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Paperless World

by RAMZY BAROUD

The debate is no longer confined to a few academics in distant universities. It is now a widely prevalent, mainstream topic of discussion.

How will the news of the future be distributed? The jury is still out, but not completely. Increasingly, we are driven to believe that the future will be paperless. Some argue that the “paper” will be taken out of the “newspaper” within a few years. Their logic might have come across as far-fetched in the late 1990s, but it can hardly be dismissed in 2010.

Two American intellectuals added their voices to the chorus of those predicting that the print media would not continue to define the news for long. In October 2009, Leonard Downie Jr., vice president at large and former executive editor of The Washington Post, and Michael Schudson, professor of Communication at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, co-authored a 98-page paper entitled, “The Reconstruction of American Journalism.”

Here, they made the assertion that: “Newspapers and television news are not going to vanish in the foreseeable future … But they will play diminished roles in an emerging and still rapidly changing world of digital journalism, in which the means of news reporting are being re-invented, the character of news is being reconstructed, and reporting is being distributed across a greater number and variety of news organizations, new and old.”

The idea is not a new one. In August 24, 2006, The Economist published an article entitled, “Who killed the newspaper?,” which claimed that, “Of all the ‘old’ media, newspapers have the most to lose from the Internet. Circulation has been falling in America, Western Europe, Latin America, Australia and New Zealand for decades … in the past few years the Web has hastened the decline.”

While we freely refer to the digital media revolution as “new media,” few dare classify print newspapers as “old.” The Economist did, nearly four years ago. Considering the speed at which the digital media world is moving — with the introduction of new gadgets and the level of Internet penetration throughout the world — print papers are now most definitely old and aging.

The magazine also made an interesting reference to Philip Meyer, whose works include, “Precision Journalism: A Reporter’s Introduction to Social Science Methods and Newspaper Ethics in the New Century: A Report to the American Society of Newspaper Editors.”

In his most recent book, “The Vanishing Newspaper,” Meyer calculates that “the first quarter of 2043 will be the moment when newsprint dies in America as the last exhausted reader tosses aside the last crumpled edition.”

More, digital media are making waves not just in the constant improvement of news and information technology, but also influencing the level of trust readers have in the new media. Indeed, it is not just about how the news is conveyed — digitally or on paper — but how our perception of the news is changing altogether.

American intellectual and best-selling author John Mearsheimer didn’t neglect to refer to the Internet in one of the most important and honest assessments on “The Future of Palestine.” In his recent speech, he stated that “The Internet is a game changer. It not only makes it easy for the opponents of apartheid to get the real story out to the world, but it also allows Americans to learn the story that the New York Times and the Washington Post have been hiding from them.”

Those familiar with the book Manufacturing Consent, by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky understand well that traditional media coverage of news is largely determined by “filters” which allow competing interests to determine what we read and watch, and thus our perception of the world. The Internet, despite all its shortcomings, is much more equitable and democratic. That should not discount the fact that poorer countries still do not have the kind of Internet availability, speed and access that is common and widespread in the developed world. But the fact that an online community newspaper has a fighting chance, like any other mainstream newspaper, is certainly worth celebrating as an achievement.

There is also another reason why we will continue to go digital, and why it will only be a matter of years before the pendulum turns in favor of paperless media world.

The latest Climate Change conference in Copenhagen failed to set limits on carbon emissions or to come up with any serious or binding agreements. It was a colossal disappointment. But that failure was political more than scientific. Very few still argue that global warming is a hoax, or believe that the environment is sustainable, considering our long-unchecked way of life. More, recycling is no longer a fad. Some countries are debating laws that make recycling mandatory, and to punish violators. Considering all of this, it is difficult to imagine that years from now we will continue to use and discard newspapers so readily, as if the paper on which news is printed doesn’t come from trees, and as if discarded papers don’t constitute landfill.

Bob Dylan continues to be right. “The Times They Are a-Changin.” And it’s time that we also appreciate that change, not resist it; work with it, not against it. There is no shame in embracing change. When the first commercially successful trans-Atlantic telegraph cable was completed in July 1866, some must have thought that humanity had reached the zenith of achievements as far as the field of communications was concerned. Now telegraphs are only found in museums and are coveted collectors’ items. Instead, hundreds of millions of people routinely and conveniently send texts, sounds, images and videos through their cell phones without much fuss or excitement. Although the concept is still the same, the medium has changed dramatically.

The same can be said about news. The news industry will never die; in fact, in a globalized and interconnected world, we will seek news more than ever before. But the medium will inevitably change, and there is nothing we can do to stop it. It is telling that the most featured and best-selling item from Amazon.com is the Kindle digital reader, and that iPad has been topping news related to publishing technology all around the world.

The Times They Are a-Changin’. And we’d better change accordingly.

 

 

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