IT IS A hotly debated subject: Does going digital spell the end of print media? Granted, the reading culture has gone through quite a technology shake-up, from the introduction of e-books to changing reading habits thanks to social media, not to mention a much shorter attention span. However, the rumours about the death of print media appear to have been highly exaggerated. The longing for sound analyses and comprehensive information still runs deep, and can be expected to continue growing.
Will the periodical therefore be the saviour of print media? Penang Monthly, in collaboration with George Town Literary Festival last November, delved deep into the topic with a panel discussion titled Magazines: The Hope and Future of Print Media with editor Dato’ Dr. Ooi Kee Beng, who is also the executive director of Penang Institute, the magazine’s publisher; Goenawan Mohamad, renowned Indonesian writer and co-founder of the weekly Tempo; and Dhvani Solani, an associate editor of VICE Asia, as panellists.
“As with any magazine, a key element to consider is its sustainability; and I find a monthly magazine to be the perfect platform for us,” says Ooi. “Sales was initially used as a strategy to keep the magazine going but later, focus was gradually shifted towards the sale of advertisement spaces. This enabled us to circulate the magazine free-of-charge. Today, we print about 4,000 physical copies every month; we have also transitioned onto digital platforms. So far, we have amassed 18,000 online followers across our various social media. It would have been impossible to reach a massive reader pool if Penang Monthly had continued relying solely on conventional printing and distribution methods; establishing an online presence is equally significant to having a physical one.”
Goenawan Mohamad shares similar sentiments. Tempo was founded in 1971 during a time of tumult, though it was effectively banned under the Suharto administration. “The Indonesian media’s freedom of expression then was tightly controlled and scrutinised by the central government in Jakarta. Even after Suharto’s resignation in 1998, when Tempo resumed operations, we were still unaware of the use of digital media. I was utterly amazed by its potential to reach a wider audience when we first launched in digital format years ago,” he recalls.
For her part, Dhvani Solani opines that a reversal of views is in order: “Instead of seeing it as a threat, digital media can be a complementary element. We have to come to realise that a magazine will only be regarded as viable by modern society if it also has a digital arm,” she says, adding that VICE recently switched from a weekly to a monthly publication as “it allows us to invest more resources into the magazine to enrich its content, making it highly-delectable instead of a disposable item.”
Publications should also use digital media to fulfil their respective needs and long-term aims accordingly, observes Ooi. “Our monthly themes focus more on issues in the local context, therefore the need for Penang Monthly to use digital media to reach out to a wider global audience is not as great as for other magazines.” For periodicals that are heavily reliant on its use, however, the benefits can be aplenty. Tempo, for one, has cemented its online presence by widening its digital production through its website Tempo.co in dual Indonesian and English languages, alongside its newspaper Koran Tempo and magazine. “Although it took time to put together gigantic amount of resources for the digital launch, it has proven advantageous to our publication,” says Goenawan.
Still, periodicals can’t rely on digital subscriptions alone for sustenance; there is a pressing need to diversify revenue sources. “Considering the huge amount of money that publications such as VICE have invested into their digital departments, we have come to realise in recent years that subscription alone is no longer a main revenue source; rather surprisingly the gravity has increasingly shifted towards organising events and securing sponsorships through them,” says Dhvani. “Quite interestingly, these events and sponsorships wouldn’t have come to fruition either without the pivotal role the magazine plays in drawing the crowd from its existing pool of readers.”
It was also agreed by all three panellists during the discussion that publications are significant in preserving and protecting regional languages which are integral to the local culture of a particular area. “Although multiculturalism is currently one of the most influential global trends, this does not necessitate the publication of a single magazine in several languages. Even though Penang Monthly is solely written in English, it doesn’t stop other magazines in Penang being published in other languages,” says Ooi. “The bigger question here is whether people know how to use the literacy that they have been inculcated with? The role of a magazine in public spaces is to inform people that literacy doesn’t stop after you leave school; rather, it is a never-ending learning process that goes on for the rest of our lives.”
Print media, especially periodicals, are undoubtedly here to stay; the main justification for this is that they offer readers an unbiased portrayal of local and international social issues, as well as provide insightful analyses sharpened by local perspectives. This is attractive for readers who are eager for a deeper and broader understanding of reported events.