Fate of newspapers
April ended with a marriage ceremony and May began with a killing or death as far as newspaper reports were concerned. The front pages of Korean dailies, like their fellow publications overseas, were splashed with photos of British Prince William and Kate Middleton during their ``wedding of the century” on April 30. Owing to their efforts, Koreans could see his upper lip pressing her philtrum and his lower lip between her lips.
The first papers of May had everything about Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaida leader shot dead in hiding in Abbottabad, Pakistan, on Sunday by a “brave yet small” team of Americans. The front page previously occupied by the royal couple carried the solemn portrait of bin Laden or the American crowd celebrating his death on Ground Zero, where al-Qaida planes cut through the sky high Twin Towers on Sept. 11, 2001, claiming 3,000 innocent lives directly or indirectly.
While some readers found the photos and articles on the marriage and the death fascinating, others, especially those concerned about the future of print journalism saw the latest editions as yet another telling sign of why it is dwindling. It doesn’t mean that they were unhappy with the news; both came after 10 long years of waiting for more than a few readers on the globe.
The point is newspapers cannot compete with Internet or Twitter or even television, let alone have leverage over them, if they continue to work as now. They can’t beat the news on-line or the so-called social network in terms of speed or sensationalism. Think about the news of bin Laden’s death which was first circulated via Twitter.
Sometime in history when life was simpler than now, newspapers could thrive by fulfilling the basic requirements called 5W1H: who, what, where, when, why and how. Today, however, papers need to do more in order to just survive. They need to ask ``why” louder and more tenaciously, because that probably is the only way by which they can sustain their raison d’etre in this era of Internet and social connections. They also need to ask one more, if not the most important, question to retrieve the respect the olden-day papers used to enjoy and that is ``So what?”
The wide coverage of the wedding of Prince William and Middleton might be natural for the papers in Britain and the Commonwealth of Nations and even the United States for obvious reasons. But why would Korean papers devote that much space to the ceremonies? Even the so-called progressive papers like Hankyoreh and Kyunghyang dailies did the same thing. Okay, the ceremonies were flawless and splendid, so what?
There is more than one ``why” to ask about the death of bin Laden, too. Did the U.S. team have to kill him? Weren’t they capable of catching him alive and bringing him to justice? Was it ``just and fair” to throw the dead body into the high seas? It is widely believed that the United States is a nation governed by the rule of law. Did President Barack Obama have the notion in his mind when he declared “Justice has been done” in the end of his remarks reporting bin Laden’s death?
As Obama aptly warned, bin Laden’s death won’t mark the end of al Qaida operations. Likewise, no big event would end the necessity for serious journalism. News stories are like mayflies in that they usually die in one day. Some may wonder, therefore, why journalists should bother so much about what to put in their papers. They may point out that newspapers are ``news papers” today but will be disposable tomorrow.
The funny thing is what journalists write today becomes history someday. When a big article and photograph consumes a big portion of the newspaper whose inches are limited unlike the Internet, there inevitably will be casualties ― smaller articles on smaller people yet with their own justifiable positions in the pages of history. That is why journalists need to be serious about the allocation of space in their papers. They shouldn’t determine the size of an article by the volume of information or the length of press releases they are fed.
As for the royal wedding, a photo and a related article on the international news page would have been sufficient if it didn’t forget to mention that the British royal princes serve their nation in military uniform, compared to the many sons of the rich and powerful in Korea.
I hope Korean journalists will remember the founding spirit of ``Dongnip Sinmun (Independent Newspaper)” launched in 1896: ``let the people know about the government affairs in detail and let the government know about people’s lives for mutual benefit.”
There is a saying that your character decides your destiny. If the newspapers want to dismiss prophets of their doom, they need to return to where they have come and when they knew what to say in how many words.