The Malta Independent 16 October 2019, Wednesday

Save our papers

Charles Flores Sunday, 6 October 2019, 10:29 Last update: about 10 days ago

Sadly, I do not detect too many people worried over the gradual demise of our small, traditional newspaper sector as the generational switch savagely kicks in and technology completely adulterates the blood system. People will quickly attribute my concern to excessive nostalgia, but although there is definitely much of that, I think hard-copy newspapers still have a role to play in society, regardless of their having parallel electronic outlets of which we have all become avid followers anyway.

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Saving our daily and weekend papers would, in itself, be a prolongation process that would further the cause of both the news-gathering/commentating aspect and the need for people to actually read and not merely scan. Going out every morning to buy your newspapers is already an incentive to walk rather than just stay stuck to a studio chair with your tablet, PC or smartphone. As in the case of books, which many people think are also on the way out – victims of the technological phenomenon, the very existence of newspapers is a healthy reality in the face of an electronic tsunami sweeping the world.

True, buying your newspapers is a generational thing. I continue to realise with every day that passes that you hardly ever, if at all, see a young person doing the same thing, unless he or she is buying it for nannu. As we form a grey-haired queue outside our newsagent’s when he is late from trying to claim a nearby parking space, you get the feeling we are simply helping the traditional Press run its last lap, and breathlessly so.

The situation is not unique to us. Newspapers – in their traditional form – are facing a certain bleak future everywhere, with most of them inevitably, and not infrequently, surrendering their stark newsprint version to dedicate their energies to its online twin. But there have been attempts at saving the really historical ones, national institutions, survivors, by way of public and private subsidisation. Newspapers have seen their slice of the annual advertising cake getting smaller, and only direct assistance can help them muster at least a toehold of existence in a world of journalism that may have changed drastically during the past 40 or so years, but the very soul and focus of which remains the same – getting the news, delivering it, analysing it.

The Italians, especially, have found a very effective way of safeguarding the printed newspaper industry: suffice it to say that there has even been an increase in the number of newspapers published throughout the week. The State has wisely flexed its muscles in their favour, providing appropriate funds according to market share, political alliance, NGO status and the number of properly-trained, qualified employees.

It has not increased sales, but Italy still has a vibrant newspaper scene and if you can find the time to watch the late-night newspaper scan programmes on Italian television, you’d think the Internet has not caused the ‘destruction’ it is known to have triggered. A vast array of newspaper front pages, ready to embellish the market stalls in the morning, greets the eye as invited editors, columnists and leader-writers discuss the issues of the day.

Perhaps it is time for our politicians to seriously think about providing a similar package to our newspapers, a salvage scheme that goes beyond the odd official/corporate ad. Just as we strive to save and restore – not always successfully – our urban, historical and cultural environments, the same can be applied to a newspaper market crying out for some sort of intervention, not just to keep old-timers smiling in the morning, but to attract new readers, new generations that can hopefully find that actually handling a newspaper and reading it gives as much, if not more, pleasure as fiddling with your computer or smartphone buttons.

Just as we find funds to help keep village band clubs afloat, to sidestep the possible end of our traditional carnival and to drop-feed small – often insignificant – NGOs with, however, a dignified role to play within society, so should our remaining newspapers be given their annual injection, a kind of inoculation against present-day maladies and threats.

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A Saudi opportunity

As it looks to weaning itself off fossil fuel, Saudi Arabia – the world’s top oil exporter – is set to open its doors to foreign tourists for the first time, hoping to attract a hundred million visitors annually by 2030. Plans to admit significant numbers of leisure tourists to this ultra-conservative Muslim kingdom have been discussed for many years, only to be blocked by conservative bureaucrats and religious fanatics.

Things were to get under way last Friday when Saudi Arabia made visas available to tourists from 49 nations. With tourism now high on its agenda as part of the project to create new industries, the Saudi regime is appealing to foreign companies to invest in the sector it hopes will eventually contribute 10 per cent of the gross domestic product. An incredible €55 billion of investments are needed to develop a proper tourism infrastructure, including more than 500,000 new hotel rooms within the next decade.

This could be a unique opportunity for Maltese tourism and hospitality entrepreneurs in search of new markets where their vast and successful experience could prove highly advantageous.

For the average tourist, Saudi Arabia boasts vast tracts of desert, verdant mountains, pristine beaches and historical sites, including five UNESCO World Heritage Sites. But there is also the problem of cultural shock. While the question of strict social codes, such as the segregation of men and women in public places and requiring women to wear the all-covering black robes known as abayas, have in recent years been somewhat relaxed, women will still be required to dress ‘modestly’, including on public beaches, and alcohol will also remain banned.

As for sight-seeing, I don’t think that tourist guides in Saudi Arabia would take you to the Riyadh market area where they daily chop off heads and hands in the name of religion.

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When ideology is OK

As former Thomas Cook employees protested outside the House of Commons following the company’s collapse, one could hardly avoid thinking how ideology sometimes suddenly regains its weight. In this case, capitalism left 21,000 UK workers jobless overnight and 150,000 holidaymakers stranded abroad. Isn’t it fascinating how, in these and similar circumstances, those who loathe socialism, always ask for socialism to come to the rescue, as it did with the banks during the 2008 financial crisis?

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