The rise of social networks and online media, together with the recent closures of some newspapers and magazines, have made it a “harsh winter” for print media, as the Hong Kong Journalists Association put it. In fact, “print media is dead” has been the most common refrain concerning the destiny of media over the past two years.
But before asking whether print media has really entered intensive care or is on the verge of death, I think we need to clarify whether this “print media” refers to the traditional media, and whether it is limited to newspapers and magazines. The number of people buying newspapers may have gradually declined over the past three to four years, but the number of people who receive news from electronic newspapers has increased significantly, according to one survey.
Thus, Hongkongers’ news-reading habits have definitely changed in recent years. However, the websites they visited were mainly the electronic versions of the paid-for newspapers. This shows that we still tend to trust traditional media more for reports of news and current affairs.
Last August, the Centre for Communication and Public Opinion Survey of the Chinese University of Hong Kong surveyed 907 citizens aged 18 or above, to rate the credibility of the media as a whole, and 29 media organisations in particular.
Electronic media and paid-for newspapers received higher ratings than free newspapers and online media in general, and online media received on average the lowest score for credibility among different media channels.
Clement So York-kee, a professor in the School of Journalism and Communication at CUHK, compared the credibility ratings with traffic statistics from online media and found a positive correlation between the credibility of paid-for newspapers and electronic media, and the traffic rankings of their websites. This implied that the higher the credibility, the higher the web traffic.
Yet, when it comes to free newspapers and the online media, there was no correlation between credibility and traffic. Readers seem to consume instant news from free newspapers and tend not to have high expectations of the credibility of this or “instant information” from online media.
Many of the young generation who are active on social networks often scoff at traditional or mainstream media and yet, deep down, they trust them more.
In addition, looking back at the disturbing trends in the US presidential election last year, some believed that one of the reasons for Hillary Clinton’s defeat was the fake online news shared around social media sites concerning Clinton and the Democratic Party.
Interestingly, the Czech Republic, which is set to hold two key elections in the next two years, has already set up a special department to crack down on fake news. It seems the public is more aware of the scourge and has re-examined the credibility of the media and the role of traditional media.
It cannot be denied that, in recent years, traditional media has faced setbacks due to the changes in people’s reading habits and the economic slowdown, bringing numerous operational challenges and a squeeze on manpower, which limits its capability to publish the best content.
However, the way the traditional media handles news and information still strictly follows an inherent code and standards, meaning that facts are verified and rumour-mongering is avoided.
Therefore, no matter how negative the prospects for development of traditional media seem to be in the eyes of the public, when it comes to credibility and reliability, it is still impossible for social networks or media organisations led by non-journalists to replace the traditional media.
Of course, there is still room for improvement in the traditional media but, in the foreseeable future, we shouldn’t expect to see any sudden demise of print media.
Keith Kam is chairman of The Newspaper Society of Hong Kong