The debate about the transformation of the media, which is as old if not older than our democracy, seems to be missing the point.
It should no longer only be about the number of black and white staff, about allegiances to the ruling party or about the role the media should be playing with regards to the changing nature of our society.
Rather, the debate should also be about how an industry that was dominated for so long by print media is rapidly changing into one that is being dominated by the internet and social media. It should be about how print media can ensure its survival, let alone growth, in an increasingly difficult environment in which its relevance is declining by the day.
There are still people who read newspapers – and I’m one of them – but the numbers are dwindling all over the world. The latest figures released by the Audit Bureau for Circulation outlining the sales of South African newspapers shows, with a few notable exceptions, that the future does not look too bright for print.
I was shocked to see the Cape Argus narrowly upping its circulation to just above 30,000 a day. I grew up with the Cape Argus and remember the days when its circulation was above 100,000 a day.
I travel a lot and I pick up most of the major newspapers for free in airport lounges. The other day I was asked to renew my subscription to a Sunday newspaper and was sent a form to fill in, but it would have required me printing out the form, scanning it and then e-mailing or faxing (remember this?) it back to them.
That probably explains the dilemma of traditional media. They have failed to keep up with technology. Why, if they want me to subscribe, should I be expected to print out, scan and fax or e-mail something back to them? What happened to filling out a form online?
What is known as the traditional media, including print and broadcast media are facing an unprecedented onslaught from social media.
The truth is that people no longer need the traditional media as much as they used to. A few years ago, if you needed a job, you would wait for the paper on a Monday or a Wednesday and see what was advertised in the jobs supplement.
The Friday newspapers were popular because they listed all the weekend entertainment, including sport but, more importantly, they contained huge adverts from the major supermarkets outlining all their weekend specials.
Monday and Friday sales were the best for most newspapers because they contained a preview of sporting events (Fridays) or a review or sporting events (Mondays).
Nowadays, there are any number of websites which offer jobs and they are updated on a regular basis. You no longer have to wait for one day a week, you can check for jobs on a daily or even more regular basis.
You can Google the major entertainment highlights for the weekend, go onto any supermarket’s website to see their specials and download applications which will keep you abreast of sport and all of the aforementioned. And, of course, most sporting events are shown live on television or you can livestream it on the internet if you don’t have access to a television.
In the old days, important people would call media conferences to make important announcements. Nowadays, announcements are made on Facebook and Twitter where celebrities have millions of followers, much more than the people who might read traditional media.
But more importantly, with one tweet or Facebook posting, they are able to reach people across the world. And then, of course, tweets are retweeted and retweeted, and Facebook posts are shared and shared. Just ask Bic, Virgin Active and Pick n Pay.
The potential for people to share your news almost instantaneously, as is the potential of the internet, is almost unlimited.
Traditional television is also challenged by social media. A new generation of broadcast stars have been born on YouTube and most of them have never been anywhere near a television broadcast centre or studio.
Most don’t have access to expensive recording equipment and they have no need for it. All they need is a decent phone with a decent camera, which is basically any new smartphone.
If you have something people want to see, it is not unusual for some videos uploaded on YouTube to generate millions of views.
Radio is not left out of harm’s way from the technological tsunami. There are any number of websites where interviews and radio programmes are podcast and most radio stations have realised the value of livestreaming on the internet.
The beauty of the internet and social media is that one no longer needs a laptop or computer to connect. All you need is a smartphone and enough data. This means that, for the R10 or R20 that you would have spent on a newspaper, you can now have access to any number of newspapers on your phone.
The people at the forefront of this technological revolution are the real transformers of the media industry and not the people who worry about demographics and political correctness.
Is there hope for the traditional media or are we seeing the beginning of the end? My not so simple answer is: yes and no.
I have always maintained that journalists and editors need to realise that they are working for a business that needs to fulfil a need. Editors and journalists need to understand their target markets and how to write for them in a way they will appreciate.
Too often, journalists write for their peers and forget that their peers are not their target market.
This is what I love about tabloid journalism. Tabloids make no pretence at being what they are not. They seem to understand their target market and deliver on their needs. You don’t get journalists telling their buddies to check out a beautiful written piece they wrote for a tabloid. This is probably why the biggest selling newspapers today are tabloids.
Business is about numbers – about bums on seats – whether the business is religion, sport or selling cupcakes. Everyone wants more people to be interested in their product.
The media is no different. You need to get more people to buy and read your product. If there is a steady decline in newspaper circulations, like we are seeing around the world at the moment, then it could be because of technological advances. It could also be because of newspapers not understanding their role in this changing society.
Newspapers should no longer be telling us what happened. Instead, they should be telling us why it happened and what can be done to prevent it from happening again, if it was a major tragedy or crime.
They need to understand that, by the time they go to print, people will know the news they are putting on their front pages. They need to ask if there is anything more they can offer.
But newspapers, if they want to survive,also need to ask themselves how they can be relevant to the society they are supposed to serve.
This brings me back to demographics. In a society like South Africa, where you have a large majority of black people (including Africans, coloureds and Indians) and you have a majority party with more than 60% of the voter support, you should probably consider this when you produce media – any media.
And in order to understand this majority, it would help if you recruit some people who come from this background and who understand the dynamics of the situation.
So, the debate about the demographic make-up and political influence on the media is important, but, in my very humble opinion, the debate about how the media survives and grows in a world of technology is probably slightly more important. DM
In other news...
July 18 marks Nelson Mandela day. All over the country, South African citizens devote 67 minutes to charitable causes in memory of Madiba. It's a great initiative and one of those few occasions in South Africa where we come together as a nation in pursuit of a common cause. An annual 67 minutes isn't going to cut it though.
In the words of Madiba: "A critical, independent and investigative free press is the lifeblood of any democracy."
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Reindeer can see UV light.