The internet is hammering the final nails in the coffin for newspapers and magazines. But as our reading habits change, our trust in the naked truth of issues is being tested as ‘fake news’ distorts the daily agenda of information. This week, Alvin Thomas assesses if traditional media can still be a mainstream force amid an onslaught of online options.
You are what you read.
Whether you’re cozying up to your favourite magazine or soaking up global news from the newspaper, reading defines the world around you. It also acts as a source of information, and can instill a level of intellect – or so it was believed until about a decade ago.
Since then, however, print media – one of the oldest forms of communication – in the form of newspapers and magazines has since taken a back seat.
The culprit? The internet, and a relatively new if highly controversial phenomenon – the social media ‘influencer’.
What was once seen as a staple of news and information has largely been pushed aside thereby ending what has been a three-century-strong tradition.
Even in the Sultanate, several leading publications have closed, leaving readers to rely on digital forms of media.
Changing times have meant our lifestyles have altered and that affects how we consume media. When our parents once bought a newspaper hot off the press with the latest news, we now reach for our smartphones, tablets or laptops for our early-morning read.
Websites such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, WhatsApp, Snapchat all ensure that there is no shortage of platforms that can substitute for mainstream media.
The results are clear, too, as statistics show that the leading markets for print – the UK, USA, India, Japan and Australia –are all reporting steady declines in readership, and circulation as advertisement revenues have fallen.
The UK, for instance, has seen nearly 200 fewer regional and local newspapers as of this year than in 2005, while print circulation in the United States has shrunk from its peak of 60million copies in 1994 to a meagre 35m as of 2018, as per data revealed by Forbes.
This has also led to a fall in advertising revenue in the US –with a fall of US$65bn (RO31.8bn) in 2000 to less than US$19bn in 2015.
Stats aren’t readily available in Oman, but our research shows that there are currently 16 publications operating within the country – an insignificant number when compared with the bigger players.
But what’s alarming is that, at its peak in 2004, even the Sultanate had nearly 50 publications – from fully-fledged tech and automotive magazines to substantive periodicals and newspapers – which stood as a healthy number in a market serving nearly 2.4m residents at that time.
The fall – which accounts for about 68 per cent – is one of the largest in the region. It is second only to the UAE, which also registers high turnover rates for media houses and publications. But, the UAE has seen newer print players entering the market despite the media rut.
Oman’s current media situation, however, is a concern not only for the established order of journalists but also for those of tomorrow.
As Khalfan al Balushi, a journalism professor with a leading university in the country tells us, Oman’s media scene is raising a red flag.
Khalfan says: “I’m torn between sugarcoating the reality to instill confidence in my students and sticking to my morals and exposing the truth.
“I do not intend to lower the spirits of those studying to become journalists and PR executives in the country but there’s a major issue we’re seeing with the media scene here in Oman – and that has completely killed the market.
“In 2017, we saw the exit of one of Oman’s best newspapers, which opened our eyes to the stark reality the media had always relied on to live in… advertisers.
“Once these advertisers saw other opportunities to invest in, these newspapers began struggling to cope with the dropping revenues, and eventually, had to shut their operations down. It’s really sad.”
On average, between 85 to 98 per cent – as per information revealed by our media sources – of media revenue for the top print media houses in Oman come from advertising.
But, Khalfan’s revelation also shed light on how advertising revenues had dropped by 60 per cent by 2015, when compared with 2012, as more companies opted for digital forms of advertising.
A leading Oman car company told us its change in focus from print to online advertising meant nearly 60 per cent of its budget has been diverted to websites and digital platforms such as Facebook and Instagram.
A global trend by all means, digitalisation – which is the switch from more traditional form of media to newer forms of online media – has been a boon for advertisers looking to reach large numbers of readers for relatively little outlay.
On average, online advertisements in the Sultanate can be anywhere between 60 to 80 per cent cheaper than a print advertisement so there’s no doubt that digital ads are here to stay.
In the US alone, Google advertisements (to the US) led the whole print advertising avenue by US$2.94bn in 2011, and grew its lead to a massive US$65.75bn in 2017, as per the Silicon Valley Innovation Center’s statistics.
The stats in the Sultanate further make the point. A survey conducted by Y Magazine shows how websites, blogs, apps and social platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram account for 79.86 per cent of news readership by all 1,685 respondents in the country.
Meanwhile, in a separate poll, 36.48 per cent of respondents said that they still rely on newspapers and magazines for their daily dose of news and entertainment in Oman, leaving the rest to social media, television, online websites, and radio.
“This should never have been the case here in Oman,” says James* a veteran British journalist and former editor of a now-defunct magazine.
“At its peak, the Omani media scene was comparably strong to that of the UAE – of course, in relation with the size of the two markets.
“As hard as it is to believe, digitalisation of the media began as early as the 1940s in the US when television news began broadcasting to the masses. However, the times were such that they had always co-existed and respected each other.
“But, the case with smaller markets such as that of Oman is that when a new technology presents itself, even a slight shift will take away a chunk of the focus group.”
He’s right, as we learn that in a market such as the US (as per Pew Research Center), 20 per cent of all adult respondents acknowledged social media as their source of news and 16 per cent said they relied on print media – showing a smaller gap when compared with Oman.
These stats, however, also depend on the age of the reader.
So, a young adult aged between 18 and 35 will read more online, as per data revealed by Forbes, when compared with those aged between 36 and above.
Yet, James goes on to reveal how his circulation of 25,000 copies was reduced to 8,000 in the span of one year, and to 650, before finally shutting operations in 2015 in the wake of the final nail to the coffin – the oil crisis.
But, Laila al Lawati, the former Omani editor of a GCC-wide Arabic health magazine, ‘Dawa’ based out of the UAE, believes that the death of “mainstream media” comes from factors beyond readership.
She says: “Readership is only one of the factors that dictate the life of a print publication.
“The rest of it depends on the income from advertising, support from the management, high printing costs; and the greatest factor, openness to adapt to changes in digital media.
“In the case of our publication, it was the former two that clashed. The coming of several Arabic medical portals meant that people were relying on faster and more easily accessible websites than waiting for our magazine.
“But, we still had carved out a niche audience for ourselves, and we brought along with us a wealth of experienced writers putting out our credible content.
“Still, the management believed that we wouldn’t continue surviving in the market because of the competition, and before we could even prove ourselves, both the advertisers and management cut the cord in 2016 with us and let all 60 (staff members) go,” she adds.
James echoes this in his statement: “When things go awry in this market – which solely consists of advertisers than subscribers – managers quickly lose focus on their brand and either try to reinvent themselves digitally overnight or exit the game.
“The power of digital media is all well-warranted. There’s only one problem: digital media in Oman is virtually in its infancy stages when compared with most parts of the world.
“So, even in 2015 when we were then left scrambling to create websites and online versions of our magazines – it was a great push for us into the digital world – it soon became a matter of who had the most amount of money to shell out into a market with only a few readers.
James then goes on to relate on how staying alive in such an atmosphere meant pushing out the flashiest websites with “fluff stories” – stories with little to no news value, and “clickbait” – content with the main purpose of drawing an audience using unethical journalistic tactics.
This is a matter discussed by Mohammed al Maskari, a former civil servant with the Diwan, who believes that several print and digital publications have split the audience to further an agenda of gaining more readers.
He discloses how one publication (name withheld to protect identity) published a story on the lifting of the no-objection certificates (NOC)’s law in Oman to garner a strong expat readership.
“This website used to publish a story every week using government sources to create a divide among the people in the country. Not only is this practice vile, it also takes away the ethics in the field.
“And after months of news on the removal of the law, nothing happened. It left the people cheated.
“Because of mainstream media’s approach to clickbait and false news, there now exists a divide among the Omanis and the expats living here. It may not seem to be the case on the face of things but it exists.
“There are several people here – both expats and Omanis – who have been hurt by such news stories.
“When you run a media company, you need to be unbiased and present opinions that are credible – that should be the key to journalism,” he says, before adding, “There used to be a time when sincerity and trust ran in the media blood – and I grew up in an era where that used to be the case.
“And that’s why I trust print media in this region more than online media – a material once printed always exists but these can be changed on a website.
“Advertisers were few, but they knew which newspaper and magazine presented the best facts and information, and would do their market study on which audience they would target.
“Today, money has somehow become the leader in this game and the more readers there are on paper, the better it is.
“This means, several companies and websites are now buying fake followers for their website; and Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter pages – and you can see that there is no engagement to those pages all.
“I urge you to look at the number of followers of a page and compare it with the actual number of people who like or comment – that shows who is buying followers and who isn’t.
“And those that do, milk the most out of their pages using clickbait content. It’s a vicious circle and this needs to be changed if you want to see any difference in the media,” he adds.
While several people have now learnt to look past clickbait content and determine fake news, our investigation leads to a clan of people who still rely on newspapers and magazines for their information.
Mahesh Nair, a 58-year-old expat, considers himself a media purist. He says: “I frequently read newspapers and magazines, and I have since I was a child. Having done that, I can say that I’d like to keep myself updated with content that is more credible than what is published immediately but may be false.
“I do not intend to be a prig, and I do keep an eye on social media for news from time to time. Still, social media in my opinion has been the leader in fake news propagation – as most of the content can be easily altered by the time you have read it and shared it, or may intend to create confusion to begin with.
“This is especially great on WhatsApp, which has turned into a major player in the spreading of fake news,” he says, before opening his smartphone and showing us his inbox from a group of his friends who share content with each other.
Among the messages are fake videos and news stories, one of which even included false information on the marriage laws of Oman – a story debunked by the Oman government last year.
It’s turning into a matter of grave concern, as Oman stands third in the world for its mobile penetration rate (the number of SIM cards or mobile phone numbers in a certain country) – at 152.3 per cent as per Statista (a research an information company), and despite being ranked most expensive in the region (173rd in the world).
As one Royal Oman Police (ROP) official (who wishes to remain unnamed) says: “The more people we have online, the more chances there are for the spreading of fake news. That doesn’t mean we can simply bar people from going online but we need to know where to draw the line and how we can spot fake news.
“It is only by educating the people of this country about sticking with reputable media sources such as yourselves that we can really start creating a change in the atmosphere.”
In an earlier investigation, we found statistics that one fake news item was published every three days in Oman – further highlighting the importance of mainstream and trustworthy media outlets.
Journalism professor Khalfan, however, is still optimistic about the future of journalism and mainstream media. He believes a mutual respect will be shared as time goes on.
He says: “In many ways, social and online media have been seen as evils when looked at in relation with print media, which has a relatively better credibility.
“That in no way takes away the power of the internet and the worthiness of digital media as a source of news. No form of print media can ever beat online and social media in speed and access to the masses.
“And that’s why I think we need to rethink how print media works in this part of the world. It’s perhaps time for us to acknowledge the pros of online media and work towards making it a better place – getting rid of the fake news and bringing more credibility to the published materials.
“For newspapers and magazines to work, I think it needs to complement the latter. So, we’d like to see the print media implementing richer and more reader-friendly and exclusive content while promoting the same on its website using videos and other interactive forms of mass media.
“Otherwise, it will continue to be bullied by its younger counterpart and come to a stage wherein it just can’t compete with – and soon, cease to exist.
“Or in simple terms, as several journalists are now saying, print media will go extinct.”
* Name changed to protect identity
Printing is an additional expense that the reader must bear. While print media has its pluses, having to pay for physical copies of a media may seem redundant when the content is available online.
Digital sites offer breaking news at any point in the day. Years ago, readers would have to wait for mornings to receive yesterday’s news, but today updates come at the swipe of a finger.
3. Opportunities and Outlets
The internet offers relatively higher freedom of speech than a print publication. It also gives anyone with a penchant for writing an opportunity to publish content online. The digital world holds numerous opportunities for everyone to dabble in the writing world, regardless of whether they have any aptitude for it. There’s no longer a requirement to be an author or journalist to have work published.
1. Reliability and Accuracy
With the speed the digital world brings, providing news anytime and anywhere, the rapidness begs the question: is this news reliable? There have been many instances on sites like Twitter, for example, in which people and platforms in authority tweet news without dependable sources backing up their information. Instances of spreading unreliable information create the “fake news” label various journalists experience daily. As the race to be first to break the news continues, writers sometimes skip the steps of fact checking, as they would for print, casing the endless cycle of what’s true or not.
2. Losing a Brand
Because of all the smaller publications, the established players struggle for their viewers and readers. With all the options out there for people to find their news and entertainment, brands struggle to make a true impact in the industry. It’s slowly becoming a competition for the most clicks, shares and traffic, which can sometimes ruin the reputation of a brand.
(Source: Study Breaks)