, China's journalism schools are flooded with applications, and are trying to accept as many students as they can. How can this be bad?

The author is Los Angeles-based Loyola Marymount University's distinguished scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies.

(China Daily USA 08/14/2013 page12)