“The world post-coronavirus will never be the same as before”. This has become the famed catchphrase that constantly pops up uninvited in almost every situation we step into, every conversation we engage in, and every fallout of the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. The features of change are already crystallising, clearly displayed in the web of human relations on the personal, family, social, and professional scales; also in sports, entertainment or politics. The commanding traits in all relations now centre on wariness, caution, and prudence; with communication based not on closeness but on distancing. Ironically, COVID-19 has taken us unawares in an age when we lamented the physical distancing and alienation brought on by modern technology and the Internet; now these very traits have become the lifesavers that preserve our human relations while warding off risks of infection.
It is therefore not surprising that meetings are now held remotely, through videoconferencing or applications such as Zoom. This applies to Cabinet meetings, board meetings, ordinary and extraordinary assemblies, and many other activities that involve numbers of people. Newspapers carry announcements of online meetings that rival normal ones in attendance, discussion, voting, and decision making, with all the proceedings accurately logged online.
Working remotely from home is another activity that was almost unprecedented in Egypt, but which took off to deal with the coronavirus fallout, and is expected to continue into the future. Many whose work lends itself to online practice found out first-hand that working from home is safe and practical, saves the time and expenses spent in and on transport, and cuts the risks involved in mingling with others. Working remotely came in handy in services and businesses that deal with the public, whether banks, government authorities, or other institutions. This appears to herald in a new age of human and professional relations free of paper, ink, banknotes, waste and pollution; all of which constituted a scourge we desired to rid ourselves of. It took another scourge, COVID-19, to fulfil that desire.
When I say “human and professional relations free of paper and ink” I inadvertently tread into territory feared by all of us who work in the print media. For the last few years we have frequently discussed the destiny of printed papers and their life expectancy until they would have to quit the media stage and hand the field over to younger electronic papers. Those of us who are older in age held on to their love of print material which they saw as the superior form of media, but the younger generations considered print media a thing of the past, and felt at home with the modern round-the-clock media made possible by present-day technology. Today, we do not have the luxury of engaging in such debate; rather, we must reconsider our situation by weighing the constants of producing print papers against the new variables of coronavirus-age realities, and extending the lookout to post-coronavirus times. Following is a bunch of such new realities.
Even though working from home works beautifully for editorial effort, be that in meetings, coverages, writing and editing, and posting material online; it cannot work for other activities involved in the production of a print paper. Those working on the central editing desk, data processing, final proofreading, preparation of images for print, page production, and advertisement department, need to be in-house together, in order to coordinate the tightly connected work in minimal time to meet the press deadline. As the paper goes to press, other individuals supervising that process need to be there in person, and yet others who handle circulation and subscriptions. Meaning that, for a print paper to reach readers adequately and on time, remote working cannot alone suffice; the physical presence of workers is indispensable.
Administrative, financial, and service personnel in papers cannot work from home; they have to be in the office. This means they are exposed to the hazards of infection as they use transport means to and from the office and inside the office itself. They fear catching an infection from anyone they get in contact with, including their co-workers; they rush to absolutely distance themselves at the first cough or sneeze they hear; and are always on their toes and nerves lest they get infected. Even though all necessary protective measures may be in effect at the office, the natural fear of infection gets the better of workers so that absenteeism is high and, consequently, performance suffers.
The work climate of restlessness and anxiety due to elements outside anyone’s control places a paper’s management in the position where it cannot penalise workers for absence from the workplace but is under moral obligation to fully pay them. This, in addition to the dearth of advertisements and plummeting circulation, both on account of COVID-19 fallout, results in an intolerable, unsustainable situation for printed papers.
The above view of the current position of print papers appears shrouded in pessimism, contrary to my normal outlook on events. It places us before the thorny question we have constantly attempted to escape: Is it time for print papers to take a bow and leave? Could they in any way survive the COVID-19 economic fallout?
4 June 2020