This week, I was asked by Sri Lanka’s oldest newspaper publishing house — Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Limited, or Lake House — to chair a panel discussion on ‘Survival and Evolution of Newspapers in the Digital Age’.
The event marked the 130th birth anniversary of Lake House founder and Sri Lanka’s first press baron, D R Wijewardene (1886 – 1950). It was held at the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute in Colombo.
My panel comprised: communications scholar and former telecom regulator Prof Rohan Samarajiva; senior journalist Hana Ibrahim; Sri Lanka Press Institute’s CEO Kumar Lopez, and political scientist Sumith Chaaminda of Verite Research.
We had a lively discussion exploring the challenges faced by print publishers everywhere, and what solutions are relevant, viable and affordable for a majority of small scale publishers without deep pockets.
Here is an excerpt from my opening remarks (full text to be published soon as an op-ed article):
In the absence of independently audited circulation figures, we cannot be certain how well – or poorly – our newspapers are selling today. But indications are not promising. I have been involved in a state of the media study for the past year (due to be released in May 2016), and there is evidence that market survival is a big struggle for many smaller publishers.
More and more Lankan newspapers are being kept alive not to make any profit, but for influence peddling and political purposes. And in at least one case, the co-operatively owned Ravaya, reader donations were actively solicited recently to keep the paper alive.
Worldwide, print journalism’s established business models are crumbling, with decades-old publications closing down or going entirely online (The Independent newspaper in the UK is the latest to do the latter). Advertisers usually follow where the eyeballs are moving.
So what would D R Wijewardene do if he confronted today’s realities of gradually declining print advertising share and readers migrating to online media consumption? How might he respond by going back to his founding goals of political action and social change through the 3 Ps – the Press, Parliament and Platform – as important instruments of political action?
My guess is that he would invest in radio and/or television, with a strong digital integration. He might even find a viable income stream from digital and online publishing without locking up public interest content behind pay-walls.
We can only speculate, of course. Perhaps the more pertinent question to ask is: where are the budding D R Wijewardenes of the 21st Century? What are their start-ups and how are their dreams unfolding? Are they trying to balance reasonable profits with public interest journalism?
In my view, the biggest decider of success or failure – today, as it was a century ago – is not the medium, but the message. To put it more bluntly, it’s credibility, stupid!
The Sinhala children’s weekly newspaper Mihira just completed 50 years of publication. The paper, launched by Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Limited (ANCL, or Lake House) on 27 July 1964, holds nostalgic memories for those of us who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s with limited access to reading material.
In this week’s Ravaya column (in Sinhala), I invoke some memories. I wrote an English blogpost along similar lines a few days ago:
Sinhala children’s weekly newspaper Mihira has just completed 50 years of publication. The paper holds nostalgic memories for those of us who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s with limited access to reading material.
The tabloid was launched by Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Limited (ANCL, or Lake House) on 27 July 1964. Its founder editor was veteran journalist Srilal Hikkaduwa Liyanage (who was also founder editor of Tharunee women’s newspaper and Navayugaya informative newspaper from the same publishing house).
I wasn’t even born when Mihira came out. Sometime in 1969, when I was a precocious three-year-old, my father bought me my first copy. I was hooked: for the next dozen years, I eagerly awaited the arrival of each week’s issue on Mondays.
In the early years, Mihira carried a mix of stories, comics, articles and verse. While many were produced by talented writers and artists who understood the child’s mind, some were actually children’s own contributions.
In fact, Mihira is where I first got myself into print. As a school boy of 9 years, I submitted several of my (Sinhala) verses to Mihira (at the suggestion of my Grade 3 class teacher). One of them, on my perception of an animated clock, was printed in one issue of October 1975. I was thrilled to bits – that clipping is somewhere at the bottom of my personal archives…
Funnily enough, thousands of printed pieces later, I still get an enormous kick each time a newspaper publishes my writing.
To me (and many others of my generation), the most memorable part of Mihira were extraordinary comics written and drawn by S A Dissanayake. He drew a long-running comic (chitra katha) called Onna Babo (‘ඔන්න බබො’), which chronicled the adventures of three intrepid kids (‘බූ – බබා’, ‘තුල්සි’) and involved a wicked witch (බටකොළ ආච්චි), wizards and other characters. For us entertainment starved kids, ඔන්න බබො was Harry Potter of the 1960s and 70s. All these years later, some sub-plots are still clearly etched in my memory…
S A Dissanayake also drew the more comical Yodaya (‘‘යෝධයා’’) about a good-hearted village giant and a learned but wicked man (‘‘යෝධයා සහ පඬිතුමා”), as well as several other popular comics.
When some teachers and parents condemn all comics as polluting children’s minds, I always remind them of the glorious exceptions created by S A Dissanayake. Some feel his stories paved the way for the enormous popularity of TinTin comics and animations in Sri Lanka later on.
I just read that Dissanayake (who was a school teacher by profession) still draws children’s comics for Mihira – a rare feat (world record?) of a comic artist drawing for the same publication for half a century.
Edwin Ariyadasa, who completed 91 years on 3 December 2013, is one of two grand old men of Lankan journalism still practising their craft (the other being D F Kariyakarawana, also 91).
The veteran journalist has been active in his profession for nearly all of Sri Lanka’s post-independence years. During that time, he has played a variety of complementary roles: feature writer, newspaper editor, columnist, radio and TV host, journalist trainer, author and translator among others. He continues to juggle many of these and has no retirement plans.
In October 2012, I filmed a wide ranging interview with Ariyadasa as he was heading to his 90th birthday. Having grown up reading his output in Lankan newspapers in Sinhala and English, and then having collaborated with him in various public media activities for much of my own media career, I was keen to capture his memories and reflections.
It took me over a year to get the long interview edited into three video segments, and also to have it transcribed, but it’s finally done. Groundviews.org has just published it:
Nalaka Gunawardene in conversation with Edwin Ariyadasa
As I note in my introduction:
In this interview, the nonagenarian looks back at journalism and broadcasting in Sri Lanka for over half a century. His reminiscences are significant for several reasons. He recalls a time, only a generation ago, when newspapers produced by highly committed editors and journalists commanded readers’ respect as a trusted source of public information and commentary. Having played a central role in pioneering mass media education and television broadcasting in Sri Lanka, he wonders what went wrong along the way to arrive at the banality and superficiality that dominates much of the Lankan media today despite advanced technologies for production and distribution.
In that sense, this is more than mere nostalgia of an individual or the simple bewilderment of an earlier generation. Introspection from a media guru like Ariyadasa can provide the impetus for much-needed reflection for the media industry which often hesitates to turn the spotlight upon itself.
In January 2009, writing a tearful farewell to the slain newspaper editor and investigative journalist Lasantha Wickrematunga, I invoked the memory of Siribiris. I wrote: Goodbye, Lasantha – and long live Siribiris!
Last weekend, I finally met the ‘father of Siribiris’ and was delighted to salute him in public.
Let me explain. Siribiris is an iconic cartoon character well known to two generations of Lankan newspaper readers. He is a creation of Camillus Perera, a veteran Lankan political cartoonist who has been in this uncommon profession for nearly 45 years.
Camillus started drawing cartoons in newspapers in 1966 with the Observer newspaper and the film magazine of the same publishing group, Lake House (then privately owned and under state control since 1973). He draws pocket cartoons, political cartoons as well as satirical comic strips. His most enduring accomplishment has been the creation of a set of regular characters who have developed a loyal following over the years. Among them are the wily Siribiris, prankster Gajaman, fashionable young lady Dekkoth Pathmawathie, smart alec kid Tikka and sporty Sellan Sena.
These and other characters are very ordinary and very real, and they inhabit an undefined yet familiar place in the cartoon universe that most Lankan newspaper readers can easily relate to — it’s a bit like R K Narayan’s fictitious village of Malgudi.
My own favourite, Siribiris, is really Everyman personified: long-suffering, taken for granted by politicians, exploited by businessmen, hoodwinked by corrupt officials, and always struggling to simply stay alive. He is down but not yet out. The only way that poor, unempowered Siribiris can get back at all those who take advantage of him is to puncture their inflated egos and ridicule them at every turn. And boy, does he excel in that!
I grew up enjoying Camillus cartoons in various newspapers meant for children, youth and general readers. I had occasionally seen him being interviewed on TV. But I’d never seen or met him in person — until now. It happened when the British Council Sri Lanka invited Camillus as chief guest at their awards ceremony in the climate change cartoon contest they organised, which I helped judge with three others.
As the master of ceremonies, I announced: “It’s a great pleasure and honour for me to introduce Camillus Perera, the senior-most cartoonist in Sri Lanka who is still professionally active. Indeed, he has been drawing cartoons for as long as I have been alive — for he started his long innings in the same year I was born!”
Camillus, a small made and pleasant man, spoke briefly and thoughtfully. (As I keep saying, we writers just can’t beat cartoonists in the economy of words!). He recalled how he’d used the British Council Library for visual references for years before the web made it much easier to search. He congratulated all those who won prizes or commendations in the contest.
Many years ago, I privileged to count senior cartoonist W R Wijesoma as a senior colleague when we both worked for The Island newspaper. Now I have finally met Camillus Perera, another hero of mine still practising his craft and drawing regularly for Rivira Sunday newspaper, as well as The Catholic Messenger and Gnanartha Pradeepaya. My only regret is that I don’t follow any of these newspapers on a regular basis, even though I try hard to keep up with Siribiris on the web…
There is a bit more than childhood idol worship involved here. Satire is one of the last domains we are left with when freedom of expression comes under siege.
As I wrote in July 2009in a blog post on news wrapped up in laughter: “There is another dimension to satirising the news in immature democracies as well as in outright autocracies where media freedoms are suppressed or denied. When open dissent is akin to signing your own death warrant, and investigative journalists risk their lives on a daily basis, satire and comedy becomes an important, creative – and often the only – way to comment on matters of public interest. It’s how public-spirited journalists and their courageous publishers get around draconian laws, stifling regulations and trigger-happy goon squads. This is precisely what is happening right now in countries like Kenya and Sri Lanka, and it’s certainly no laughing matter.“
Taken in that light, Camillus Perera is not just a popular and entertaining cartoonist adorning Sri Lanka’s newspaper industry. He is a gentle giant in the world of journalism — a man of few words whose sharp wit and keystrokes are more piercing than any number of words that we writers and journalists can churn out. He is a living cultural treasure.
So long live both Siribiris — and Camillus Perera!