Can conventional mass media survive the epidemic is a question that affects everyone. It's not about professionals being dumped in their mid career but about the quality and access to information for all. The corona crisis has again put the spotlight on this so called “mainstream” media. It seems the relevance and popularity of this media was under threat for a while. And this threat was enhanced by the corona crisis creating a new crisis.
Roots of the crisis
In Bangladesh, media boomed when there was a lot of surplus money to splash around to gain prestige, protect gains and expand clout. It’s based on connection capitalism profit. Sometimes the invested money is not even white and the objectives are neither to advance the cause of governance transparency or make profit. It’s to make oneself more eligible to transact better in connection capitalism.
By the middle of last year the crisis in Bangladesh’s media economy was obvious. Not only were some of the owners in conflict with each other or in trouble with the authorities, but most outlets seemed unsustainable.
Two factors had helped the boom to happen. The relatively low start up costs particularly with online media and the surplus educated workers available in a hostile job market ready to take any job. It flourished initially but once the relative benefits of losing ventures pinched and long term costs bled the owners staff slashing began.
The crisis had hit before corona did but it dealt a blow that made it a disaster. Money is short but the competitors are many. The advert pie has become much smaller but with the same number of diners. Now the Government has entered a survival mode and every expenditure is uncertain including their patronage adverts. For the GOB, media is not a priority call to make and plunk down money.
An immature sector?
The way most houses went online and several online outfits shut down shows the immature media market situation and unhealthy status of most outlets. Many would have shut down anyway by June in all probability. The media situation to put it bluntly is grossly artificial. Corona just made it its crisis peak of sorts quicker thereby proving relief to some owners, a sort of viral rescue package.
The crisis has also shown that the media's capacity- technical and skill wise- is limited, in some cases alarmingly so. This has led to headline chasing and panic mongering to substitute substantive reporting and analysis. While few have little knowledge about the issues but media showed no interest to learn.
The number of infected and dead and recovered, bodies not buried and the rmg crisis became the mainstay. It's not Bangladesh media problem but global. Everyone lined up to join the sensation brigade including scientists and doctors in some cases. However, the problem is that no mass media outlet could compete with social media when it came to spreading fear. So when mass media tried to copy social media they ended up losing the fight.
The crisis was also seen in the temporary death of print editions which were feared as possible virus carriers. Thus several shut down and went online but that also meant traditional print media adverts were lost and online ads haven’t yet really caught on. But it's here the big transition lies.
Print based media is now an ageing beast and looks like a dinosaur now. Adverts will run to online more but main outlets are print based. Both writing and production will need drastic changes as its anew form and culture. The age of long Op-eds and large comments may mercifully be coming to an end.
Thus media looks to be more niche as people will depend less increasingly on major brands. With no prediction possible on how much ad revenue will be shared between online and radio/TV, less employment will mean less output which will hit the big houses more. A part of “Vanity” media may survive as long as their rich owners want but its decline is obvious.
The authorities should play a role in training media on the issue of disasters, economics etc as well not to mention public health. But it has been more interested in applying the DSA rather than building bridges with the media. The Government’s approach has been predictable and conventional like media which was critical of it, sometimes without balance. But if the authorities continue to crack down, people will scout foreign and expat media for information and opinion putting more pressure on local media.
However the media will survive and so will junk media but it will not be the same anymore. New configurations will emerge and professional media will have lesser space. To survive it will have to be more professional. But as a profession, it will be less populated. Post corona media will not just be professional media but social service media as well. As the corona crisis has shown public interest in social service is high. Interest in politics, on the wane for long, has increased so the conventional political media will have to change to stay afloat.
(This article was first published in Dhaka Courier)