How Dead is Print?

Stefanie van Rootselaar ponders the possible demise of the print media.

 

Media and journalism have always fascinated me. Without media, journalism and news mean nothing. Media are the messengers of news across the world. And the power of media is overwhelming. They have the power to shape our beliefs, drive public opinion and affect purchasing decisions. In the 1950s, media such as cinema and television were considered as central instruments of mass control: Big Brother is watching you… Media inform, educate, connect, globalize, empower and ultimately enslave. Think of the media communicating the message across the world about Charles Taylor’s involvement in blood diamonds. The media caused widespread attention for his actions, causing loss of face for him and Liberia. On the other hand, also think of all the new artists being discovered on Youtube; they get to start entirely new and exciting careers they would have otherwise only dreamed of. Media can make or break a person, country or nation. They play a large role in shaping modern culture and media have essentially changed the way we live our daily lives. Consuming media has become a basic necessity for many of us, just like sleeping and eating. We have become digital natives, used to consuming media whenever and wherever we please. I never thought I would be one of those people who starts and ends the day by checking Facebook updates…

It’s fascinating how media have developed. The Industrial Revolution between 1750 and 1850 had a huge social, economic and cultural impact on society. It also played a large role in the development of media. Steam power was applied to the printing process, which led to a massive expansion of newspaper and popular book publishing. This stimulated literacy and demands for mass political participation. The phrase “the media” started being widely used in the 1920s. A term used to refer mainly to print media up until the Second World War, after which radio and television were introduced. These media allowed for the electronic duplication of information for the first time ever. During the 20th century, the growth of media was further driven by technology. The development of the World Wide Web started in the late 1970s and was commercialized in the late 1990s. The 21st century marked the beginning of social networks and mobile media.

When television was introduced, everyone speculated that print and radio would die out. Similarly the birth of internet and social networks was supposedly going to mark the end of television. But we didn’t see this occur. These media didn’t die out, their functions simply changed, together with how and when we use them. Internet and social networks have taken over print media’s function of bringing the latest news. There is no way for print media to compete with the speed at which news travels with digital media. But print media, especially newspapers, still play an important role in society. The journalism they contain offers us the story behind the story, putting events and developments into perspective and helping us shape opinions by providing context. Other media have different functions: we often listen to the radio in the car on our way to work or while we’re cooking to pass the time and we mostly watch television to relax. Different media fulfill different needs. To pass the time, be entertained, to connect and share with others, to be informed or to relax. Media exist alongside each other; they all have their own strengths and that’s why they empower each other. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

‘Print is dead’ is a slogan often heard of. I understand, but beg to disagree. Newspapers are still regarded as one of the most reliable sources of news, quoted frequently in social debate, setting the political agenda. Print media are in this way also social, which is vital for their existence. Social in the sense that they give us content to share; the latest news to discuss with others, both personally and professionally. Print media also engage, trigger and activate people, both mentally and physically. They can make us change our point of view and opinion, but also inspire us to apply for a new job, become a brand ambassador or go out and buy the latest gadgets. But with the speed at which technology and media are developing, print media face the challenge of survival. They have to compete with quicker and more interactive forms of media. But these media often only provide a snapshot. Will they provide the information we need to understand the bigger picture? No, I don’t think so.

The question remains: how dead is print? Do print media have a sustainable future? In form, I think print media will die out in the next 50 years. Or maybe even sooner than that. But I do believe the need for journalism, for professionals putting news into context for us and helping us understand the story behind the story, will always remain. The power of the content many print media contain, will live on in other forms of media, such as personalized iPad newspapers, for example. We will select the news items we’re interested in and read only about our pre-selected topics. Why read about (and pay for) science, if you’d rather just focus on (inter)national news and sports? As consumers are increasingly used to being in the driver’s seat, personalized content is becoming more and more important. Maybe we will even be helping newspaper editors decide which topics are ‘front page’ worthy in a year or two. In the end, it’s actually not so much about form, but more about added value. Who knows how technology will continue to shape media in the future… I can’t wait to find out.

 

Stefanie van Rootselaar (’04) went on to do a MSc in Communication studies at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. She is currently a Marketing & Communications Manager at the Persgroep Nederland and is responsible for the branding of their various newspapers, magazines, websites and mobile products.