Mr. Shangkong

Are newspapers dying?

Newspapers may eventually become news "sites" or "iNews" products. But for journalist, as long as you are a good content provider, your readers will remember your bylines.

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 October, 2012, 4:05pm
UPDATED : Friday, 09 November, 2012, 8:15pm


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Are newspapers dying?

I forget exactly when but I've been asked more or less the same question more often in the past few years, in particular after Steve Jobs created the iPhone that claimed to have “changed everything”.

Those concerned about the fate of the print media have good reason - even the New York Times is now in deep financial trouble despite its reputation for top quality reporting every day from New York to New Zealand and from Chicago to Shanghai.

I began my journalist career at an official newspaper in Shanghai in the summer of 2002. I still remember clearly my office at the time was a typical newsroom -- newspapers littered the floor and mountains of books and papers on reporters’ desks. In other words, you couldn't call it neat, but it I liked it.

Later, I joined an American news agency, and then moved again to a British wire service. Perhaps because the two foreign news organizations had a strong focus on financial news coverage, the workplace for reporters and editors looked more like the trading floor of an investment bank rather than an old-fashioned newsroom.

After a total of about eight years working for newswires, I rejoined the newspaper industry early this year -- The South China Morning Post, my current employer. I remember when I first came to the newsroom of the Post to meet the bosses, all my old memories about working for the Shanghai newspaper in the not-so-neat newsroom suddenly came back to mind.

When I told friends I had decided to work for a newspaper, some of them were sceptical, and asked me: “Aren't newspapers dying these days?”

I prefer to rephrase the question or tweak it slightly: do people still want to get news every day? For most people, I think the answer is definitely "yes".

In my humble view, a newspaper is just a tool or a platform. Many years ago, we had typewriters and today, of course, we have computers or tablets. But one thing that hasn’t changed much -- we still type, just in different forms.

From this point of view, I think the question whether newspapers are dying is more about technology and the means of how information can be published and shared.

For journalists, the answer is much simpler. We are essentially content providers. Where the content goes is just another story.

I decided to write this column after spending a day at the Post’s Tai Po office where our printing plants are housed. When I worked for the Shanghai newspaper, I never got a chance to visit the printing presses that produced newspapers every day.

At the Post’s printing plants in Tai Po, the printing machines start work every day in the late afternoon and keep going until around 4 a.m. Because of heavy noises from these huge  machines, workers and visitors are required to wear ear protectors. It feels like flying in a helicopter – without earphones, you can't hear what others are saying.

One of my colleagues at the Post's print section has witnessed the industry's evolution and development -- from film-to-print to today's all digital production.

I am more convinced than ever after visiting the printing presses that newspapers are all about professional team work.

The process starts with the words that the journalists type on their computers and ends with the work of our colleagues on printing presses that pound out the morning editions when most people are still asleep. To make a newspaper happen is a sophisticated process.

To some extent, it’s involved and sophisticated as much craftsmanship as making a luxury handbag.

It's sad that fewer people appreciate the work that goes into the breakfast reading because our times are changing -- and fast. People know McDonald’s is about fast food -- not cordon bleu food -- but they still go for it.

Today, you'll definitely hear more and more people talk about digital media platforms such as websites or applications dedicated to mobile devices.

I'm certainly not against the trend (it would be strange for a blogger or tweeter like me to oppose the march of progress) but at the end of the day, we should ask ourselves: what is the media industry all about? What do I think is the answer? It’s all about what you want to tell and share. In other words, content is still king.

Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, former publisher of the New York Times who died earlier this week, once said: "You’re not buying news when you buy The New York Times. You’re buying judgment." I think that makes a lot of sense. I also think that's why newspapers won't die any time soon -- as long as we still have people who are serious about what journalism really means.

The trend to transform the media industry is inevitable but I am not worried about losing my job as a journalist.

Newspapers may eventually (well, not in my lifetime, I think) become news "sites" or "iNews" products – just use your imagination to think of what they may evolve into. But as long as you are a good content provider, it’s more about identifying the best platform on which to share -- and then your readers will remember your bylines.


George Chen is the financial services editor at the South China Morning Post. The opinions expressed in the column Mr. Shangkong are all his own. Follow him on or