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Wednesday, July 31, 2002

Internet or no, newspapers are here to stay

By Chok Suat Ling

KUALA LUMPUR, Tues. - Newspapers, once threatened by the Internet at the height of the dotcom bubble, are here to stay as long as they know who they are writing for and evolve together with readers.

The New Straits Times Press (M) Bhd group editor-in-chief, Tan Sri Abdullah Ahmad, said the Internet challenge had been overblown with its failure to put newspapers out of business.

In fact, it was now an established fact that people still relied on newspapers for the stories beyond the news and headlines, for in-depth reporting, analysis and commentary.

Addressing participants of the Hitachi Young Leaders Initiative in Singapore yesterday, Abdullah said that reliance put even more pressure on newspapers to "get it right".

He said readers' demands for information, erudition and entertainment grew and changed, and newspapers should keep up, not just in parlaying news, but in how it would impact the reader.

The changing role of the media, according to Abdullah, rested on how it handled and articulated public opinion, and how this contributed to democracy and strengthened its institutions.

Abdullah felt the value of newspapers rested in the heart - of the reader and the journalist.

And what was the condition of this heart in Malaysia and most of the region, he asked.

"Not very good, I'm afraid. It has gone slightly cold. Like lovers who have had a falling out, it will be hard work to regain their love. This work will pose the main challenge for newspapers in Malaysia, the region and the world.

"Love can be a fickle thing, and its nurturing requires dedication, judgment and care. In Malaysia, that nurture covers the function of giving the reader what he wants."

He believed that the expanding public space created by political liberalisation must not be taken as mere opportunities to make money.

Saying that the people always asked for the media to be responsible, Abdullah pointed out that readers must follow suit and act likewise.

"Responsibility means that we must beware of fancy Western notions. We must beware of the wolf of exploitation hiding under the sheep's clothing of Press freedom.

"The freedom to broaden the rainbow of journalism must not be allowed to descend into deep shades of yellow."

Abdullah said what was important was that the Malaysian market was very vibrant, but, in his view, not always in the right way.

On Press freedom and the freedom of expression, he said you don't always like what you see, you don't always agree with what you hear.

"Malaysia's Press freedom is not just the freedom to conform, but the freedom to criticise."

Speaking from experience, Abdullah said he had done this (criticised) many times in his writings, columns and editorials, and had not so far received "an ear-bending phone call as a result".

Abdullah said newspapers must respect society, the culture and sensibilities in which they operate.

"Call it nation-building or development journalism or whatever you like. Journalism, wherever it is practised, forms an institutional part of civil society, and therefore has a duty to keep that society civil."

Saying that major newspapers were still groping to engage the young, Abdullah admitted that Malaysia had not been doing a very good job of it.

"The love of newspapers is being lost by a lack of labour. The young will no doubt get things to their tastes in the end.

"But for the dramatist Arthur Miller, as well as for me, a good newspaper must always remain a nation talking to itself."


2002 New Straits Times Press (Malaysia) Bhd