iPad Could Save Newspapers

Speaking in Washington DC yesterday Rupert Murdoch said he had “got a glimpse of the future last weekend with the Apple iPad. It is a wonderful thing.”

“If you have less newspapers and more of these… it may well be the saving of the newspaper industry,” he added.

His comments point to what I suggested in a posting the other day: that the paywall News International intends to place around The Times and Sunday Times this summer is now part of a more thought through strategy than when Murdoch first started to threaten to do it last year.

In a Q@A session last week The Times editor James Harding clearly indicated that the pricing difference between the digital editions and print editions was aimed at making the digital far more attractive.

I think Murdoch is right that the iPad and similar tablet devices could well be the saving of the “newspaper” industry.

The Cuts That Dare Not Speak Their Name

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is likely to announce tomorrow the long-awaited general election. But in the run-up none of the major parties are prepared to tell the truth about the scale of the cuts in public expenditure that will be needed to stave off national bankruptcy. All the parties are careful to avoid announcing any numbers – how much will have to be cut from public spending, how many jobs will have to be lost from Britain’s bloated public sector, how high taxes may have to be raised and what the balance should be between spending cuts and tax hikes, if Britain is going to secure the economic growth it needs to get out from under mounting debts.

Cutting public expenditure substantially is the only way forward. But where and by how much? Labour politicians on the whole avoid the word “cuts” and prefer to talk about public investment. Conservative leader David Cameron and Osborne have followed their Labour counterparts and promised to ring-fence health care, defense and Britain’s overseas aid budget. In fact, Labour goes even further and the Prime Minister has insisted that all “front-line” services – education, the National Health Service and the police – will be unaffected, if he is re-elected.

Read my full take on the British election and the economy at the Daily Caller.

What Does Israel Want?

Gideon Levy has a telling commentary in today’s Haaretz.

He argues: “While the Arabs have always declared their aspirations – and did so with clarity, precision, sharpness and at times extremism, the Israelis have donned masks. While the goals of warring parties in international conflicts are known to all, and while everyone knows what the Palestinians are after in the Middle East – the ’67 lines, a state, a solution to the refugee problem, the right of return – nobody knows what the Israelis want. Do they wish to annex the territories? Come on. Do they want to evacuate them? Not now. If not now, when? It remains unclear. How much of the territories? Nobody knows.”

It Was Ever Thus

Steve Clemons in his Washington Note blog slams “Communication Corrpution at the White House.” According to Clemons, access is being granted to members of the White House press corps on the understanding of favourable coverage. Clemons notes also that “many White House correspondents and other top tier journalists want to write Obama books” and that such books need “inside access” and journalists are only getting it “when favors are part of the arrangement.”

Clemons says: “What I have learned after discussions over the last several days with several journalists who either have regular access to the White House or are part of the White House press corps is that there is a growing sense that access is traded for positive stories — or perhaps worse, an agreement that things learned will not be reported in the near term.”

In his post, Clemons acknowledges in a parenthesis that this might have happened during previous presidencies. From my personal experience, it was hard to secure access from either the White Houses of Bill Clinton or George W. Bush when you were writing critically of them.

When I was a “Whitewater” journalist investigating various allegations being levelled against President Clinton, it was impossible to get phone calls returned let alone any other kind of access. Likewise, journalists who were supportive of the Bush administration in the run-up to the Iraq intervention got plenty of one-on-one briefings and those of us who were sceptical found doors firmly shut at both the White House and the Pentagon.

Rumours abounded during the last Presidential election campaign that several of the journalists travelling with Obama were pulling their punches because they were planning books. It would be interesting to hear from a journalist who covered previous Presidencies and is covering also this one whether the problem is worse or the same.

Bloggers as Journalists

Are bloggers journalists? Is blogging and journalism synonymous? A majority of bloggers may think so. A survey released this week by PR Week and PR Newswire found that 52 percent of bloggers questioned consider themselves just that – journalists. That’s a jump apparently from a 2009 survey when only a third of believed that what they did was journalism.

Another interesting fact in the survey – I am grateful to www.TechCrunch.com for highlighting it – suggests that bloggers are far more open to using other blogs and social media sites for research purposes: 91% of bloggers and 68% of online reporters “always” or “sometimes” use blogs for research. Not so with print journalists: only 35% of newspaper and 38% of magazine journalists surveyed use blogs or social networks when researching. It should, I believe, be second nature by now for print reporters to be keeping close tabs on blogs and online sites – and for them to use social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook for research and self and institutional -marketing.

PRNewswire argues that the study shows media convergence is happening quicker now. I draw different conclusions. The survey results suggest to me that most bloggers don’t understand the distinction between most blogging and most journalism, and that practitioners in the traditional print media still are not exploiting media convergence and the online World enough either to break stories or market them or to gather information. It is as though we are still dealing with two different, partially uncomprehending cultures. Whether that is partly a result of age differences between bloggers and print journalists, I have no idea. But there are plenty of examples of old journalists who have embraced the online World to great advantage, both for themselves and for their reporting.

Whatever the reason for the traditional print media’s failure to embrace media convergence it potentially has alarming consequences in terms of audiences and revenue streams. Whether the traditional media like it or not they have to make their peace with the Internet, mobile phone and wireless technology and media convergence and to find ways to transition more intelligently whereby they have a Web-first attitude. If they don’t they will become as irrelevant as land phone lines or as cable delivery is fast becoming.

Writing for the Web doesn’t diminish the writing or the journalism per se. I began my journalism on newspapers back in media pre-history. For my first job in the 1980s at the weekly Tribune newspaper off the Gray’s Inn Road in London I had to write on a typewriter (you remember those things) and the typewriters were nicknamed after the great and good who had gone before and, according to legend, had used those actual machines – George Orwell, Michael Foot and Nye Bevan. The only computer in the office – a monstrous early desk-top – sat on the desk of the then editor, Nigel Williamson, who with great pride would show it off but who, from what I could see, hardly touched the thing and understood it little. It was a relic before its time!

My second job was towards the final years of “Fleet Street” and one of my Saturday evening duties at the Sunday Telegraph every fourth or fifth week would be to assist the night news editor to change copy “on the stone”, i.e. direct the printworkers to change the hot metal pieces during breaks in the edition runs so stories could be updated or corrected.

All has changed. Of course, a lot of the romanticism has been lost – there is nothing quite like grabbing a paper off the print-works with your byline on the front-page and there was something glorious about the crescendo clatter of typewriters as the first-edition deadline loomed. With the romanticism, a sub-culture has disappeared that involved a lot of drinking but had as a spin-off off-the-job training as old hacks shared with younger ones the “tricks of the trade” – and those tricks went beyond just learning how to get your expenses accepted.

But a lot of good has come from the brave new World of media: more information and from a variety of sources with different class, gender, cultural and racial points of view; greater dissemination of information; computer-assisted investigative journalism, etc. There is more immediacy – both a good and bad thing. Journalism is more three-dimensional in all kinds of ways and deeply exciting for it.

One of the resistances to blogging by some of the more traditional-minded journalists has to do, though, less with Luddite sentiments and more to do with the poor quality of the writing and thinking and reporting on offer in the blogs. When it comes to politics and news and current affairs, too many bloggers believe that what they should be doing is what they see the likes of Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hanity or Glen Beck on the right and Keith Obermann and Rachel Maddow on the left do every night – namely, rant. And that is not journalism and not even high-quality opinion journalism.

Blogging can be journalism when being done by a trained journalist or by an amateur who has trained themselves. And for both the end-goal is journalism. What do I mean by that? For it to be journalism, surely, there are certain standards and approaches to be followed? Facts and views have to be gathered, people have to be interviewed off or on the record and that can’t all be done just by online research. Those standards may be relaxed when it comes to opinion journalism, but even then there are certain rules of fairness and accuracy to be observed. Above all, actual knowledge can come in useful – the best of journalism is digging out the truth, as much as it can be known, throwing light on complex problems, explaining process, bearing witness to conflict and loss and terror and tragedy.

Of course, by those standards a lot of what passes for journalism in many newspapers and print magazines and on television is not that – it is entertainment. There is, of course, little difference between a news-room full of journalists re-writing wire copy the whole time and a blogger bashing way at the keyboard in his sitting room.

And that leads on to a point that was touched on above but needs to be stressed – most bloggers when it comes to politics, news and current affairs are not news-gathering. They are commenting on facts – and often half-truths — that others have gathered and twisted them to fit in to their ideological perspective or party affiliation. That can be fun but it is not journalism.

Bob Fisk Outed

Hugh Pope’s memoir on his reporting in the Middle East, Dining with al-Qaeda, is, as they say, a must-read. The former Wall Street Journal and UPI correspondent — he is now at the International Crisis Group — was rated highly by his peers. His pragmatic thinking and rejection of neat ideological ways of looking at things in the region enriched his journalism, which was trustworthy and informative, even for those like me who had stints covering the region.

But not all his former peers in the Middle East UK press corp will be delighted to read what Pope has to say about journalistic ethics — mainly Bob Fisk, the London Independent‘s longtime  Middle East correspondent. Robert was notorious as a reporter who sailed way over the other side of the wind when it came to facts, attributions and even datelines. His departure from The Times to the Independent many years ago prompted few tears and little effort from the editorial management at The Times to dissuade him from leaving. The Independent has given Fisk star billing ever since and one can only hope that its new owner will re-think his role at the paper.

In the second chapter of his memoir, Pope doesn’t pull his punches about Fisk, a journalist he had worshipped when starting out in the business. He goes into great detail about a front-page report Fisk filed in April 1991, in which he “reported” that British Royal Marines and American Special Forces had “cocked their weapons in confrontation with Turkish troops” on Turkey’s south-eastern border after the Turks had gone on a “rampage of looting”.

According to Fisk, the Turkish soldiers had taken “blankets, sheets and food” from frightened Kurdish refugees. In fact, as Pope shows with eye-witness recollections, nothing of the sort happened — all some of the Turks had done amounted to nothing more than petty pilfering. There was no near armed confrontation.

The story as filed by Fisk prompted outrage in Ankara, and the Turkish government ordered Pope out of the country — he was stringing for the Independent among others at the time. He was allowed to remain only when he agreed to stop filing for the British paper. In his memoir, Pope re-visits the episode, partly prompted by reading in a later book by Fisk further embellishments. Fisk changes his third-person report to the first-person and according to him he flew into the area in the back passenger seat of an Apache helicopter with CIA agents who were also US embassy guards!

Again an actual eye-witness, a former British army doctor, questions the whole episode and disputes the confrontation and the rampage. Oh, and another problem, the Apache doesn’t have a back passenger seat, where Fisk claims to have sat. Pope list other massive holes in Fisk’s reporting of this episode.

Why does Fish get away with it? It has been common knowledge for years among British and American reporters that Bob can just make things up or lift other’s work without attribution and embellish it.  I recall him doing it to me on a story in Kuwait about the killings of Palestinians at the hands of Kuwaitis following the liberation of the emirate. I remember also the time Fisk filed a datelined Cairo story about a riot there when he was in fact at the time in Cyprus.

Pope’s theory on this — why Bob gets away with it — is that fellow members of the press corp don’t like to dish the dirt on their colleagues. “The one time I decided to let it be known that a fellow reporter was cheating and passing off others’ work as his own, it was I who became the odd man out, an informer with a chip on my shoulder, and standing joke,” he writes. He notes also that “editors are reluctant to challenge established writers.”

In the case of Fisk, I think, there was also a genuine sadness that Bob did this, an embarrassment and one undeserving of a journalist who had done some great and brave reporting in the 1980s in Northern Ireland and in his early and dangerous years in Beirut.

Johnstone Press Abandons Paywall

The Johnstone Press, the publisher of the Scotsman and Yorkshire Post, is to scrap an experimental paywall it erected around several of its newspapers. The trial, which saw different pricing and schemes being tried across its local and regional UK newspaper empire, saw poor take-up. The scrapping of the scheme comes just days after News International announced it intended to charge from June for online access to The Times and Sunday Times. Will the national titles fare better?

News International has started to market heavily the pay scheme, offering early registration and a chance to preview the new sites and multi-media fare that will accompany the introduction of the charge.