Saving print journalism

Hany Ghoraba
Friday 18 Jan 2019

It would be a mistake to abandon print for online journalism, as many countries have already found to their cost

The invention of the printing press by German inventor Johannes Gutenberg in 1440 marked the end of a dark historical period and paved the way for the European Renaissance in which books became a commodity that could be acquired by the masses. 

There is no doubt that the printed word is the foundation of modern civilisation.

Just 60 years after Gutenberg’s invention, the massive spread of the printing press had meant that some 20 million books had been printed in Europe by 1500.

That number had multiplied tenfold to nearly 200 million by 1600, by which time the written word had become the symbol of civilisation.

This fact had already been realised by the ancient Egyptians over 5,000 years ago when they invented writing to document their daily lives on papyrus and the walls of ancient temples and monuments. 

Without these writings no one could have discovered the true greatness of ancient Egyptian civilisation even if they stood in awe of their colossal monuments such as the Pyramids and beautifully proportioned temples. 

Over recent years, the international media has been ceasing to print newspapers, books and periodicals while shifting towards e-books and online news instead, often to save costs.

While seemingly sound from different perspectives, especially with the spread of computers, mobile phones and other Internet-connected devices, this could nevertheless prove to be a historical mistake of gigantic proportions. 

Internet access requires the availability of a source of power, a connected device, and an Internet service subscription to read the news, while a printed newspaper requires only a pair of eyes.

Aside from its material value, a printed newspaper remains a permanent source of information, with readers able to keep it weeks after purchase and enabling them to revisit it and read more articles they may have missed.

The same thing cannot be said of Internet-based media, from which most readers select a few headlines to read and ignore the rest, even if this is made up of useful articles, stories and reports that took weeks if not months of preparation to write.

In the case of a war or cataclysmic disaster, Internet access may be gone, meaning that people will lose all sources of information in a matter of seconds.

Regardless of how secure Internet servers across the world may be, there is no 100 per cent guarantee that they will remain intact during a war of some sort or an international crisis.

People often save their favourite films, songs, games, photographs and e-books on their hard drives, which are also vulnerable to damage, theft or loss. Should this happen, a person could lose years of material in a matter of seconds with a very small chance of retrieving any of it.

However, that same person will never lose his physical books, DVDs, and magazines collected over the years, and they will likely remain intact throughout his lifetime if kept in proper conditions.

That same person could easily give away these belongings to his or her children, so they could be passed from one generation to another. 

Preserving printed newspapers is also a matter of national security. The spread of Internet outlets and satellite TV cannot warrant the closure of printed newspapers now or in the future.

A significant segment of the population remains without access to Internet services and relies on regular news outlets delivered through printed materials or TV.  

There is always a security risk when totally relying on online or satellite networks for news.

The Internet networks in Egypt, like all such networks worldwide, are prone to denial of service cyber-attacks that can disrupt them through the agency of hostile forces or even skilled hackers who may perform such activities to brag about them.

In recent years, the country’s Internet services have been disrupted as a result of cut underwater cables because of sabotage or through the actions of marine vessels. 

Natural disasters such as earthquakes and storms can mean electricity outages and phone and Internet disconnections that can occur for days if not weeks.

During such periods the government must possess traditional methods of delivering news to citizens in order to communicate with them and keep them abreast of developing situations.

The most reliable and secure method remains traditional printed newspapers. 

Saving costs by switching to online journalism may initially sound like a good idea, but it will cause problems. Instead, financial and marketing departments should think about finding more creative ideas to bring readers back to their old habits while attracting newer generations to them.

These ideas could include weekly or monthly competitions sponsored by advertisers for prizes by collecting coupons over a period, for example. 

Free gifts are not uncommon in the West among newspaper outlets sponsored by advertisers.

Other ideas include savings coupons that can be cut out and used to purchase goods from local stores at a discount, a method widely and successfully used in the United States.

Several publications can be bound together as one magazine or weekly paper, which can save a lot of money while keeping them operational. 

In February 2018, British Prime Minister Theresa May described the closure of hundreds of newspaper and magazines titles in the UK as a “danger to our democracy”.

A warning such as that from the prime minister of a country with long-standing democratic traditions should not be ignored but must be taken seriously in a developing democracy such as Egypt.

The importance of Egyptian citizens receiving news from proper outlets is huge for the stability of society. They can’t be left the victims of misleading news networks, bloggers, or social-media outlets that can be easily manipulated or hacked at any time to deliver false news about the state of the country. 

This is of paramount importance during the current period when the state is at war with multiple terrorist organisations such as the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots such as the Islamic State group and Al-Qaeda.

The mistake of international news outlets moving to online-only publishing should not be allowed to lure Egyptian decision-makers into making the same mistake for the sake of eliminating costs.

The printed newspaper has been part of the lifestyle of modern nations for centuries, and it should be preserved as its presence far outweighs its costs. *The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring and the Winding Road to Democracy.  *A version of this article appears in print in the 10 January 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Saving print journalism

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