The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Monday, August 21, 2006


© Duncan Graham 2006

Every day en route to Surabaya’s Chaos Central I’m accosted by a weird collection of highway hustlers ambushing motorists at traffic lights.

Included in the line-up of windscreen dusters, furry toy sellers (and sellers of furry toys), bare-breasted beggars suckling gooey infants and ghouls in ape masks (just the thing for the office boss) are paperboys.

Some go to extremes in a bid to flog the news. During the World Cup a few
painted their torsos in what seemed to be an attempt to replicate national flags.

Even veteran drivers in the East Java capital, hardened to bizarre sights at intersections, were moved to double-check their door locks. But apart from shock and awe these garish gents sweating rainbows didn’t seem to be scoring any extra sales.

No wonder. Who wants to read results when we’ve heard them already on the radio and seen the action on breakfast TV? No need to stay up all night – highlights were replayed while the coffee was brewing and the rice steaming. Moving pictures beat static photos almost every time.

This is the challenge facing papers around the world: How can we compete against the instant news reports of the 21st century electronic media? Who didn’t know Nadine wasn’t Miss Universe long before dawn?

Despite on-screen layouts and high-speed presses, papers still have to be distributed using wheels and wings. The result seems foregone: TV and Internet 1, Newspapers 0.

Yet any newspaper obituary is likely to be like the first reports of Mark Twain’s passing – greatly exaggerated.

The long predicted birth of the paper-free office is still in gestation. Many believe it has yet to be conceived. We’re still culturally wedded to A4 and don’t trust the screen sirens.

On a flat sheet of paper it’s real. On a flat screen it’s not. Computers crash. Power failures send data into some gigabyte graveyard. Viruses duplicate and devour. If the Dead Sea scrolls had been stored on a hard drive there’d be one less world religion.

Newspapers feel comfortable and useful. Try lining the kitty-litter tray or wrapping the rubbish with a CD.

For an outsider, seeking to make sense of the Indonesian newspaper industry is like trying to understand the Javanese: Difficult beyond reason.

When Suharto controlled the media there were less than 300 licensed newspapers and magazines. When liberated by his successors the number jumped to more than 2,000. It has now slumped to around 830.

Yet investors still lust to be tycoons of type. Clearly many will go belly-up, so the motive must be ego enhancement. Who doesn’t want a name card with the title Publisher?

There are even rumours of a rival to this publication. This assumes someone either has pockets deeper than a Lapindo bore or has detected a reserve of credible companies desperate to advertise but who haven’t found anyone wanting to take their money.

When I started journalism in Australia, afternoon papers were an essential take-home commodity. Now almost all have gone, alleged victims of TV. Like exotic creatures they still exist in isolated pockets in Indonesia, but looking at the arid contents and an environment clear-felled of ads they’ll soon be extinct.

Elsewhere newspaper circulations are audited. Seldom here, so any figure on copies sold has to be treated with much scepticism.

Although seeing someone actually buy a paper is a rare event in Surabaya the custom of pinning pages of a daily on a wall on Jl Basuki Rachmat draws serious crowds.

So maybe it’s not true that Indonesians are indifferent readers – they’re just not prepared to pay Rp 3,000 (US 30 cents) for stale news when that money will buy a bowl of fresh meatballs.

Publishers serious about helping raise education levels and expand knowledge should consider giving away their papers. Most profit comes from selling space. Retailing costs make margins miniscule.

In Perth, Western Australia, local newspapers have become phenomenally successful by distributing copies free. The journalism is credible and pages are thick with ads.

If tried in Surabaya we’d all be winding down the car windows and getting a copy. The paperboys could retain their shirts and dignity. Literacy might flourish – and more forests fall to feed the pulp mills.

(First published in The Sunday Post, 20 August 06)



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