It’s not every day that you meet the future head on, but I did last Sunday and it was something of a jolt. Having spent the last twelve years blithely scribbling away in the print media I had neglected to notice that my perimeter was eroding and that the platform I stood on was shrinking. Fast. Not only was physical space getting smaller, what I wrote had an audience that was dropping like a stone. Fewer and fewer people are reading newspapers — English newspapers here in Pakistan — and the platform of the very near future is digital, and to stand on it you need to write differently, for a different demographic that consumes news in a very different way from that which I grew up with.
The primary consumers of news in Pakistan are the demographic a couple of generations below me. The 18-35’s that live life on the move and mostly with their heads down munching on bite-size chunks. Sound bites almost in the case of Twitter — and rarely on anything as extended as a 700-word piece such as this. They spend seconds rather than minutes reading a piece and have little interest in long-form journalism. They are going to be the movers and shakers of the future and they are knocking on the door. These are not the people that sit down in front of the TV for 30 minutes to listen to the talking heads every evening. That is for the greybeards like me, the dinosaurs that move at a more leisurely pace, take time to digest whatever the pundits who are as grey as me and mostly lacklustre — regurgitate.
Back to the copy, the text that gets read — which is no longer just copy but a mix of short — tiny — documentaries, on-screen text and very little by way of opinion, the op-ed pieces that are the heavy end of print papers. There is already a platform, TCM, in Pakistan that is beginning to shape the future of our digital news and information world. That can only expand. The phenomenon is global. The Independent newspaper gave up the hard-copy struggle last year and now only exists as an online entity. The Guardian is in transition and already carries a substantial documentary content. It reduced its physical size to tabloid in the last fortnight.
So what of the scribblers? Well for one thing we are going to have to learn to write shorter pieces that are readable on the screen of a phone or other device and that does not have to be scrolled to be read. Shorter sentences that lack the complexity of a piece such as this, pieces that suit the post-literate reader who in real terms may have a limited spoken vocabulary and a reading age in the 10-12 years bracket. It would be all too easy to say that this represents a ‘dumbing down’ but that is not necessarily so. It is adaptation to a completely different way of communicating that is leaving the likes of me and my aging ilk far behind. We are the fading generation clinging to a rock as the tide rises, eventually to cover us.
Many years ago my younger brother’s youngest daughter said that she saw little point in learning to write. She was about four or five and had just been introduced to the wonderful world of email. There is heated debate in some quarters as to the value of teaching cursive script in schools — at all. How many of us write anything beyond a shopping list? Keep a written diary? (I do. Written with a fountain pen in sepia ink.) My own youngest daughter gets her homework over a school intranet and completes it on the laptop I bought her for Christmas.
As for myself I live in something of a digital desert. No smartphone or otherwise interactive device. I had a digital thingy which was stolen not long after the missus gifted it to me. Not replaced and I took proud possession of a new Nokia 3310 recently, so much more elder-friendly than these touchy-feely thingies. So there we are. I’ll just wander off into an analogue sunset and see if the paper-shop is still open. Tootle-pip!
Published in The Express Tribune, February 1st, 2018.
Like Opinion & Editorial on Facebook, follow @ETOpEd on Twitter to receive all updates on all our daily pieces.
Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.
For more information, please see our Comments FAQ