Image courtesy Asia Society

This short essay was originally written to mark the first anniversary of Ceylon Today newspaper, where the writer is a Sunday columnist.

I was raised on newspapers – both reading them and creating them. I wanted to be a journalist even before I knew that word. I edited household and high school newspapers before slightly expanding my reach when I turned 21.

In my formative years, I had a foretaste of the challenges of editorial independence. First, when I demanded greater freedoms of movement and higher pocket money from household management (denied). And years later, when I championed some long forgotten cause with the school management (also denied).

On both occasions, I was gently but firmly told that home and school were no democracies: giving in to majority wishes was simply out of the question. I’m still trying to figure out if that cherished principle works at the country level…

It was easy to be a starry-eyed idealist at 15. That’s how old I was when the maverick billionaire Upali Wijewardene launched his national newspapers, back in 1981, revitalising a complacent industry and inspiring a new generation of readers and journalists. That effectively sealed my career choice.

During the past quarter century that I’ve tried to earn an honest living from my wits, I have moved between various media organisations and media types. I’ve flirted heavily with radio, TV and the web. But in my heart, I remain a wordsmith.

Oh, I love blogging and tweeting — partly because I’m my own editor-publisher there — but I still get a ‘kick’ every time I see my writing printed in a newspaper or magazine.

Sri Lanka’s newspaper history dates back to Colombo Journal (1832) which apparently had a short but feisty life before it invoked the ire of the British Raj. Nearly two centuries and hundreds of titles later, the long march of printer’s ink — laced with courage and passion – continues.

How long can this last?

Print journalism’s business models are crumbling in many parts of the world, with decades old publications closing down or going entirely online. This trend is less pronounced in Asia, which industry analysts say is enjoying history’s last newspaper boom. Yet, as I speculated three years ago when talking to a group of press barons, we’ll be lucky to have a decade to prepare for the inevitable…

In the absence of independently audited circulation figures, we have no sense how well – or not – our newspaper publishers are doing. One thing is certain, however: no media is immune to the ruthless Darwinian forces.

In my lifetime, I’ve seen two once formidable Lankan media houses wither and die – Times of Ceylon, and Independent Newspapers. The reasons for their demise were complex, but losing credibility and societal relevance were among them.

Therein lies a lesson for ALL media, old and new: engage your audiences and grow, or stray away to obsolescence.  Being large, loud and arrogant is no insurance (remember the dinosaurs). Being kept on life support on public or private money also has limits.

In the coming years, waves of technology, demographics and economics can sweep away some venerable old media along with much of the deadwood that deserves extinction. The adaptive and nimble players who win audience trust will be the ones left to write tomorrow’s first drafts of history.

Will Ceylon Today be among them? Right choices and actions today can increase its resilience in times of uncertainty and turbulence.

See also: Confessions of a Digital Immigrant, by Nalaka Gunawardene, Groundviews, 21 Nov 2009

When not seeking his weekly dose of printer’s ink, Nalaka Gunawardene hangs out at http://nalakagunawardene.com

  • HS

    You say: “engage your audiences and grow” or “stray away to obsolescence”.

    How does a newspaper engage their audience and why is engaging your audience the single most important factor for a newspaper’s survival?

    Audience engagement for traditional media streams like newspapers may not be the answer.

    Content is key and nothing else, in my opinion.

    Papers in Sri Lanka are engaging in self-censorship and providing citizens with diluted and disingenuous, low-grade, tardy content. These days, more and more Sri Lankans turn to their mobile phones to access news from international media organisations and independent websites via social media and other avenues.

    If newspapers wish to survive, they need to hire competent, highly skilled writers who can put together informative, unbiased and uncensored content, or they will be unable to compete with the internet.

    Whilst only a small percentage of households own computers, many Sri Lankans own internet-enabled mobile phones and devices.

    • @HS,
      Thanks for comment. When I wrote “engage your audiences and grow”, I meant it in the broadest sense of that term and not simply in terms of two-way, online interactivity.

      Newspaper/reader interactivity predates the web by many decades. The analog-world methods of such engagement were different yet effective in their own way. These included: the old fashioned letters to the editor; various reader competitions where answers or entries could be posted (using snail-mail!); crossword puzzles and Sudoku like mind games that readers could do on their own; and various reader polls (e.g. person of the year or schoolboy cricketer of the year coupons).

      The list goes on, but you get the idea. A newspaper is a composite product, and not just a bundle of news and views. Historically it created a community platform, a rallying point on matters of public interest, and a bazaar-like place where different ideas and products could be showcased. Many newspapers have moved away from this formula in recent times, for whatever reasons, and no wonder readers are migrating away.

      Some of the above traditional reader engagement methods may no longer work. But opportunities for a newspaper to become relevant and useful to its readers are only limited by the imagination of its editors and managers. There are other options besides pandering to the lowest common denominators!

      I fully agree with your larger point: newspapers can and must engage their readers’ minds by offering well-researched, well-written and balanced content — which, as you rightly point out, is sadly lacking in our media.

      Critically important though it is, media freedom is only one factor that prevents such worthwhile content from being produced in our media (print and broadcast). Lazy journalists and greedy publishers are also responsible for the current state of journalism. There is no longer a lack of resources per se (some of our media companies are hugely profitable) but misplaced priorities.

  • You ask the question will CT survive? My prediction is not for more than two years, unless there is a disguised subsidy from the Dictator. After all if one looks at how it was financed in the first place then you would find the answer. [Edited out]

    You on the other hand just keep up the true journalistic traditions of independence and objectivity and I am sure you will go places no matter what happens to the paper.

  • Sadun

    Dear Nalaka,

    Honestly I don’t think Ceylon Today has that much of a sustainable readership to keep it a viable paper that long mainly because its agenda is pro govt and that there are lots of newspapers from the Lake House to fill that wholly and completely.

    Even if it turns pro opposition or even a bit more balanced I don’t think it can withstand the pressure of this regime to keep it that way for long to survive in the newspaper industry. All this is assuming that the owners will give a free hand to the editors of Ceylon Today.

    The best option available for Ceylon Today is to analyse and print news in an unbiased manner, without any prejudice, being not pro or against anyone or any party. Then you can build your readership gradually and sustain it in the long run. In my opinion the Sunday Times do it to some extent. Most of the editors of today Sri Lankan Newspapers have forgotten this. The Newspapers do not have to teach the readers on how to look at things, what they have to do is to analyse the news on its own merits and demerits and let the readers decide themselves.

    And once in a while your editors need to skip that breakfast at Temple Trees. It gives wrong impressions. Hope you remember that King who walked naked. We need to have someone who can point out that there are no clothes on.

    Regards
    Sadun

    • @Sadun,

      Thanks for this good advice which can be helpful to editors of ALL Lankan newspapers!

      The bigger challenges, in my view, are the kind of journalism that is now practised in many of the Sinhala language newspapers. These have much larger outreach and, therefore, are more able to influence public opinion. Even in the same newspaper group, the English and Sinhala language newspapers take very different editorial lines. The quality and ethics gap within a group can be striking…

      The populist, nationalist and sensationalist trend in many Sinhala newspapers may produce cheap thrills and accrue temporary gains to publishers – but are ultimately counterproductive to the newspaper industry and society at large.

      However, there are honourable exceptions to the rule. I’m proud to be a columnist (also) for a Sinhala newspaper that aspires to higher editorial and ethical standards: Ravaya, the only newspaper that I know in Sri Lanka that has a readers’ editor or ombudsman. They are not perfect, but they keep trying.

      I sure hope discerning readers will rally around quality newspapers and help them survive in a harsh economic environment in a politically turbulent time…

  • Pingback: Looking Back at Six Decades of Lankan Journalism: What went wrong?()