The joy of savouring a good story

I remember with pleasure a Saturday morning in Hamburg's elegant Vier Jahreszeiten Hotel when I had time to linger over a breakfast buffet spread and a newspaper - the Weekend edition of the Financial Times (FT), to be precise.

I was waiting to catch a flight home from the German port city after three days of non-stop action at the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, where I had been reporting for The Straits Times on a reclamation dispute between Malaysia and Singapore.

By Saturday, the hearing had ended and it was both a relief and joy to sit back with a copy of the FT - its printed version no less, as the year was 2003 and tablets and smartphones did not exist yet - with plenty of time to pore over well-written long feature articles.

Newspaper reading is, as my colleague Asad Latif observed, an "intellectual leisure". That is especially so for the weekend editions of established broadsheets, the reading of which is meant to be leisurely because that is after all what weekends are for - slowing down.

Sadly, weekends aren't what they used to be and neither is people's love affair with newspapers.

Today, fewer have time or inclination to spend a whole morning reading just one newspaper from cover to cover. They are now far more likely to consume news on the go from their mobile devices as they commute to and from work, rush between appointments and even when they are at home, resting on the couch.

Studies also show that in many countries, people now spend more time on social media than on the news. Those trends of course have implications for news on paper, which Australian futurist Ross Dawson once famously predicted would be extinct in the next decade or so.

According to his Newspaper Extinction Timeline of 2010, newspapers in the United States were set to die by 2017, in Britain in 2019, in Australia in 2022 and in Hong Kong, Finland and Singapore in the couple of years after that. In France, due to governmental support, newspapers would be around until 2029, and in Germany, until 2030.

Earlier this month, Mr Dawson backpedalled, saying that he made the prediction mainly to provoke a response from people, including those who disagreed. It is unlikely that he had foreseen back in 2010 the interest in newspapers from very wealthy investors such as Jeff Bezos and Warren Buffett, both of whom have bought and pumped money into struggling American dailies.

Still the decline in newspaper print circulation is real. The New York Times, for example, has seen the circulation of its Sunday edition decline from its peak of 1.8 million in 1993 to 1.1 million today. The circulation of its daily edition fell 6 per cent last year to 645,000. Yet, more than 70 per cent of all revenue at The Times came from print last year.

Those numbers were revealed by its public editor Maggie Sullivan in March, in a column titled The Curious (and Vital) Power of Print. In it, she set out to debunk a tweet by a Canadian media watcher that the only people who still subscribed to newspapers were journalists and their parents.

Ms Sullivan wrote: "A lot of younger people buy and read the paper in print. Of all subscribers, 23 per cent are in their 20s, 30s and 40s - that's hundreds of thousands each week. They can't all be journalists.

"And on the opposite side of the spectrum, the typical digital Times subscriber is decidedly not a millennial, wielding her selfie stick... No, the median age of the digital subscriber is a greying 54, not much younger than the median age of the print subscriber, which is 60."

And, she stressed, "this substantial print crowd, young and old, loves its Times passionately".

Next month, Singapore's flagship broadsheet The Straits Times marks its 170th anniversary. Its first edition was published on July 15, 1845. The paper has survived two World Wars, Singapore's Separation from Malaysia and a number of economic recessions.

But how will it fare in the new multimedia landscape that has disrupted the traditional business of print newspapers across the developed West?

Addressing journalists in April, Mr Patrick Daniel, editor-in-chief of Singapore Press Holdings' English/Malay/Tamil Media Group, said the last year had been "a tough year for us, which saw the continuation of the wider trends we've had to confront".

The group, he said, "saw the print circulation of our papers fall further but happily this was more than offset by our paid digital subscriptions".

Going forward, the group's strategy is to keep print and digital news products as its core business but also "aggressively develop media adjacencies to augment our revenues and profits". Media adjacencies refer to activities that have synergies with news products, such as radio, books and data services.

On Wednesday, The Straits Times will be relaunched with a fresh design that includes a new layout and a new font unique to the paper. It will be all change at The Sunday Times on July 5. There will be new content, new digital subscription models for readers to choose from and greater integration between print and digital platforms.

But print continues to be core to ST's operations and much effort has been invested into giving this grand old broadsheet a fresh, new look. The overhaul, ST editor Warren Fernandez has said, is about a "new look, new ideas, but with the same Singapore soul".

Still, there is no denying that the world is turning digital. A new generation of digital natives has grown up consuming media virtually. They harbour no nostalgia for the tactile feel of a printed newspaper or periodical.

That was brought home to me by an American friend who spent many years writing for Rolling Stone magazine. He recounted with bemusement how the children of today respond when presented with a magazine: They do not know how to turn the pages, but try instead to swipe the cover as they do the screen of an iPad or iPhone.

In the digital age, one failing of newspapers is their lack of timeliness. By the time the papers reach readers, the news they contain is almost always outdated.

But newspapers have other strengths that I hope media companies and readers will always value.

The first is the ability to tell a good story. The craft of storytelling is one that good newsrooms teach and hone. Good journalists are good storytellers and good stories are what draw readers to newspapers - whether in print or online.

A newspaper also provides insights and sound analysis on issues of public interest and international affairs. In a world of rapid change, newspapers help readers make sense of what is going on around them. And they strive to do so in language that readers find accessible.

Finally, a good newspaper identifies with its local community and seeks to strengthen it. That was the spirit that inspired The Straits Times School Pocket Money Fund, which has put money in the pockets of thousands of needy children and teenagers, and galvanised individuals and organisations to raise funds and donate to the cause.

Though newspapers as a cultural product may be headed for the endangered list, I hope these three strengths will endure for the sake of readers and their communities.

This article was first published on June 28, 2015.
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