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Newspaper death knell heard in the cave

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Thai Navy divers in theTham Long cave during rescue operations for the 12 boys and their football team coach trapped in the cave at Khun Nam Nang Non Forest Park. ROYAL THAI NAVY/afp

Newspaper death knell heard in the cave

The NATION (THAILAND)/ANN: Newspapers used to “break” news, to use the terminology of a once-exciting industry.

In the past decade that role all but ceased to exist, kept fleetingly alive by occasional exclusive coverage. The social media have effectively taken over the breaking part.

We’ve just seen the final proof. Conventional Thai journalists’ restrictions were cruelly exposed when the bulletin came that the 12 boys and their coach trapped in a flooded cave in Chiang Rai had been found.

To be fair, it’s tricky to compare Thai newspapers – several of which failed to report the big news in their crucial editions – with their more conscientiously updated foreign counterparts. Time differences benefit some newspapers more than others. The cave announcement came quite late in the day – too late for most newsrooms to do anything about it.

Newspapers have always had to deal with time restrictions, but in Thailand, there have been few similar updating stories that have captivated the whole nation and required virtual minute-by-minute reporting. When rescuers reached the trapped youngsters, it was the biggest news since they were first reported missing. And when users of Twitter, Facebook and Line beat the newspapers to the story, the imminent doom haunting the press was staggeringly illuminated.

Soul-searching in newsrooms is undoubtedly intensifying. The cave incident, cruel though it was for conventional journalists, has at least suggested what needs to be done. First, newspapers must accept, unconditionally and unequivocally, that their role in breaking news is absolutely over. To survive, they must yield that role and get over it.

This means the end of newspapers as local news breakers. Thai papers can still be the first to alert readers of breaking foreign stories that happen while they sleep. It will require a change in working hours. Newspaper people, whether they like it or not, will have to work midnight shifts, monitoring what’s happening in the West.

But the Thai papers are no longer the chief sources for news of domestic events – election results, serious accidents or sporting triumphs.

They can forget such news, even if it has thus far constituted the bulk of their content. For their local news content, the newspapers will have to rely more on analysis of current affairs and feature stories not pegged to specific times. Instead of focusing on election vote counts, for example, newsrooms should enlighten readers about what’s likely to happen next.

When readers go to bed already knowing who won, journalists can start talking to sources, analysing the poll results and gauging probabilities, so that when the country wakes up in the morning, the papers can inform readers how the new government will be formed and what issues lie ahead.

Simply put, reporters would no longer be reporting, but rather analysing what others are reporting and then doing further research. Reporting would be left to television news and news websites – and to the social networks. Only a clear partition between these groups’ coverage will ensure that necessary changes are made at the newspapers, and made quickly.

Print newspapers might not have long to survive regardless, but if they are to die off, they should go down fighting, and that will involve large-scale changes in their scope and conduct.

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