I write in response to David Christy’s op-ed, Do young people really read? published on 20th October. With all due respect, the columnist’s opinions are emotive and not rooted in proper research of current trends. I speak in my capacity as a former media practitioner in the field. It is curious that he can cite youth news consumption studies in Singapore but is unable to look closer to home.

More detailed research, had the columnist bothered, would have shown that there indeed are several studies on Malaysian youth news consumption habits. Notably in 2011 and 2013 by our local universities, and last year’s media consumption report by Nielsen’s, a well-respected market research firm. Christy opts instead to use “anecdotal evidence”; not the most reliable evidence to  be used when presenting such a strong position.

So, what do these studies show? Yes, youths do indeed read newspapers less. This is supported by the World Association of News  Publishers’ study that shows that the Internet is youth’s primary source of information. Christy’s op-ed presents a worldview carried by those sentimental for print media, lamenting its decline.

While I sympathise with him and my fellow newsmen, it is also worth noting that media upheavals are not anything new in the  entire history of the media. Over the centuries, as we began to develop newer media technologies, older ones are always seen as in “danger” to losing out to newer media forms that are deemed less intellectual or rigorous. The printed form losing out to radio. Radio to television. Television to Internet. This is a technological cycle; we are merely riding its most recent iteration.

Christy’s op-ed presents Internet media as guilty of perpetuating cursory reading. Headline readers. To be fair, he points out that this is a long-standing issue even with newspapers when passersby’s need only glance at the newspaper headline at their local sundry store to get an idea of the daily current affairs. This doesn’t sound unfamiliar, with former television sceptics once deriding broadcast media for reducing important news down to images and soundbites.

Yet video (and now, YouTube by extension) continues to be a popular media form. This should be evident in how quickly “traditionally-print” news media such as NST and The Star are adopting the medium to survive the changing consumer market. What Christy’s op-ed is pointing out is the human condition and much less about the media forms.

This is not to say that we should not cherish the printed form. Regis Debray, a French philosopher, academic and journalist has, in his essay Socialism: A Life Cycle, described the printed form (which he terms graphosphere) as a medium that accommodates for articulation and argumentation, if not encourages it. As many a writer or journalist would know: when you write, you are forced to articulate into coherence. When you read, you are applying comprehension to engage the text and understand it – which can sometimes make reading a potentially challenging process. The printed form is about contesting with ideas.

Like a book or a magazine, reading the newspaper is a curated experience of its own. Every section having carefully selected stories to reflect daily shifts. The Internet, for better or worse, has compressed the way we use time, and consequentially, how we consume information.

Newspapers too, as an industry needs to evolve. This is not exclusively a Malaysian problem; it is a worldwide journalism problem – with even established institutions like The New York Times experimenting with new ways of presenting the news without compromising on its journalistic history of integrity and being a paper of record.

Instead of blaming consumers or even evolving mediums, perhaps it would do Christy some good to reflect on how he, as a newsman, can utilise modern media forms to better serve the public. Mind you, while Utusan Malaysia may have died because of its political associations, it was also a victim to institutionalised thinking. It persisted in the printed form while refusing (or lacking funds) to diversify its media business beyond newspapers and magazines.

It needs to also be said that current discourse is muddled also by platforms like Whatsapp or Facebook, where fake news thrives. If people don’t consume the news, it is either because they do not trust the institutions or believe that public information should be free. The latter is somewhat more democratic, but less conscious of the fact that news production is not charity – it is a business and requires money to run. Be it by diversifying the business into other areas, exploring new mediums or relying on advertisers and deep-pocket funders.

To answer the columnist’s headline question. Do young people read? Yes. But maybe not in a way that you’re conventionally used to. Even if not reading, they are consuming information in ways that are different but not necessary less impactful. Are they involved in civic and democratic development? Are they engaging in thoughtful discourse? Yes, a resounding yes. The acquisition of knowledge needn’t necessary be tethered to the printed form, and it shouldn’t be.

An edited version of this op-ed was published on The New Straits Times.