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OP-ED: Why we need to save print media

  • Published at 08:17 pm August 23rd, 2020
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A thriving print media is a crucial component of a successful democracy

The world is slowly waking up from the corona-induced malaise. The virus has wreaked havoc on the way of life globally, upending systems that had been in place for ages. 

Each and every industry is in a precarious state with the media taking a catastrophic blow. In fact, the media industry was already on a precarious platform before the coronavirus struck. 

Some are saying that the virus has sounded the death knell for worldwide media. A veteran editor of an English daily recently told me that, while Corona fears compelled people to cancel newspaper subscriptions, a sense of aversion to journalism as a career is also seen among the young because, in a highly competitive world where success is mostly equated with financial gains, an industry which is struggling to survive is hardly appealing. 

There is no denying that journalism as a career, which was once seen as a life of adventure, freedom, and respect in the 70s, 80s, and 90s has lost much of its allure to the modern-day young who seem to be more willing to fit into a materialistic template approved by society. 

Dispassionately speaking, one cannot blame them either because, when an industry fails to offer security, adequate financial returns plus social standing, its decline is inevitable. 

For a plethora of reasons, print media was already on uncertain grounds before the virus; with the lockdown and precipitous fall of advertisement and subscription, the future seems tough. 

But the media cannot be allowed to wither away simply because it is one of the main pillars of a democratic society, reflecting both social virtues and vices. 

An emaciated industry

Media taking the flak of those in power is seen all over the world with the bashing taken to a new level by the current US president; yet, he cannot operate as president without regular White House briefings. 

As the election draws near, both Democrats and Republicans will need the media to reflect the mood of the nation and to reach the promises of the contenders to the masses. 

Love it or hate it, governments lose legitimacy when the press is suppressed or is left in shambles.  

Since I have been involved with print media since 1993, the focus will be more on this sector, but I am sure the concerns voiced apply to all sides -- broadcast, online, and others.

Let me go back to a Dhaka University career club seminar of 2017 -- way before Covid-19. In that event, attended by around 5,000 students wanting to enter the job market, I was given the task of providing professional advice explaining how someone fresh out of university should approach the employment market. 

Incidentally, at that time, I was with a multinational organization, working in communications and, when I asked how many wanted to take up journalism as a career, to my astonishment, not a single hand went up. All I saw were guilty smiles.  

So, why this aversion? These students and many others have been indoctrinated with the notion that, since journalism is a sector which cannot offer financial security, it’s best to avoid it. And, unfortunately, yes, that also includes students from departments of journalism. 

All of them have eyes for multinationals without realizing that, without enough media background, the communications post at the multinational featuring the fat salary that they crave will rarely materialize. 

Just the ability to speak English fluently and possessing a foreign degree are hardly the judging criteria for a communications expert.  

One simple fact: An effective communications specialist is that person who has worked in media and has unfettered access to the industry.

Obviously, this media connection cannot be built unless one works in the industry. There is no easy way to communications heaven!

To look at the apathetic attitude to print media as a profession, we need to accept that, since there is very little incentive given to this sector, a career in journalism is hardly appealing to the modern-day young. 

In a mad rush to get better paid work, the media is neglected, and the ultimate loser will be the country because talented young people will be in other sectors, leaving print media in a rut. 

Tell me, is that a positive sign for any nation? A thriving print media industry plays the role of a vocal social guardian, extolling the positives, denouncing the negatives, demanding swift action for improvement. 

Providing an impetus

Some may argue that, in an age where social media-based journalism is getting traction, traditional print media will lose its appeal. Well, this is a flawed perspective because, while social media journalism has brought power to the citizen, there is always the possibility of gross manipulation/distortion. 

On the contrary, most traditional print media publications refrain from printing something without proper verification. In addition, in depth, impartial investigative analyses of social aberrations are best presented in traditional journalism formats. 

The government must come forward to provide some impetus to the industry in order to serve a pivotal structure of democracy which has been devastated by the coronavirus. 

If print media is allowed to languish in its current state, then the repercussions will include: a) Closure of media houses, b) fall in the number of talented young people willing to enter journalism as existing journalists leave the sector, thus creating a void and, worryingly, c) capitulation of many journalists to immoral enterprises in order to make ends meet. 

Sadly, during the period of the coronavirus lockdown, a renowned English daily abruptly ceased printing though its owning house is purported to be a leading business conglomerate of the country. 

Cycle of destruction

Needless to say, such a capricious move does irreparable damage to the industry. Naturally, those studying mass communication and journalism at different public and private universities will hardly want to enter a sector plagued by uncertainty. 

This means, in the long run, the number of students studying journalism will also plummet, and, in about five to 10 years, we will witness a critical dearth of people belonging to the media. 

I can clearly see the cycle of destruction: Lack of students, antipathy towards journalism leading eventually to the absence of an incisive media industry. 

From another angle: there will be an end to creative-critical thinking. 

One is not wrong in stating that it’s in the interest of any government to have a print media industry (along with broadcast plus online) which is robust and analytical. An emasculated media will also invite ridicule at home and abroad. 

I have been involved with print journalism in Bangladesh since the early 90s and was fortunate to see its peak in the late 90s when national dailies were not just newspapers but also monumental respectable social institutions which commanded respect. 

At that time, several business conglomerates injected massive cash into the sector, attracting people with degrees from local and foreign universities. 

Print media is now in a moribund state with the situation exacerbated by the virus. The unvarnished truth is that, without some government initiative, the industry will be decimated. 

In our current frenzy to pick up the pieces of life rendered shambolic by the coronavirus, the plight of the media may not be immediately noticed; however, the ramifications of inaction will be severe. 

And, one day, we may regret the fact that we killed journalism with our apathy.

Towheed Feroze is a journalist and teaches at the University of Dhaka.

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