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ROME, Apr 16 2009 (IPS) - Major global depressions, like the current one, always have a domino effect that reaches almost every economic and social activity. The media, however, tend to focus on only a few of its manifestations -those that strike the centres of power- while neglecting the periphery where poverty deepened by the crisis has far more dramatic consequences.

We have seen this every day for more than a year. The front pages report on the billions of dollars that the developed countries pump into their largest banks, on meetings and debates in the capitals of the North to address the crisis, on rising unemployment and lagging growth in the industrialised world. But information on the financial system and recession in the other two thirds of the planet is scant and fragmentary.

This disparity in coverage of the North and the South is nothing new, but it has come to the fore in the financial crisis, a time when it is all the more important that the public understand the conditions in the developing countries and support an approach of international economic cooperation.

This is happening at the same time as a transformation that is hitting the daily print media especially hard and progressively reducing the coverage given to global news and issues that “don’t sell papers”, like poverty, climate change, sustainable growth, human rights, democratisation, and security understood as the peaceful resolution of conflicts, disarmament, and nuclear non- proliferation.

While the depression, though deep, will be followed sooner or later by a revival of economic growth, the transformation of the media is structural, and thus the tendency to cut coverage of international news and global affairs seems certain to continue.

The assault on the print media -daily papers, magazines, and periodicals- began with competition from television after World War Two and was followed more recently by free access to online versions of these media as well as their competitors, which resulted in the appearance of free print and electronic media financed by advertising alone. The finances of the traditional media were further damaged by the movement of the majority of advertising into the new media.

What is happening in the US is important. In the last two years the percentage of those who read their news online has grown by 19 percent while in 2008 alone readership of the top 50 sites grew by 27 percent, a clear indication of the movement of readers from print to electronic media. At the same time, the volume of advertising that abandoned the print media far exceeds that which moved to their free electronic versions, further compounding losses from dropping sales of newspapers.

Even today, total newspaper distribution in the US is 48 million, and many papers continue to make profits. But income has dropped by 23 percent in the last two years.

To survive, the remaining media are shrinking their staffs, cutting the number of foreign offices, limiting themselves to electronic editions and/or reducing the number of pages. It is estimated that the US newspaper sector shrank by 10 percent last year and that between 2001 and the end of this year 25 percent of jobs will have been eliminated.

All of this explains the commonly-heard prediction that in the near future the print edition of the New York Times -which has a 400 million dollar debt- may cease, leaving only the electronic version. This is a clear dilemma, given that the income generated by the Times online is enough to support only 20 percent of the paper’s current operations.

It is a complex and contradictory process that a reversal of current economic conditions can only partially remedy. There is thus reason to fear the negative effects it may have on the coverage of development issues. The media that cover the latter tend to be scattered and have difficulty focusing their message, unlike the multinational media, which impose their selection of issues on the international news agenda. One step that the smaller media could take would be to organise an exchange system (like those that already exist among networks of larger papers) relating to development issues to share specialised and professional information. However, it would take a massive effort to counteract the tendencies noted above.

Addressing this situation is not just a problem for media professionals. It is a struggle that must involve civil society – the most dynamic participant in this sector and a significant consumer of this area of news-, academic associations that professionals should form to weather this period, boost their research capacity, and understand and respond to new challenges, and, naturally, the communicators of the North and South, for whom there are vast possibilities for reciprocal cooperation. (END/COPYRIGHT IPS)

(*) Mario Lubetkin is Director General of IPS news agency.

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