Paper Trails – Freedom of the Print

In earlier times, the New York Times was a New York staple; the way you held the paper on the subway indicated whether or not you were from the area. Nowadays, most of us read the Times on our iPads, but although the New York Times and other print publications have cut staff and budgets drastically for print editions of their news in recent years, print is becoming the dominant form of media in developing nations.

Everyone going into journalism has probably heard that journalism is dying, or at least that brick-and-mortar newspapers are. This is quite misleading; with the upsurge in media technology, while niche publications and media start-ups in recent years have given aspiring journalists in the United States and Europe more mediums and avenues for their interests and ideas than ever, the assumption that print is dead is pretty Western-centric. As travel becomes more restricted, especially for members of the press, this assumption is understandable.

Why the shift to print? The 2011 State of the Media report said:

“Countries with either evolving democracies or at least evolving capitalist systems tend to drive newspaper growth, which helps explain why Hungary (6.9%) Kosovo (12.5%) and Russia (9.3%) are also on the list of countries where newspapers are launching in bigger numbers, helping advertising revenue grow. Volatile as it is, Afghanistan also saw its paid daily newspaper titles jump 12.5% in 2009.”

It’s safe to say that movement towards capitalism drives the growth of news as the market for news expands and literacy rates go up. This isn’t rocket science. What’s more interesting is this:

“Still a fourth factor affecting the health of the newspaper industry is government subsidy. In several countries, the government offers substantial subsidies to help the newspaper industry thrive as a matter of public policy. The amount and nature of the subsidy can vary widely, and it is difficult to pin down how widespread the subsidies are—they are being scaled back in some places and increased in others. Ireland, for instance, has devoted hundreds of thousands of Euros per year to subsidize Gaelic-language press.”

Aside from Ireland, where Gaelic-language media tends to have a niche, if culturally significant market, the government subsidizing news in developing nations is a red flag. That said, newspapers can slip further under the radar than easily trackable online media, even though they logistically take longer to produce. With Turkey’s recent Twitter ban though, and similar Internet restrictions worldwide, it makes sense that regional news is easier to circulate when it’s written down.

This 2008 Economist article reinforces that point:

“Publishers in India benefit from a long tradition of press freedom. But papers in countries with more meddling governments are also, by and large, doing well. This is especially true of small newspapers. Governments with limited resources are often ill-equipped to monitor a profusion of local and regional newspapers. In Mali, for example, newspapers are popping up “like mushrooms”, says Souleymane Kanté, the local manager for World Education, an American NGO that aims to eradicate illiteracy. The Malian government keeps large national publications in line, Mr Kanté says, but local and regional papers have some breathing room.”

Many pieces on print in the developing world refer to these markets as “maturing,” but this government sidestepping places small, localized papers ahead of the game, even if literacy rates still lag behind Western numbers. The developing world’s growing print industry is expected to decline as Internet access becomes more widespread, but Internet restriction doesn’t seem like it’s going anywhere.

From Common Sense to anarchist zines, print has played a unique role in the face of the media. Limits on press freedom are a looming threat, but as the FBI discovers more and more Internet rabbit holes, maybe it’s time to throw them a curve ball and go back to basics.

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