Tuesday, February 07, 2012
Newspapers – your fate is in your own hands
“The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” - Thomas Jefferson (letter to Edward Carrington, 1787)
When I was growing up in a small village in Kedah, only a handful of the villagers read newspapers. There wasn’t even a newspaper vendor in my village and that was probably because there was no market for newspapers then.
The villagers who wanted to buy newspapers had to place their order with a shopkeeper. The shopkeeper would then order them from a vendor in Alor Star. The vendor in Alor Star would then send them to the shopkeeper in my village by bus. Every day, the newspapers would arrive by about 1 or 2pm, courtesy of the friendly Bas MARA driver.
My father was one of those handful of villagers who actually ordered Utusan Melayu (that’s how and why I manage to read “jawi”) every day. On weekends, Mingguan Malaysia was added to the order.
When I grew up and was in the hostel, I read whatever newspapers available at the library. In the university, the Star was my staple diet. Truth be told, the Star actually helped me to improve my English while in the university.
I have however stopped reading printed newspapers about 10 years ago.
There are two basic reasons for that. Firstly, the advent of the internet means that I could have access to the news on the go, even from the BBC, Reuters, CNN and the likes. Secondly, I am afraid to say, rightly or wrongly, I have credibility issue with local newspapers.
Both the above reasons are intertwined. Prior to the internet age, newspapers were the main sources of news in printed form. Government programmes were publicised through the newspapers, radio and TV stations (RTM being the only stations available). Once in a blue moon, a Jabatan Penerangan truck with portable loud speakers, large movie screen and film projector would come to the village school to show a movie. In the middle of the show, there would be a short interval. During the interval, announcements would be made by the Jabatan’s officer about pending government programmes and the likes.
The people had no other means to access information. Unfortunately, newspapers, owing to the information monopoly which they then possessed, had to a large extent abused its power over information. If knowledge was power, then power over knowledge, especially a monopolised one, is debilitating.
Reports were often spun in order to suit whatever agenda, political or otherwise, which the newspapers serve. I remember one particular newspaper reporting that the 1st Bersih rally had only attracted 6000 people. There was another newspaper which blanked out a political party’s emblem from a picture of an umbrella in a murder report. Recently, another newspaper blanked out Malaysia’s name from an international report which was not too flattering towards our country.
Before the advent of information technology, our newspapers did all these things with impunity. They seldom got caught. Even if they were, by the time they got caught, the particular issue would have gone stale and became irrelevant.
Enter the age of the internet. Information travels at the speed of light nowadays. And quite literally too. Information in analogue form is now instantly converted into digital form. These digital codes are then beamed all over the world through optic cables in the speed of light. Pictures of events are instantly posted on social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter and blogs as well as internet news portals. Comments are made and published as and when the events take place. Articles are written and analysis made within minutes thereafter.
Newspapers editors should now realise that it is 2012 we are talking about. Any misreporting or “creative inputs” which negate the original news could be found out in an instant and corrected much to the embarrassment of the newspapers in question. They should now realise that information is not within their absolute purview and power anymore. The whole cyber world is now empowered. And they are so ever willing to share this new-found empowerment.
Some of us would have read by now how Kodak had filed for bankruptcy protection under Chapter 11 of the American bankruptcy laws recently. This is a company which had almost monopolised the photography industry. It has more than a thousand patents on digital photography technology. However, unfortunately, it failed to adapt to modern technologies, a number of which it even owns. It is now paying the price.
Newspapers, I am afraid, could suffer the same fate if they fail to adapt to this new-age world of information freedom. They would lose credibility and readership.
“All of us who professionally use the mass media are the shapers of society. We can vulgarise that society. We can brutalise it. Or we can help lift it onto a higher level,” says William Bernbach, (of DDB Needham Worldwide), in 1989. That is true. Newspapers have its function. They can shape the society, vulgarise it, brutalise it or enlighten and lift it to a higher plane.
The question is, what would our local newspapers want to do?