Reflections

The Media Challenge: Straddling the Print and Cyber Worlds

By Nick Twinamatsiko, Uganda:

It has been said for quite a while now that the rise of online media, specifically blogs and social media, threatens to condemn traditional print media to increasing irrelevance and eventual extinction. It’s staggeringly evident from all recent statistics that the reading time, in terms of man-hours and woman-hours, spent on social media is rapidly rising whereas that spent on traditional print media is on the wane. Within the last decade, more than a billion people have joined Facebook, and this is just one of the social media sites on the internet. Within the same period, the number of print copies sold by newspapers has steadily fallen. Some iconic print publications, such as Britannica encyclopedia, have closed shop within this period, and this is attributable to the slump in sales.

Before I joined Facebook in 2010, I used to regularly read all local newspapers, two regional lifestyle magazines (Drum and Parents) and two international news-magazines (Time and Newsweek). But when I joined the website, I began to have increasingly less time for the print publications. It has been years now since I last bought a copy either of the regional lifestyle magazines or of the international newsmagazines. I rarely buy personal newspapers – I read, actually skim through, the office copies. But I spend about two hours each day on social media, reading posts shared by friends and the pages I follow. These posts range from the trivial jokes to the links to serious articles on websites.

The internet has diversified the content at my disposal. In addition to Time and Newsweek, I follow tens of other international newsmagazines. Before I joined Facebook, I had only bought and read one copy of New Yorker, but I now regularly receive links to articles on the website of the magazine. Then there are publications like Huffington Post which have no print editions. And publications like Christianity Today, whose print copies never reach my corner of the world, but which I am able to follow on social media. Contrary to some perceptions then, social media has not lessened and diluted the reading menu, but expanded and enriched it. Whereas, in the previous times, I was limited to the articles that a few editors selected for me, I now have a huge variety. You could say that the online reader is the new editor since they are the one that selects what to read from the innumerable options. They are only limited by their interests and time.

But the question has to be: what happens to the traditional media houses. Will they survive in the new dispensation? They have created pages on social media and they are amongst the most followed/liked. The links shared on these pages are the most shared and read. One could therefore say that even in the social media world, traditional media organizations have a head start. But this is head start with respect to readership, not with respect to income. Readership doesn't always translate into income in the cyber world. People pay to access the content, but whom do they pay: the internet service providers (ISPs) or the suppliers of the content? The ISPs always get their cut, but the same cannot be said of suppliers of content. Some websites, such as that of Time Magazine, restrict their content to paid-up subscribers, but the websites that offer their content at no cost are so many and so good that it's hard to believe that the ones that levy a fee get enough subscribers. Readers, already spoilt for choice over the free websites, are unlikely to consider the ones that require them to make double payment – to the telecommunication firm, and then to the suppliers of the content.

With respect to readership, it would make sense for the mainstream media organizations to sell their printing presses and concentrate all their energies on their online editions. But it probably wouldn't make commercial sense since the online sales, both of content and advertising space, have grown at snail's pace unlike the cyber populations which have grown at supersonic speed. Most advertisers still want to see their adverts in print. Media organizations cannot afford to leave advertisers behind, and yet they must gain and consolidate territory in the cyber world. They gain territory in the cyber world because of their content, and it's the advertisers, who are tied to print editions, that enable them to marshal the attractive content.

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