Newsweek goes paperless: Are we seeing the death of the written word as we know it?

I HAVE a good friend who has less than three months left before he completely passes on to a new dimension. Through the decades, I must admit that our relationship has been pretty much a one-way street.

While I learn and derive entertainment and food for thought from his engaging stories and liberal views, all I can give him in return, apart from a few measly pesos, is my time as well as my undivided attention. His name is Newsweek, and I feel old, orphaned and almost irrelevant by his impending full transition from print to digital.

In the advent of the digital age and with people’s increasing dependence on tablets and smartphones, Newsweek’s decision to abandon its print edition in favor of an all-digital format is a foregone conclusion.

Not if, but when

It wasn’t a question of if, as the cliché goes, but when, as newsweeklies, including Newsweek, which debuted in US newsstands in 1933, has slowly been overtaken by technology, making it possible for anyone and everyone to participate and weigh in on events no matter how distorted, infantile and limited such views are.

How long can Time, Newsweek’s older and arguably more celebrated rival, continue to stem the rising tide of change?

A recent front-page wire story on the Philippine Daily Inquirer put it best. While Americans as recent as eight years ago, for instance, used to wait eagerly four or five days after a presidential debate for newsweeklies like Newsweek, US News & World Report and Time for their respective takes, they now can surf the net in real time for a blow-by-blow analysis of the Obama-Romney encounter.

(US News & World Report had been reduced from weekly to fortnightly to monthly before going exclusively online. From a weighty newsweekly that dealt on US politics and global events, it has degenerated to an online publication on such limited and seemingly irrelevant concerns as college rankings in the US, hospitals and personal finance.)

Jumping the gun

The quality of such instant perspectives found in online magazines is no longer important. Despite time constraints, some like Slate, the Atlantic and The Huffington Post still manage to produce good, incisive and entertaining pieces, but a good number, in their rush to jump the gun at the competition, come up with so-so offerings.

What’s important to today’s harried news consumers, it seems, is immediacy—in an almost literal sense. The shorter the piece, the better it is for you to reach these kids. Write long, meandering pieces at your own peril. The next site is just a tap or two away.

This right here, right now mentality most evident among members of Generation Y and the so-called Millennials, apart from leaving them with shorter attention spans, has saturated them to so much stimulus that when newsweeklies arrive in the mail, these young people are no longer as hungry as their parents and grandparents were for provocative and insightful analyses provided by these printed institutions. At the same time, they’ve also shown a insatiable need for information, mostly in bite-size forms, while they’re on the go or during lulls (like waiting for the bus or stewing in traffic) in their packed schedules.

Dwindling circulation rates for Newsweek and its rivals could only mean two things: a decrease in both influence and ad revenues. Not only does glossy paper, which these magazines are printed on, cost money, shipping each weekly issue to the far reaches of the earth could lead to further delays (of course, shipping entails expenses, too). It’s a no-win situation, really.

Many deem this latest development as the impending death of print media as we know it. Sociologist and Philippine Daily Inquirer opinion columnist Randy David sees it a bit differently.

“But I suspect the issue is much deeper,” he wrote in his October 21 column. “I think we are looking at the end of mass media, as we know them, and their reinventions as communication forms of the Internet.”

Real challenges

But what sets the Internet apart from cable TV channels such as CNN and BBC? Didn’t this modified medium post real challenges to the printed word much earlier than cyberspace has done, as it, too, offered almost instantaneous analyses on unfolding events?

David opined that moving images and talking heads were still no match and couldn’t replace the “thoughtful, well-written and comprehensive articles by which these two magazines (Time and Newsweek) dominated global public opinion.”

But everything changed with the Internet and the explosion of smart portable devices with which we could access various content. In a nutshell, these are among the key points in David’s observation:

–Countless magazines with great writing and arresting photography have come out in digital form;

–It’s easier, faster and less costly to assemble online magazines, which subsist mostly on advertisements. I also suspect that online magazines can function with a leaner staff. Unlike real magazines, they don’t have to employ an army of staffers, as these online publications thrive mostly on stories provided by contributors.

Some online publications charge readers a small fee for giving them the option to read without distracting advertisements.

As a whole, David added, readers end up paying less for online magazines as they would for their printed counterparts.

In synch

–Unlike older readers, including this blogger, younger readers are more comfortable and in synch using digital devices to access online information. Since they were exposed to these gadgets at a very young age, it has become second nature to them to find what they want (and need) on the Internet using these tools.

–And finally, wrote David, online publications put an end to the “one-way flow of opinion and idea that has been the hallmark of traditional mass media.”

Almost all online publications encourage their readers to leave comments, engage the writer and even discuss and argue an issue among themselves. Since access is almost instantaneous and space is limitless, inviting everyone to weigh in has become doable. In effect, everyone is now a “writer.” And majority of readers appreciate this.

For lack of a better way to describe it, this development is doubly personal for me since, apart from being one of Newsweek’s loyal subscribers since 1995, as a newsman, I also earn my keep mining the written word.

Will professional journalists in the Philippines like me go the way of the dinosaur in the years and decades to come? I think that would depend greatly on people’s access to the Internet as well as to these portable digital devices.

Will our views and newsgathering skills as journalists still matter when everyone, regardless of background and experience, can now engage in some form of opinion-making and citizen journalism? Will the quality of news and opinion still matter to a jaded public always on the lookout for the next big thing? As this relatively new and shape-shifting medium called the Internet continues to evolve, the jury is still out.

One thought on “Newsweek goes paperless: Are we seeing the death of the written word as we know it?

  1. Every thing changes. News week started publication in 1933 and died. A permanent death before 2013. Not a small feat. That is life.whether one likes it or not. That is life.

    From a fellow human being frommumbai

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