March 1st, 2011

Print Isn’t Dead in Peru

Posted in Latin America, Public Space, Society and Culture by Christopher Szabla

Newsstands, Cusco

Few of the last ten years have passed without claims that yet another innovation — the rise of blogging, then microblogging, social networking, then the spread of smartphones, and, most recently, tablets — had the potential to reshape the way media is produced and consumed. The journalism world has been appropriately shaken and stirred: in the US, falling print revenues precipitated a “great magazine die-off“. Taken aback by the rate of change, “legacy” publishers continue scratching their heads in search of future profit models, while academics ponder whether anything resembling the traditional print publication can persist in the brave new world of incessantly streaming, instantly updated, massively mobilized media.

Sifting through this sea of speculation, it’s easy to forget how much of the planet has been left behind by the conversation — and the expensive technology by which it’s made possible. While it’s true that the explosive growth of some communications technologies has been so comprehensive as to reach even war-torn corners of the world (Mogadishu, of all places, boasts a startlingly sophisticated cell network), indicators of widespread internet connectivity — nevermind social networking — are much less evident. A map showing the connections forged by Facebook, for example, renders poorer parts of Africa and Asia as dark as empty oceans. While other social networks dominate some parts of the two continents, many areas are actually still terra incognita for the “world wide” web.

The existence of a “digital divide” has not gone unnoticed in the past. Still, many commentators have barely stopped to think about the impact of new technologies on far-flung regions before applying generalizing, “world is flat” thinking, not only assuming such tools’ widespread use, but crediting them for coincidental social movements, from the 2009 protests in Iran to the uprisings currently sweeping the Arab world. (It’s worth noting that only about 20,000 Iranians had Twitter accounts in 2009, and only 21% of Egyptians have internet access today. Numbers in Libya and Yemen are even lower. Even if some of the protests behind the recent revolutions were initially organized online, they were only won once offline populations had been urged — by other means — onto the streets.)

Unsurprisingly, the ocean of exuberant hype about new frontiers in tech leaves little room for discussion about the way media is experienced in the many niches where print still does reign supreme. It’s a disappointing trend, since it not only means that we often misperceive the ways such places receive and process information, but also the extent to which new media growth over the last decade has (or hasn’t) actually changed the now-wired world.

Income, of course, plays a significant (though far from exclusive) role in determining where print survives. In wealthy, relatively egalitarian Japan, print has vanished rapidly from the public sphere; Tokyo commuters are a sea of heads bowed toward internet-equipped flip phones. Class-stratified New York subway riders wear their income on — well, near — their sleeves, cradling either costly Kindles or else creased old copies of free tabloids left by other riders.

And then there’s largely poor Peru, where print newsstands don’t merely subsist; they remain major attractions. Men (and they are, mostly, men) gather over street corner cornucopias of opinionated dailies — Lima alone currently boasts 20 diarios — hover over headlines, and occasionally read down a glimpse of a page. Reading the news on the street is a spectator sport that’s enjoyed by the entire country; small crowds clustered around tapestries of tabloids are common sights in Arequipa and Cusco.

Cusco

On the one hand, the spectacle ought to be celebrated as a social revolution in its own right. Peruvians’ penchant for perusing headlines on the street is a direct consequence of the country’s strides against illiteracy and its galloping economy, which has spurred migration to cities where information is more accessible. As a result, once-marginalized classes are increasingly initiated into the details of national politics and culture. The groups gathering at newsstands might even provide a forum to discuss current affairs in a way that avoids the debilitating stridency of anonymous online commenters.

Still, the way Peruvians digest their news raises a number of issues surprisingly similar to those faced in the online media ecology of the “developed” world. Like internet freeloaders, Peruvians don’t expect to pay for basic content, which raises the question of the practice’s impact on Peruvian papers’ profits. While standing at newsstands, many Peruvians also largely only scan the story ledes they can view for free. Does this make them active, engaged citizens for seeking out daily news at all, or do their relatively quick glances reflect the sort of superficial perusal common to increasingly impatient internet multitaskers?

Finally, there’s a lot of sensationalist trash — sex, scandal, etc. — that appears in the country’s newspapers. But that’s hardly a problem unique to Peru — or to print. It’s hard to believe the lurid bait of Peru’s tabloid media — set, often, among serious headlines, but not exactly outnumbered by them — isn’t equally as distracting as the salacious noise that tempts, just a link away, online.

If this seemingly retrograde custom is raises questions so similar to those emerging from the “revolutionary” explosion of e-media elsewhere, it may be that the supposedly “novel” issues raised by digital journalism may have been lurking under the surface all along. Even the more concrete consequences of the shift in formats hardly appears unprecedented. Reflecting on Peru’s boisterous, dog-eat-dog print media landscape, Hugo Guerra, executive editor of the country’s leading daily, El Comercio, pointed out that “every day there is a new (newspaper) and some others die”. It’s a life cycle that, during a decade that’s witnessed the rise of reportage in blogs and news aggregators while once prominent publications decline, seems strikingly familiar.

Lima

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One comment

  1. Christopher DeWolf says:

    Your photos remind me of the public newspaper stands you still see in many parts of China, in which a newspaper’s pages are displayed in a glass case in a central part of a neighbourhood. I saw the same thing in Bangkok’s Chinatown, too. Of course, most of the people who read the news that way tend to be elderly, and in those cases the newspapers are propaganda sheets.

    March 9th, 2011 at 1:19 pm

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