Wednesday, April 13, 2005

INTERNET: How Internet will impact the media

Internet will be the most important prime mover of change for our print and electronic media as we cross the threshold of the next century. It will bring about the greatest revolution in mass communications since the invention of moveable type for printing. Unlike the previous one, which took centuries in reaching all parts of the world, the present revolution has al­ready made its impact globally within a few years after its introduction.

The use of previous technologies was primarily a mat­ter of choice for the publisher or the broadcaster. The newspaper reader was not even aware of hot metal or photo-composing, and letterpress or offset printing. Simi­larly, a radio or tele­vision broadcaster could make his own choice of tech­nology. The adoption of Internet, however, has become a compulsion for both the publisher and the broad­caster. This technology truly has a mass ap­peal and the readers and viewers expect its use as soon as they become aware of its advantages. Therefore, the Internet will take only a short period in transforming the mass communications even in the developing countries.

Inertia of conservatism. Inertia, however, will be the biggest hurdle in the widespread use of Internet. Our editors, who are supposed to be the harbingers of change, are sur­prisingly themselves extremely conservative in adopting new technologies relating to their own job. Teletype, for example, was widely used by the Euro-American dailies for decades until personal computers replaced it. But our English newspapers never asked the APP and PPI to provide it despite its great advantage of automatic typesetting of news agency feeds. They could save much time and labor every day in composing and proofreading stories that did not require editing, such as stock exchange quotations, sports results, texts of official announcements and speeches, even many foreign and national stories.

Many other things could have been done for im­provement. Many of the technologies that provide a platform today for the Internet were available years ago. Over 13 years ago, I prepared a report for the modernization of the Associated Press of Pakistan. The technologies and processes that were recommended in the report for reporting, editing, trans­mission, etc. of news were not much different from what we shall be seeing in the near future. Nor was the cost prohibitive. For a very small amount, the agency could have not only modernized itself completely (including getting rid of teleprinters), but also become able to provide its news service in English as well as Urdu without any extra cost! It would have also re­duced drastically the composing costs of both the English and Urdu dailies. Just imagine how much improved our media would have been by now if the proposals had been implemented.

The conservatism in the media persists and is already slowing the adoption of Internet. The use of email, for example, is still rare in all media. Very few give as much importance to email as to phone and fax, even though it is more reliable, faster and far more economical than either of the two. There is also very little coverage of the information technology both in the print and electronic media because the editors themselves don’t know much about it!

The Internet, however, has gained such a momentum on its own that the newspaper, radio, television and other media will soon be overwhelmed by it. The question is not of if but of when Internet will be fully em­braced.

The way to paradigm changes. The complete adoption of Internet will have a profound impact on our media. It will bring about paradigm changes not only in the processes, like reporting and editing, but also trans­form the very nature of the media.

Reporting will be an entirely new kind of process. The pen and note­book may remain in a reporter’s pocket for the time being, but he will be pounding on the keyboard of a very small computer for writing a story. The moment a story is done, it will be on its way to the destination. (As we shall see a little later, it will apply to stories in Urdu also.)

The reporter will no longer be writing just stories. He will be using a digital camera for taking pictures that will accompany his stories. (The extra payment for pictures – which will be in color – will easily justify the pur­chase of the camera, even if he has to buy it on his own.) There will be no developing and printing of film, nor delays in the delivery of prints by a cou­rier. In fact, the pictures will be ready before even the story is written! Even if a reporter is not a good photographer, it will not matter because his editors will easily remove the defects in his pictures.
A story and the accompanying pictures may reach the newspaper as email attachments wherever the reporter may happen to be. He will, in fact, no longer be bound to his office or tethered to the wire of an ordinary tele­phone. Even the remote villages will soon have wireless (but fixed) phones, which are already being installed by private companies in tens of thousands in collaboration with Pakistan Telecommu­nication Co. Ltd. Then there will be the cellular mobile phone, which will provide Internet connection, and will be cheaper and much more ubiquitous than at present.

If the editor is not satisfied or wants more details, he will not hesitate in calling the reporter wherever he may be, even in the remotest areas. A trunk call will no longer be an expensive affair. In December 2002, the mo­nopoly of Pakistan Telecommunication Co. Ltd will be over. With the dawn of the New Year, the Internet service providers will introduce Internet te­lephony legally. A phone call will then cost only Rs 30 t0 40 per hour (at present connection charges), irrespective of the reporter being in Nushki, Nawabshah, Nowshera or New York!

An alternative to a phone call will be what is called “chatting” in the Internet jargon. It is conversation in writing on an Internet connection, with words and sentences being typed alternately by the participants, just as they speak on a phone. When coordinated reporting on a major story is required, the reporters and editors may chat with one another simultaneously.
Editors will have a much more harried life. Internet will be bringing to their computer monitors stories and pictures every minute in an unceasing stream. As if it was not enough, it will also be impossible to finish a story and forget about it because updates will be constantly pouring in. The radio and television will be coping with the problem by broadcasting more and more bulletins. (A news channel of the Pakistan Television is on its way. How far behind will be Radio Pakistan?)

The print editors, by the nature of their medium, will be torn in two opposite directions. On one hand, they will have to prepare complete and comprehensive stories for the morning edition. On the other hand, many dailies will have web sites, where latest news will be placed literally every minute, with revisions and updating round the clock. (There may be pres­sures to bring out several editions of dailies during the day but the produc­tion and distribution costs will be prohibitive for most of the publishers. There may also be little demand from the readers, who have money and time for just one paper a day.)

Not just the news. The stories in the next morning’s edition will also require a completely different treatment. The Internet (along with the fre­quent news bulletins of radio and television) would have already given most of the W’s of a story. The only one left will be Why (and to some extent also How). While giving the basic facts, a story will have to concentrate on analysis and background if a reader is expected to read it the next morning.

The newsmagazines have a much harder time. Some years ago, the Time magazine decided to study its own future. The cable news channels, and later the Internet, took the bottom out of the newsmagazine’s primary function of providing a summary of the week’s news. It concluded that the only way it could survive in the age of instant news was by providing depth, background and analysis of events and trends. So, you will today find Time (and, inevitably, Newsweek) to be very different from what it used to be. And the cost of inertia? A leading Indian newsmagazine, Sunday, lost half of its circulation because it failed to change.

News stories for the media are no longer scarce. Internet has opened the floodgates of news about all parts of the world and on all imaginable subjects. Thousands of newspapers and magazines already have their web sites and more are joining them every day. Then many new specialized agencies cover various fields. Gone are the days when a few international news agencies controlled the flow of news because only they had the worldwide network for the distribution of news. Now many alternatives are available, including original sources of various countries. If, for example, an editor wants to give more coverage to the Muslim World, he will have no difficulty in getting all the stories (and pictures) that he can publish.

The Internet will bring some relief to the space problems of newspa­pers. The editors always struggle to put in all the stories for fear of missing any important one but the number of pages fixed by the publishers frustrate their efforts. With Internet, the editors will be able to place full texts, lengthy details and less important stories on their web sites when they can’t have enough space in the paper edition.

Equal opportunity for Urdu. The Urdu newspapers, which have al­ways lagged behind their English contemporaries, will not find it difficult this time to catch up technologically. In the early days, a computer could use only 128 characters (in the 8-bit ASCII code), which were obvi­ously not enough. A subsequent code, EBCDIC, doubled the number of characters (letters, numbers, punctuation, etc.) but that again did not go far enough.

Finally, after the technical limitations were overcome, the computer in­dustry adopted the UNICODE, a 16-bit character-encoding standard, de­vel­oped by the Unicode Consortium between 1988 and 1991. By using two bytes to represent every character, UNICODE enables almost all of the written languages of the world to be represented using a single character set. Approximately 39,000 of the 65,536 possible UNICODE character codes have been assigned to date, 21,000 of them being used for Chinese ideo­graphs. The remaining combinations are open for expansion.

It is understood that Microsoft will provide full support for Urdu in Windows 2000, making it possible to use the computer in our own language exactly the same way it is done in English. (By the way, it will also be pos­sible to use computers for all of our regional languages with the same ease if character codes for them are as­signed!)

Despite the technical limitations, however, we could have still expe­dited the use of Urdu computing if we had simply followed and adapted whatever research and development was being done for computing in Ara­bic. (And it was quite a lot, because of the petro-dollars flowing around in the 1970s and 1980s.) Unfortunately, we insisted on the use of the Nasta’lique form of the script, which is not entirely character-based, and hence could not be used easily in computers. Naskh is used by all other lan­guages of the world, which are written in the Arabic script, including our own regional languages. If Urdu had been doing the same, we could have saved many years in making full use of computing and also not wasted mil­lions of man-hours on developing software (and that too inadequate) for Nasta’lique. (The handicap still persists because even UNICODE will not make it easy to use Nasta’lique.) By discarding the use of Nasta’lique and adopting Naskh, we would also have improved tremendously the typesetting technology for Urdu print media but that is another story.

Basic problems for newspapers... The widespread use of Internet will pose some fundamental problems for the newspapers. For example, why should the reader buy a newspaper when he will be able to get the news on the Internet in­stantly and that too according to his preferences and free of charge? It may give sleepless night to publishers but there are several rea­sons why they should not despair. There are several reasons why a reader will still need a newspaper:
a) The news may be free but it will still cost money in the form of Internet connection charges. A reader may download stories for later reading and save connection time but he will not get “the whole thing.”
b) Advertisements in the paper also have news value, say, when new products and services are announced, vacancies are publicized, free offers are made.
c) Only a newspaper provides the ultimate convenience of (i)carrying it around, (ii) splitting it among several readers, (iii) reading it in fits and starts (because of interruptions throughout the day), (iv) reading it while travelling in a bus or train, (v) tearing out stories, pictures and ads for refer­ence, (vi) spreading it on the ground for sitting in a park or having a picnic, and (vii) taking it to the bathroom in the morning.
d) The newspaper can be recycled for packing, wrapping, etc. or sold as raddi (waste paper).

The newspaper publishers also need not fear that Internet will take over the news completely. The free news is great for the reader but a burden for the provider. Some attempts were made to charge a subscription for the Internet editions of newspapers. An outstanding example was that of The New York Times, which thought it could pull it off because of its prestige and influence. But it had to climb down soon and join the others, such as The Washington Post, who were making their complete contents available on their web sites without charge.

The placing of a newspaper on the Internet does cost money. The ad­vertisement revenue could be the only alternative to subscription charges to meet the expenses but Internet has not proved to be an effective medium for it. The advertisers somehow believe that they get better value for their money from the newspapers than the Internet. Therefore, independent news providers cannot find any way to meet their expenses while the newspapers can continue to provide the Internet edition, though only as a prestigious subsidiary of their normal operations.

… and electronic media. More and more radio and television stations around the world are making their programs available on the Internet. You can listen to music or news on a radio or watch a television program even if it is being broadcast on the other side of the world. Since audio and video require much larger capacity (technically called “bandwidth”), our own Internet users will have to wait till digital subscriber lines are provided to them by the phone company at a very low cost. Pakistanis in many countries, how­ever, are not handicapped by small bandwidth and can even now enjoy programs of Radio Pakistan and Pakistan Television.

Like the newspaper publishers, the radio and television broadcasters will also have to bear the costs of placing their contents on the Internet with­out any hope of return. For them too, it will be a prestigious subsidy.

The Internet, however, provides simultaneous worldwide coverage to the radio and television, far beyond the present normal coverage area. If the audience abroad grows large enough, the broadcasters may think about abandoning their satellite transponders, which cost millions of dollars per year but cover only one-third of the globe at the most. In addition, the users need a dish antenna or a cable television connection. The satellite service providers will have a very hard time selling the vacated trans­ponders to oth­ers. Then the Internet service providers may come to their res­cue and use their services for transmitting large data files from web sites. The files may well be television programs! The television (and radio) may thus still use the satellite but in a roundabout way and at a very low cost.

The age of self-publishing. The Internet has given a new meaning and possibilities to publishing. It will reduce the dominance of the major pub­lishers and allow “a thousand flowers to bloom.” In the conventional way, a new newspaper normally requires tens of millions of rupees. (Hsssh! Bring your ear close to me. If you know somebody who wants to bring out a daily newspaper, tell him that I know how to do it with merely lakhs of ru­pees!) On the Internet a new newspaper, magazine or even a book can be published at a very, very small cost and for the whole world to read.

The obstacles on the way. Finally, how long will it take the Internet to have its full impact on our print and electronic media? Revolutions do not take place overnight because the human societies take their own time to change. The Internet, however, may make its way rather easily. The prices of personal computers have been falling continuously. The telephone net­work will improve and expand further after the monopoly of the PTC ends in 2002. Then will remain the cost of Internet, which can be brought down sub­stantially if (a) the rates charged by PTC for international connectivity are based on actual costs, and (b) the license fee for the Internet service pro­vid­ers is abolished. And if PTC provides nodes for Internet at every district headquarters, the Internet can reach economically even the remote ar­eas.
After the Internet becomes affordable and easily available in every part of the country, the media even in the least developed areas will be revolutionized. It will be a great day for mass communica­tions.

The paper was read at a two-day seminar on “The Challenges of the New Millenium and the Media,” held at Murree, on August 2-3, 1999, organized by the Department of Mass Communications of the University of the Panjab. The teachers of Mass Communications of all universities of the country participated.

The writer is a specialist on information technology, Internet, computing, telecommunications, broadcasting and newspaper technology.

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