Print is dead, long live the mass media

The announcement that Newsweek, the magazine, will cease publication at the end of the year, and will henceforth be available only in digital form, is seen by media observers as marking the end of an era. It has revived talk about the impending death of the print media. But I suspect the issue goes much deeper. I think we are looking at the end of the mass media, as we know them, and their reinvention as communication forms of the Internet.

If Newsweek goes, can Time, its older rival, be so far behind? For much of the 21st century, these two weekly American news magazines summed up and interpreted world events with an air of authority that no other publication had been able to match. Their combined perspective is the closest equivalent one can find to the American liberal world view. The first real challenge to their supremacy came from another medium—television. Global networks like CNN and BBC, empowered by advances in satellite communications, offered not only the news in real time, but also instantaneous analyses of breaking stories. But, television could not replace the thoughtful, well-written, and comprehensive articles by which these two magazines dominated global public opinion.

Everything, however, changed with the Internet. The complex system of communications that this network of computers hosts—the Web—has permanently altered the terrain of the mass media. Countless new magazines containing great writing and wonderful photography have come out in digital form. They are typically offered free, wholly or partly, or they sometimes charge a small fee for the privilege of accessing the content of an entire issue.

In addition, a netizen may turn to any of the free apps (e.g., Flip, Pulse, and Zite) designed for tablets and smart phones to obtain access to reading fare culled from various online sources. Using these, one can access a mind-boggling selection of articles chosen according to one’s own indicated personal interests. Since the selection changes every day, one may choose to save an article for later reading. This completely restructures the reading habits that were shaped by the long-standing preeminence of the print media.

Much easier and cheaper to assemble, online magazines rely mostly on advertising to subsist. A reader has the option to pay if he wants a reading experience free from advertisements. In any event, he will find the digital version to be a lot cheaper than the printed version. I myself prefer to hold the “real” book or magazine in my hands instead of reading a digital copy on a Kindle or an iPad screen. But it is a fetish I don’t see in my granddaughter, who finds reading from her iPad more pleasant and enormously more appropriate to her multitasking inclinations.

But, apart from all this, what online publications have achieved is to put an end to the one-way flow of opinion and ideas that has been the hallmark of the traditional mass media. Today, almost all online magazines and news websites encourage their readers to post comments and engage the author and other readers in a sustained discussion of the issues. Printed magazines and newspapers, in contrast, offer very limited space for reader feedback. The editor’s absolute discretion over what gets printed serves as a deterrent to extended discussions.

Perhaps, more significantly, the Internet has given every member of the public a chance to publish or broadcast his/her own ideas. It is as if, with every purchase of a tablet or smart phone, a citizen also receives as a gift a television network and a printing press with global reach. This power—which is rooted in the technology of mass dissemination—used to belong exclusively to media moguls. The personal computer and the Internet democratized that power, thus ending the control of the mass media as a source of social and political power.

Out of the concerted efforts of online communities, the Internet has evolved its own rules in order to deal with its ever growing complexity. But the system remains vulnerable to attack. And those who recognize its value and fragility as a democratized resource cannot but see every attempt to centrally regulate cyberspace as a threat to the Internet’s viability as a medium of mass communication. This may explain why many Filipinos vehemently reacted to innocent-looking provisions of the recently passed cybercrime law.

The law proceeds from premises appropriate to the traditional mass media. Niklas Luhmann characterized such media thus: “Interaction [between sender and receivers] is ruled out by the interposition of technology, and this has far-reaching consequences which define for us the concept of mass media.” In the absence of the possibility of a quick reply, it made sense, for example, that victims of defamatory messages in the press or on TV would seek redress through the courts. But, given that an Internet post can now almost instantaneously be countered by any recipient of the communication, including the victim, the idea of irreparable injury arising from publication is surely mitigated.

More significantly, existing libel laws take off from conventional notions of the right to privacy. Public figures give up a large chunk of this right in exchange for media exposure. But, in this respect, Facebook’s nearly a billion account holders would not be so different. The mass dissemination of a billion personal profiles through the new media does make privacy somewhat passé. A new medium is indeed upon us, and, as with early forms of mass media, its long-term social value ultimately rests upon responsible and restrained use by its owners.