The spark in the paper

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
9 January, 2018
Editorial: 166
Fecha de publicación original: 4 mayo, 1999

To die for the sake of appearance is not so rare

Three years ago they laughed at the possibility, both publicly and privately, although some of them made sure they were there “just in case”. Two years ago they felt they “had to be there”, although always looking back over their shoulders to keep an eye on what the rest were up to, those trying to write a new name on a media map which, it seemed, was written in stone by prestigious and familiar mastheads. And then, last year they, the depositaries of the mother of all content, gaily agreed to take part in the debate on content and ask themselves “whether we are doing the right thing on the digital planet”. Today, the US media, big and small, grouped together in the all powerful Newspaper Association of America (NAA), are preparing to spend more than 11 million dollars to stop the mass desertion of readers moving to other media, in particular the Internet. Are they going to spend this money on producing better newspapers, raising the quality of their information, offering innovative outlets for the diversified demands of their audience? The answer is no. What on, then? They are going to spend it on an advertising campaign to be used over a five year period aimed at winning back stray readers and treacherous advertisers. I am prepared to receive the portion I deserve (small, but better than nothing) and place a “banner” to recommend that all visitors to rush off to the newsagents to buy a newspaper. Although, almost certainly, as with everything that happens on the Internet –and it seems that the mass media still haven’t understood this– internauts will probably just laugh at this advice and do exactly as they please.

Americans, great lovers of statistics as they are, have just discovered that 16% of their internauts (and that represents many millions) have stopped reading the printed press completely and get all their information via new digital media. The strange thing is that this tendency, growing and constant since 1996, and affecting TV as well, has continued implacably despite events such as the Monica Lewinsky affair, which guzzled more than its fair share of ink, or the preparations for a political trial of a President that sweated more than his job description demanded. As well as the usual shootings in schools, Michael Jordan’s retirement after winning another NBA ring or spaceships on Mars, to name but a few of the events that made the headlines, day in and day out, of the large media.

The Internet has not only become a predictably magnetic pole attracting new and old readers it also has played an important role in accelerating the crisis in a communications model inherited from the bipolar world of the Cold War. The possibility of choosing, participating in what is chosen, and, above all, of being able to learn to look for and generate information in a simple, cheap and dynamic way, is turning the world of journalism on its head. Signs of this change are apparent all over the place. One of the most outstanding features of the survey conducted by the American Society for News Editors (ASNE) over the last three years — the three years that the Net has really taken off after the WWW made its appearance– is the rift between readers and journalists. The former feel that journalists often just write about what interests them. Within this difference in the perception of reality, the most outstanding features of the new and traditional media are summed up. In particular, the inflexibility of the latter to open up effective channels for reader participation in editorial policy, a pillar, at the moment anyway, of the new media which have emerged in the Net and operate on the basis of the dynamic interaction inherent in digital communication.

Thanks to the Internet, internauts now have an ideal kind of media in mind, independently of what goes on in reality. A newspaper which, if bought in the newsagents, would, for a start, be made up of different pages from different newspapers, magazines, radio and television programmes. Impossible to attain, except on the Net via mature navigation, e-mail, chats and video-conferences. A synthesis of information, knowledge, leisure, entertainment and the construction of human networks. It is going to be very difficult to compete with this offer no matter how many millions are invested in advertising.

The only way to stop this process is by producing more and better of the same. And this is something that the traditional media is simply not ready for. Their investment in a hierarchically structured information model, controlled by a newsroom nucleus which gives readers no options except that of changing to another newspaper, exactly because of this. Readers are leaving, and not for other media as neo-liberal culture preaches, but towards a combination of digital media which satisfy their appetites to a large extent. And which, to top it all, are free. At the same time as the traditional media invest in advertising in an attempt to win back at least 20% of the readers they have lost, entrusting the campaign to Sergio Zyman the man responsible for injecting the spark of life into a soft drink, they are losing touch with their audience even more at a critical moment. Over the last two years, under the banner of personalisation of news we have, in reality, been witnessing the phenomenon of customisation. Customising — and it is important not to lose sight of this– means choosing from a precooked and pre-packaged menu. This concept has still got a long way to go. Nevertheless, little by little, systems that personalise what they offer are beginning to take shape. In other words, they are getting ready to respond to unpredictable demands which proceed from new needs or new human networks created by the digital communication process itself. Something of the sort is starting to take place in some experiences of direct democracy, in administrations open to citizens or in new media developed to cover areas of public health where different sectors converge for the first time, such as patients who have never had contact with each other before, traditional medicine and “the other kind”, human support networks for people with specific diseases, etc.

Some of these areas already form part of the information arsenal of the traditional media, it is true. But as we all know, and say when they interview us, they deal with these topics as they interest them and not their readers. The result is that they are quite out of touch with reality. Fortunately, unlike the past, there are now other options available to us. These days there is another paradigm on the go which questions the who and how of obtaining information and knowledge and, above all, the what for. In the third editorial of, published in January 1996 under the title “The Monasteries of the 21st Century”, I said; “The media who do not address this new situation and raise their standards and skills to the new challenge, are bound to suffer. To take part in the Information Society one cannot be guided only by traditional economic analysis (where profit lies, who pays for what, etc.) because this makes us lose sight of the fundamental importance of the social event i.e. that I, with my own voice and those of my electronic neighbours, can generate a new vision of unimaginable repercussions. (…) Which of the present media organisations will become the monasteries of the XXI century trying to survive on the edge of the turbulent, vigorous hyperactivity of a cyberspace replete with “info-literates” thanks to their dual facets of being both disseminators and receivers of information?”

I knew the answer would not be long in coming, but I did not know that they were going to pay millions to Mr Zyman to put the lighted spark right into the paper.

Translation: Bridget King.