Mon, 08 Nov 1999

Internet inroads challenge print media

By Rachmat H. Cahyono

JAKARTA (JP): The revolution went on without any fuss, ammunition or firearms. It was a direct challenge to the continuity of a more than 200-year-old tradition. The cause of the revolution were developments in information technology; shifts which have been rapid and have penetrated into even the most intimate room in our life.

Don't get it wrong. The reality is not that menacing. It is not about a threat of revolution in Indonesia. Now we are entering a new phase of hope with the election of Abdurrahman Wahid and Megawati Soekarnoputri to the national leadership. It is only a story about how the Internet became a new protagonist in the development of information technology. Its presence immediately opened Pandora's Box. The face of the world has changed.

Just read how the Internet conducted the silent revolution. Newsweek in its Oct. 11, 1999, edition wrote a special report on how the Internet has changed our lives. Living, thinking, communicating, expressing love, studying, earning one's bread, following the chances of our presidential candidate. It also is related to smaller matters such as finding a good dentist or pediatrician. In short, the global phenomenon has brought us to a virtual reality that was formerly unimaginable.

It is estimated that 200 million people currently surf the Internet on a daily basis. In the U.S., 80 million people use the Internet. China has 1.2 million Internet followers. And there are estimates that subscribers in China will reach the 5 million mark in 2000. In 2003, the total amount of surfers in the world will triple and become 600 million. Currently, Indonesia has only 250,000 Internet subscribers.

A simple calculation assumes that one subscription is used by three or four people. That means in Indonesia there are only about one million Internet users. This total will increase sharply in the next years. The presence of the Internet in the past few years has also led the media to adopt a new term: media online. It is a new media form that uses the Internet as its medium. News can be read not only from the print media or heard on electronic media such as radio and television. The Internet can instantly report on the sad story of refugees in Kosovo and East Timor directly into your bedroom to give you gloomy dreams.

Two or three years ago the online media here was looked upon with distrust. But today, many people rely on the sites. Some websites like, Mandiri-online and are even visited by tens of thousands of people every day.

Before it goes on line, Mandiri circulated for a short time as an evening newspaper under the management of The Indonesian Observer, but it did not survive the competition among the print media in the post-reform period. Mandiri then started a daily on the Internet. This step proved to be correct. As Mandiri-online, the media outlet has subsequently progressed.

Once again, the revolution of information technology through the Internet did shake the tradition of the print media, which was already unsteady on account of the development of electronic media such as radio and television. The print media, whether they like it or not, must redefine its 200-year grip on news dissemination because they are no longer the leaders in the field.

The traditional institution of journalism like newspapers and magazines must inevitably watch the invasion of the "new player". The development of online media in the United States is considerable -- at least if it is measured from the dwindling of advertisement revenue in the print media. A report in The Economist (XVII edition, July 1999) says that revenue from advertisements -- the backbone of U.S. newspapers -- amounted in 1998 to 43.9 billion dollars, an increase of 6.3 percent compared to the previous year. However, the advertisement cake for the whole print media on the whole declined, from 24.4 percent to 21.5 percent from 1993 to 1998.

The drop in newspaper circulations took place not only in Indonesia, where new licenses were delayed in the wake of the collapse of the Soeharto government. Kompas reported on Oct. 3 that in Britain newspaper circulations have been dwindling continuously for the past 35 years. The same applies to France in the last 30 years. Back to the U.S.. In 1977, 67 percent of Americans read the newspaper routinely. Twenty years on, the number was registered at 51 percent, according to a Media Usage Study conducted by the Newspaper Association of America in 1998.

Considering the growth in the number of Internet users, it is possible that the online media will further develop. Mainstream journalism cannot disregard the readership potential from interactive media.

An increasing number of young readers do not have a tradition of reading the whole content of newspapers and magazines. When they do read newspapers they belong to the group of headline readers -- like many of us.

This condition cannot be qualified as a bad dream for the print media. The easiest way to overcome the problem is to make use again of the developments in the available information technology. The way out is that traditional press institutions like newspapers should also convey the contents of their publications through the Internet.

The model of traditional journalism still retains an advantage, though not in absolute terms. A media institution with a good reputation, when using the Internet, will be sought after, instead of the journalist born directly through the Internet. Another advantage is that a local newspaper making use of the Internet expands its reach on a global scale. Although not directly connected, the online media apparently subscribe to one of the ideas of the green revolution: think globally, act locally.

Let the online media develop. But whatever the media, the old values of journalism should not crack in the heat, nor become moldy by rain. "If news can no longer be trusted," political expert Harold J. Laski warned, "sooner of later the people will have no basis for freedom".

In Indonesia, "freedom" and "trust" have recently become ours (again). Therefore the task of the media has remained the same: Give room for speaking to those who are weak and weaken those who dominate the people's room for speaking.