PART 1: The Fall of the Printed Newspaper and the Rise of Cyberspace

by Satheesan Kumaaran

A popular Government without popular information, or the means of acquiring, it is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives – James Madison

( February 11, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The issue of the rise of cyberspace causing the fall of the printed newspaper has become a significant debate among scholars and those who have greater sympathy towards media industry. Media is the principal source of political information and access to public debate, and the key to an informed, participating, self-governing citizenry.

Democracy requires a media system that provides people with a wide range of opinion, analysis and debate on important issues, reflects the diversity of citizens, and promotes public accountability of the powers.

There are many questions that come to mind when analyzing the rise of cyberspace versus the demise of the printed newspaper. What will be the political effects of this transition? Will the demise of the printed press mean a demise of reading? Will it mean the demise of journalism? And, what are the implications for democracy and politics?

Feud among printed media and cyberspace

History of Newspaper

The history of printed paper goes back nearly 1500 years. The Chinese invented paper in A. D. 105, which was made from a mixture of bark and hemp. And the Chinese invented and refined block printing in 6th century A.D., which involved carving images on wood and dipping the image into ink and pressing in onto paper or some other surface. This facilitated the distribution of Confucian texts, which promoted the values of devotion to parents, family and friends, ancestor worship, justice and peace.

The Western concept of newspapers surfaced in 1605 when Johann Carolus published the Avisa Relation oder Zeitung in Strassburg -- more than 150 years after Gutenberg invented the printing press, and more than 550 years after alchemist Bi Sheng experimented with movable type in China.

In fact, the term “journalism” did not come into use until 1833, and it coincided with the emergence of mass circulation of newspapers in the United States. The newspaper, as all are aware, is the broadsheet or tabloid that is delivered at doorstep or purchased at the newsstand.

History of the Internet

Cyberspace rose into full effect after the ‘90s. After the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, the U.S. created the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) to produce a system that would allow the U.S. military to maintain control over its nuclear arsenal and planes if a nuclear attack wiped out conventional communication systems. ARPA set out to create what would later be called the information superhighway.

Although the development of the Internet was implemented after 1951, by 1953, only 100 computers existed around the world that could be accessed by military attachments. A graduate student, Steve Ballovin at the University of North Carolina, created a civilian Internet called USENET, which could communicate in real time with bulletin boards, now called newsgroups. About the same time, IBM created BITNET, another software system that allowed computer networking, especially for commercial applications. Further developments were made and the government agencies and the private industries collaborated to make the system effective and available to people around the world.

America Online was founded in 1989 as a dial-up information service; however, it did not offer Internet access until 1994. Actually, the so-called Internet Revolution did not take off until the invention of World Wide Web and web browsers. In 1992, there still were only 50 websites around the world. Most people used the Internet for e-mail and discussion groups. That was about to change. By 1996, there were 40 million users. Today, about 1.2 billion people around the world – or about 17 percent of the world’s population -- are connected to the Internet.

Now, most daily newspapers, magazines, book publishers, recording companies, and radio and television stations, networks, and even individuals have their own web sites, which combine pictures, graphics, text and sometimes audio-visual content.

Printed Newspaper Competition

Traditional news media are facing competition from new and unusual places. First and foremost are the portals, especially Google, Yahoo, and MSN. Even though these sites produce no actual journalism themselves, they function as aggregators collecting links and leads from other news sources, filtering them into topical categories, and presenting them on the main pages of the most high-traffic sites on the web. In addition, traditionally distinct segments of the news industry itself, print (dailies, weeklies, and magazines) and broadcast (networks, cable, and radio), found themselves competing head-to-head for users and advertisers.

Furthermore, the Internet is a global medium. People can now read the Guardian or London Times just as easily as any newspapers in their own countries, for example, the Canadians like the Globe and Mail or catch the headlines from the BBC instead of CBC in Canada or CNN in the U.S.

With so many news vendors to choose from, many users opted out of grazing around, preferring the short, simple format of the aggregators that proffer something of everything but not too much of anything. Alongside these came a huge volume of non-profit, non-commercial enterprises. Sometimes based out of small pre-existing publications, institutions, community organizations, or social groups, these forums vary in style and content, running the gamut of the political spectrum and providing every cultural niche with its own unique voice.

Perhaps the most well known group in this category is the now worldwide network of Independent Media Center sites that grew out of the 1999 anti-corporate protests in Seattle. IndyMedia specializes in multimedia, citizen journalism, public news from public voices. It is a very interesting example wherein an aggregation model of news collection is paired with an atmosphere of online community.

Though IndyMedia remains in a class of its own, there are many other hybrid non-profit journalism sites that offer alternative perspectives. These range from web logs, also called blogs - run by amateur as well as professional journalists - to alternative content aggregators specializing in partisan news commentary that draw contributions from professional journalists, experts, and concerned citizens and provide links to information resources elsewhere on the web.

There are many sites built around political issues, social institutions, religious groups, and cultural practices that mix specialized non-profit content with news wire headlines, or links to other commercial news content available for free on the web. These sites need not be of universal interest, as some of the most successful news sites provide only local news and cater to residents of particular communities or regions.

In the dot-com boom between 1995 and 2000, almost everyone in the news business went online, and almost no one made any money. By early 2000, the start-up capital that had floated the independents was either gone or going fast. The online divisions of major news organizations were deeply in the red with no end in sight. The dot-com bust dove into free fall by midsummer 2000.

A great many start-ups folded, including the very highly regarded APB News. It turned out that it was almost as expensive to produce high quality journalism online as it was in the brick and mortar world—except no one was willing to pay for content on the web. Only the most exclusive content could be sold to subscribers, as headline news was all too available for free. These are some examples what the feud among the cyberspace and the printed publications are facing in the aftermath of the invention of the cyberspace.

(Note: This is a research paper prepared by Satheesan Kumaaran)

(The author can be reached at e-mail:

-To Be Continued Next Week-

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