With the decline of the printed newspaper, is something valuable being lost?
For a long time, the newspaper has been the main source of information on keeping the average Bangladeshi updated on daily affairs, both of the world and home. It prevails as a symbol of our freedom of speech and expression that relentlessly points out the good and the bad in our society.
However, in the age of social media and free news websites, the circulation of the printed newspaper is steadily declining. In 2018, the Newspaper Owners’ Association of Bangladesh (NOAB) estimated that newspapers were losing 5 % of subscribers each year.
The final blow came during the pandemic when NOAB announced that the subscriber number has decreased exponentially. The recent survey by Bangladesh Independent Journalist Network showed 60% of all local newspapers in six districts (including Dhaka) have shut down.
The root cause for the declining subscribers is mainly due to the fact that the new generation of readers have shown a natural tendency to gravitate towards something free, ie social media, than newspapers. Cheap smartphones and data packages have given access to the internet to the majority in this country.
Printed newspapers are no longer the sole bearer of news. The recent enforcement of lockdown and the belief of many that coronavirus can spread through newspapers has effectively ended delivery of newspapers in many areas, with many advertisers pulling out.
All this is extremely worrying. In the age of sensationalist online media with clickbait headlines, and the rise of either false or partisan news in social media, the newspaper still remains today as a reliable medium of properly researched news. Investigative journalism, in particular, has allowed a plethora of problems hidden under the rugs to be revealed.
When people rely on social media for their daily source of news, research has shown that they are less likely to fact-check, and are more prone to just keep on forwarding it. It’s a platform which allows clickbait titles to rise, and it emphasizes more on emotion rather than facts of an event. It barely covers the many nuances of an issue that newspapers do.
People with preconceived ideas become more biased as they selectively choose to see the news that appeals to them. This is different from the newspaper which for long has printed diverse perspectives of an issue. They allow the readers to formulate their opinion.
People do not read digital news the same way they used to read printed news; they see what their friends and family are outraged about and share the sentiment without adequate knowledge. The prime example is the Ramu violence in 2012, when mobs destroyed 12 Buddhist temples and monasteries and 50 houses in reaction to a social media post.
Or take the case of the recent death threats being faced by Ayman Sadiq (creator of 10 Minute School) after a hate video was released on YouTube. The pandemic has highlighted the importance of reliable newspapers once again, with the excess of false news being spread in apps such as WhatsApp on coronavirus, undermining some of the many basic laws set by WHO, and making people believe in dangerous opinions.
This is not to say that the newspaper is never wrong, biased, and free of yellow journalism. Yet, accountability and credibility are much higher than any other alternative media. Journalists for long have remained the guardians of free speech in our nation. They provide updates regarding facts instead of cherry-picking facts to push a narrative.
This is why in the name of free speech, newspapers are essential. For our democracy to work, the voting population needs to be informed to assess the work of its politicians and bureaucrats. The best way for this is to have information reported by professionals who have an interest in providing neutral information and relevant context, and no one has done this better than printed newspapers.
Another consequence is that as people rely more on online media outlets, there is a chance that local issues may be ignored. International news platforms, which are most popular among social media users, rarely cover Bangladeshi news. One of the beauties of local newspapers is that they cover everything about daily life and shine light on unresolved issues.
When people move towards digital news and concentrate on international events more, we become less conscious of our surroundings as a society. We start placing more importance to problems in other countries than our own. When people rely on social media for daily news, when they purposefully click at news that appeals to them, they become confined with other like-minded people in an echo chamber where opposing views are not welcome, unlike print media.
As more and more people follow news that fits their ideology, we as a nation lose our unity, our differences become more prominent. We become more focused on issues that matter less to us, and misplace our curiosity for less important issues. We consciously or subconsciously shy away from thought-provoking articles on issues that need our urgent attention.
In an already divided country, we are becoming more divided and it certainly isn’t wrong to assume that the decline of printed newspapers, which allowed and encouraged people to read everything from top to bottom instead of online videos and small bodies of texts with cherry-picked facts to push a fixed narrative, may be one of the causes of it.
The educational value that newspapers have provided for generations of readers on politics, culture, sports, or entertainment cannot be overstated. It certainly will not be presumptuous to say that the phasing out of print media may be the beginning of a new generation of readers, who will be deprived of the variety of news, views, and pleasures that newspapers used to bring to our living rooms.
Faraz Mohiuddin Choudhury is a freelance contributor.