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With a Grain of Piquant Salt


In this article Bhaskar discusses With a grain of piquant salt: Its media, Jim, but not as we know it..


With a grain of piquant salt: Its media, Jim, but not as we know it.

 article about With a grain of piquant salt: Its media, Jim, but not as we know it.

This article belongs to With a Grain of Piquant Salt column.


 


So many times we have heard about how people are turning away from traditional media, The requiem for the traditional radio, TV and newspapers has been written many times. So, is the death of traditional media vastly exaggerated? No, I am afraid not. Over the past few weeks, many factors have come together in my mind to indicate that the media as we know it will no longer exist in five years time. This is because of four interrelated factors: the entry of new media members; the impact of technology; disappearance or negative changes to sources of income for media firms; and narrowing or rather changes of reader's interest and demographics. This has severe impact on the media companies of today, the media people and the readers.


 


First, the factors that raised this issue in my mind . . .


 


The first was a seminar arranged by Arab Media Watch at the School of Oriental and African Studies on the topic of whether or not the western media fans sectarianism in the Middle East. On the panel were four very senior and experienced media people, ranging from the head of the BBC Arabic service, to a national newspaper publisher, to a senior foreign editor and a columnist with decades of experience. The basic thrust of what these worthies said was that no, the western media does not fan sectarianism in the Middle East. This obviously went down like a lead balloon with the audience. I was listening to what the panelists were saying and then observing the audience. When I walked away, I sent an email to my sister stating that both sides are heading for extinction at worst or reduced relevance at best. The issues around the media will be discussed by the by, but the audience was looking to the media to actually make sense of the mayhem happening in the Middle East. While they do have their place, their place is tiny. In addition, the frequent outbursts of emotion sat very strangely with the newspaper world.  This is one of the factors that will drive traditional media to irrelevance.


 


Traditional newspapers, TV and radio generally try not to pander to the extreme sides, but try to report facts and figures and give equal time to all sides. Again, there are seriously wide and different types of these media channels, but generally, in the assortment of western media outlets, they tend to cluster together on the centre ground. But given the fact that we have new entrants such as Hamas TV, Al Jazeera TV, internet radio stations, Arabic language websites and dedicated English language Arabic newspapers (for example Arab News, Al Ahram Weekly, etc.), there are just way too many alternative channels to get the news which you want, in the spin you want it, with the kind of positioning you want and at the timing you want. So effectively, the audience at the seminar was looking at broad-based media to reflect their own biases, requirements and way of looking at the world. Unfortunately, that time has now gone. It was politics that concerned the Arab Media Watch seminar audience. Segolene Royal, the French Socialist Presidential candidate came up with her manifesto based upon an internet campaign. (The fact that she dumped most of it and went back to the hoary old elephantine ideas of old socialism is not the new media's fault!)


 


American elections since the turn of the century have now become heavily dependent upon the internet. Whether it was the election in 2000, or the election in 2004 or now, the ongoing battle for the election to come in 2008, the internet matters hugely in terms of mobilising your fan base (Barak Obama is on Facebook -  so am I, do look me up!), getting funding, getting your message across or perhaps most importantly, getting and keeping the new internet aware generation hooked into your campaign. In addition, this form of political engagement is happening in so many countries, ranging from Germany, UK, France, Sweden, Finland, South Korea, Singapore, and Australia etc. Heck, one could even say that the noisiest political drums in Egypt are on the blogosphere.


 


Here's one that has bubbled up recently, where more international people were reading this site (http://www.freekareem.org/) to know about Abdul Kareem, than reading the local press, which was silent on this issue. No wonder, because it is free of government or editorial control. Same with the kifayaa movement, which has a huge following on the internet. This leads us to the impact on the value chain. Once upon a time, there were salaried or freelance newspapermen (generally) who produced content, editors then chose and guided, and the printing happened afterwards based on that, then distribution happened and I would read the newspaper while sipping my morning cup of tea or while squished on the London Underground. Now, content is open, blogs are a dime a dozen. Take the above example of Egypt, if you wanted to know about what's really happening in Egypt, you go to the bloggers rather than the controlled Egyptian Media. Pakistan has tried to block or control their internet media outlets, and bloggers were the ones who broke news and provided content. Bloggers are now being invited to press conferences and slowly are being the main source of content. Think about the Drudge Report!


 



 


Bloggers are now capable of moving the news stream by themselves. Furthermore, automated algorithms in sites such as Google have selection of news stories based upon thousands of news feeds, which was one of the primary roles of an old style newspaper or TV news editor. Consider the rise of sites such as digg.com that provide a totally different way of selecting stories for readership. The 28th March 2007 issue of the Financial Times carried two stories that were so appropriate for this topic. The first was that in the UK, for the first time, the amount of money spent on internet advertising is going to exceed the amount of money spent on traditional advertising. But, more curious, was the second article that reported a poll between senior news executives for the World Editors Forum and Reuters. While 85% of the executives saw a rosy figure for the future of their newspapers, 40% said that the internet would become the primary medium in ten years, compared to 35% who thought that print would retain its dominance. Almost 50% thought that news will be free, 62% said that circulation had stalled or fallen. The figures from the other side of the pond bear this change out. Time magazine has dropped its advertising pages by 25% in the last five years. The New York Times has halved in value in terms of its stock price in the past five years. Classified advertisements are under tremendous pressure from online internet sites such as Craig's List and Gumtree.


 


Internet job sites have taken away the other hugely profitable element for newspapers. There seems to be this lingering notion that countries in Asia are still profitable and good for newspapers. Take India for example, one of the freest and biggest newspaper/magazine markets in the world. In the recent readership survey of 2007 compared to 2006, most of the major Indian newspapers and magazines (both English and vernacular) showed a drop in readership ranging from five to 10 per cent in just one year. For example, the top newspaper, Dainik Jagran, dropped a cool million readers from 18 to 17 million. This puts the few hundred thousand subscribers in the UK and Europe in perspective, where the number of Indian subscribers dropped is equal to the overall subscription of few of the major newspapers, no? To make it worse, the overall subscription of the newspapers here in Europe is smartly dropping as well.


 


Whenever people say, "Oh! The media is biased", it makes me smile. Given the kind of range of news opinions and sources that are available across the world, on radio, TV, newspapers, internet, etc., for them to state that the opinions tend to cluster in one end is a fantastic misreading of the facts or lack of knowledge of how the world has changed. Also, note that the people who state this are either from countries that practise news censorship or are fervent believers in conspiracy theories. There is another type, namely those who are very emotional about news. They aren't looking for news per se; rather, they are looking for corroborating evidence for their fondly held cherished notions. A word of advice to them: in the dim and distant past, when there were few news channels (TV, Radio or print), it made sense to beat up the poor newspapermen. Now? The audience has gone off to other pastures, while they are still wondering about who or what is talking about their pet issues. Therefore, if they do want to influence world opinion and/or inform people, they have to become their own content generators.


 


Going back to the Arab Media Watch, I would have pointed to the interesting rise of Al Jazeera as an example of the admission of new entrants, the rise in internet chat rooms and groups, blogs, digg.com, etc. The old ways of informing and influencing public opinion has already changed immeasurably. I am reminded of good old Darwin's quote where he said: "the species which survived were not the biggest or fastest but the most adaptable to change".


 


It is a very exciting time, my dear readers. It is not good or bad (other than for the people who refuse to change), it's just different. I will close with an old trekkie quote. One of the classic utterances in Star Trek is when the Doc tells the Captain on seeing new life on a strange planet, "It's life, Jim, but not as we know it".


 


All this to be taken with a grain of piquant salt!


 





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