Gernika, news reporting and intervention

September 13, 2012

20120913-122458.jpg
A trip to Spain has made
me think a lot about the Spanish civil war and news reporting, and especially the bombing of Gernika in 1937 by German and Italian aircraft on behalf of the rebel military, in which hundreds of civilians were killed. The incident was rapidly reported, in particular by Times correspondent George Steer. It is a classic case study for war reporting. Several books cover it in detail. Some issues that it raises:

1. Coverage. The civil war and in particular the northern theatre was regarded as a news priority by British media. The Times, Express and Reuters all had correspondents on the ground; they were having dinner together in Bilbao when they heard the news, and drove to Gernika immediately. French and US media had less coverage and relied on syndication, pickups of other stories or more distant correspondents. What makes media cover something (or not)? Economics? Audience? Story?
2. Reporting. There was good detailed reporting from Steer and others. The correspondents were present and quickly. Steer want back the following day and his report reflects that in its detail and focus. It is worth reading in full. What makes for good, readable, immediate coverage? Why is the person on the spot so crucial? What will replace them?
3. Editorial judgement. There was pressure on the Times editor – which was resisted – to tone down, censor or remove coverage. Dawson was very much inclined towards appeasement but on this he couldn’t be moved. What makes editors act independently? What supports this and what doesn’t?
4. Fog of war. There were other incorrect reports, and use of the incident for propaganda. These muddied the waters and helped critics use misreporting to deny the incident. How do you deal with incorrect reports, especially when it isn’t easy to verify them? Does it matter if some early details were wrong? Does correcting them undermine the story?
5. Response. The response of the (Francoist) rebel military was direct denial of the attack. They claimed the republicans had done it themselves. This story still has credence in some circles. How do governments react to atrocities and humanitarian scandals? How can people stand up against this?
6. Impact. The news coverage had great popular results. It spread to all media and was a spark to wider anger about the fascists and the war. What makes a story like this work? Victims? Nature of atrocity? Immediacy and reporting?
7. Channels of distribution. “Follows” and syndication led to wider dissemination Of the story. In particular, Steer’s report went to the New York Times and to L’Humanite in Paris, the communist paper. How do stories get to readers/viewers? Are there more or fewer channels now? More or less noise?
8. “Memes“. Picasso read l’Humanite and it inspired him to paint the atrocity as part of an existing contract with the Spanish government. It thus triggered a much wider critical conversation. What makes a story part of a wider discussion? Why did this one work? Pure coincidence?
9. Objectivity. Steer had direct conversations with the Basque government and was clearly aligned with them personally. He also had direct conversations with policymakers in London. Later in his career he worked for British military intelligence in an early form of psyops. But was his reporting nonetheless objective? Is objectivity the same as neutrality?
10. Intervention. There was no decisive intervention in favour of the Spanish Republican government despite the reporting. Britain, France and the US had grave doubts about the Republicans and there was sympathy for the fascists in conservtive and Catholic circles. Under what circumstances does reporting of an atrocity in a civil conflict lead to external intervention? When doesn’t it?

Several books on this; and several academic studies. Other questions that could be asked. But: comments? Questions? Suggestions? I am going to produce a longer version of this.

Advertisements

The Man Who Saved The Independent

July 1, 2011

"We may be a crap team, but we have a good time."

Simon Kelner’s retirement seems as good a moment as any to come out of temporary blogtirement, and to say: I love the man, and he saved the Independent, and I don’t care who hears me say that. This will not be universally popular with friends who loathe him and who he fired or abused or drove to distraction.

Kelner took over the Independent at a time of despair and decline. Ownership and management by Mirror Group Newspapers had been a disaster for the paper, and frequent changes of editor left it critically weak. Simon did more than fulfill the minimalist goal of keeping it alive; he gave it back some some swagger, even if that was precisely what some like least about it.

Let us not forget the paper’s Time of Troubles. There were five editors of the Independent during the short period (1995-8) I was deputy foreign editor and then foreign editor: Ian Hargreaves, Charlie Wilson, Andrew Marr, Rosie Boycott, and Andrew Marr again (briefly). Even if each of them had been brilliant editors the result would have been chaos. They weren’t.

Marr, the newsroom’s candidate and fabulous writer and broadcaster, was a catastrophe (he says so in his excellent book, My Trade). Wilson loathed the paper, its journalists and its readers, though he was a good news editor with a good sense of what sold. Hargreaves was insightful and thoughtful and gathered a star team around him, but the timing wasn’t right, the resources weren’t there and management never backed him. Boycott was terrific – a hand grenade thrower and very charismatic – but very shortlived, and probably a better weekly editor than a daily.

Simon knew the paper well: he had been deputy sports editor at the creation in 1986. When I returned to London in the 1990s from Brussels, I was warned against him by a foreign correspondent of Levantine instincts: he would “destroy the paper,” this guy said. In fact I found him entertaining, funny, insightful, news-focussed and hard-working. He bought me lots of drinks, which helped, and gave me a lift home, so I would forgive him a lot for that. He left and went to the Mail, working on features, but we continued to have the occasional drink or twelve. When I was appointed Washington bureau chief in 2008, I went to see him at the Mail to say goodbye. He wasn’t around, and I was little disappointed to miss him; he called me on my way to the airport to tell me he was the new editor of the paper, and my new boss.

Why was Simon a good editor? For a start, unlike all of those above, he had the confidence of the owners. He and Tony O’Reilly, the sports-loving proprietor, would spend long and happy hours on the golf course or at the race track. Journalists disparage this, seeing proprietors in the model established by Evelyn Waugh in Scoop – the odious, dim, overbearing Lord Copper. O’Reilly is smart, affable and happy to mix it with his associates and his ownership of the paper was overwhelmingly positive; Simon and he worked mostly hand in glove.

Secondly, Simon was able to reinvigorate the paper, within narrow resources. It became more populist, which was good: the original team, led by the saintly Andreas Whittam-Smith, had aimed high, for a market that was too small to be sustainable. Simon took a small chunk of a larger market, the upper mid-market left-of-centre. And with the shift to tabloid, he made an advantage of a necessity: changing format saved money and repositioned the paper. He had little cash and few staff, but the result was readable and more agile– the paper had become stuffy and fearful in the 1990s. First the tabloid, then the i (the short short version of the paper) helped destuff it and to give it back some swagger, a quality Simon has in bucketloads.

Thirdly, Simon injected the paper with a new set of values. The founding fathers of the paper (Whittam-Smith, Steven Glover and Mathew Symonds) were ex-Telegraph, Oxbridge, establishment figures. This was a revolution from above, not below. 

Simon has a distance and a perspective that helped him steer the paper in a different direction. he is non-metropolitan – he comes from the north somewhere (does it really matter where? Ah, the tyranny of facts. Manchester, I think). He is non-Oxbridge. He comes from bits of journalism that most national editors only ever see in news conference or at the Christmas party: sports and features. Sports, let it be remembered, was one of the glories of The Independent, and to those who don’t read the sports pages in newspapers: you are missing one of the few areas of news where the facts really matter and readers will tear you to shreds if you get them wrong, and where good writing still matters. As for features: the Mail does them really well, and they sell papers. Most readers will spend more time over a coffee with the feature sections than the hardbitten hacks in Home or Foreign News would find conscionable, and even they will probably read the magazine in the toilet, not that long dreary piece on transport policy.

The staff didn’t always appreciate having new values injected into them, and Simon didn’t always wield the needle as gently as he might as slid it into their collective buttocks. Swagger can sometimes edge into arrogance and disdain, in the paper and in person. Other things Simon didn’t do. He didn’t confront digital, and the paper has been slow to catch up. He had little patience with those who sought to question what he was doing or to second guess him, and that led some to leave or be fired when they might have stayed. The paper as it stands lacks some authority because the emphasis has been on innovation, change, youth and flash. There is a cost to this, as the Johann Hari saga shows – a star columnist who stole quotes from others’ stories and used them unattributed. This is an editorial failure and should be acknowledged as such.

But: when I think of the writers the paper still has, whether or not I agree with their views, it is clear that Simon has also kept the paper’s sense of itself, to a remarkable degree, and its insight. On the foreign side of the paper, which I follow most closely: John Lichfield, Rupert Cornwell, David Usborne, Robert Fisk, Andrew Buncombe, Patrick Cockburn, Mary Dejevsky… but also younger writers like Guy Adams, Daniel Howden, or the current foreign editor, Archie Bland.

Why is he going? He has done it for longer than he wanted; he has been ill and would probably like to have a nice time again. He told me when he was appointed he would do it for a decade – and that was 1998. He came back after Roger Alton stumbled under the weight of the paper’s many challenges. The Independent has now reinvented itself and is re-entering a happier time (the end of Labour, the return of the Conservatives and the odd role of the Liberals is good for the paper, and it has some buzz again). He didn’t get on with the new proprietors as well as the old, I think. I doubt the Hari affair had much to do with it, though maybe it cemented his view he wanted to move on and the owners’ view that they needed someone new – someone with more conventional experience (Cambridge, Business Editor), more gravitas, less hair. And so we have Chris Blackhurst, the paper’s tenth editor, I believe (Andreas, Ian, Charlie, Andrew, Rosie, Andrew, Simon, Roger Alton, Simon, Chris).

I won’t romanticize it (too far). The paper has lost money, writers, advertisers, authority and the lives of many of those who work there are tough and unrelenting. Many good people are no longer there simply because of lack of cash or flashes of spite (or both). Simon can be egoistic, short-sighted, obscurantist (oh, look it up), bad-tempered, vain and that’s on a good day. But there wouldn’t be any paper without him; it would have died in about 2000. He is the second-greatest editor of the paper after Andreas and he is The Man Who Saved The Independent (TMWSTI).


Can non-profit journalism save the day?

September 20, 2010

The non-profit sector and the media continue to flirt with each other, and even have the occasional offspring. This morning, the Guardian launched its website on global development, http://www.guardian.co.uk/global-development. Madeleine Bunting introduced the new baby on the oped page and the web. It is interesting because it is funded by the Gates Foundation, and indeed they are credited on the site’s home page. The peg is the UN summit on Global Development in New York, though the partnership is longer lasting and more substantial.

“It is the first time the Guardian has developed a partnership with a major charitable foundation to fund a strand of its core journalism,” says Bunting. “Part of the agreement includes safeguarding the Guardian’s editorial independence. Both organisations are committed to making achievement of the UN goals a central strand of the new site. But alongside the challenge of working in a partnership with a foundation, the site has set itself a big ambition of curating a global conversation about development.”

Beyond editorial independence, a second (and related) issue is that not everyone agrees about development: its importance, how it is funded, what results are possible or desirable. There are lots of different audiences, and as Bunting says: “The problem about these different audiences is that while they often have much knowledge of the subject, they don’t much like talking to each other. Part of the challenge on the new site will be to host all these conversations – all of which are crucial to the debate in their very different ways. Will that mean that everyone gets cross at some point or another with the site? Probably.”

Non-profits have an agenda, a way of working and resolving conflicts, and they have  financial interests. It will be interesting to see how the new experiments work out. How easy will the site and its funders be with controversy? And with mistakes? And with conflict? All of these things are somewhat inevitable in reporting. The cultural issues will be significant if the new journalism is to mean more than just taking a handout.

My own brief experience in non-profits is that there are massive opportunities for both sides in teaming up, or working alongside each other, or even in replacing each other from time to time. Non-profits are starting to make interesting moves into the field; journalism is starting to look for other funding .

There are many different models. ProPublica is essentially a news venture that focuses on developing public interest stories and finances them through foundation grants and individual donations. It aims to get its stories into mainstream publications and media where possible. FreePress puts more of a political and social message around non-profit and low-profit ventures. The Guardian is featuring journalism funded by the non-profit sector, but not guided by it. National Public Radio (often forgotten) is a hybrid of public and private funding. Human Rights Watch produces its own media, more or less, and hired a bunch of journos.

Not surprisingly, this flirtation between non-profits and journos has excited a lot of policy wonkery. Duke University’s Sanford School looked at the options in this series of papers, based on a conference. This conference at UW Madison examined some of the ethical issues, including who was an acceptable backer. And the Nieman Journalism Lab has looked at what makes non-profit journalism legit, and proposed some standards. This blog covers the issues.

Despite the anguished ethical debates, conflict of interest is only part of the issue: it is at least as much a question of conflict of cultures, and this will be hard to bridge, as Mary Walton explains in the American Journalism Review. “Says Laura Frank, who is navigating the new channels as head of a startup, the Rocky Mountain Investigative News Network, “People think, ‘Oh, wow. You don’t have to deal with advertisers,’ but it’s kind of the same thing. Foundations are used to funding something and having control over it. You have to explain to them that there is a firewall: ‘What you’re funding is the act of journalism for the benefit of society.’ ”

There are a couple of bigger questions for the non-profits and foundations, too – like: why fund journalism? “I have in my wallet three million dollars,” said Jack Shafer, media critic of Slate, at a symposium on investigative reporting quoted in the AJR piece.  “The opera wants it, the ballet wants it, the museum wants it, the YMCA, poor kids in Africa want it.” Why give it to journalists? Or journalism? Or news? Or media?  Can they get more by handing over money, or internalizing the resources and doing it themselves? What bang for their buck do they get?

Newsosaur, a blogger who writes on the news and business, is completely unconvinced. It would require far, far more money than the charitable sector is capable of providing to pay for all current newsgathering, he says. “So, let’s stop dreaming about a visit from the Non-Profit News Bunny and get serious about discovering some realistic possibilities.” To be fair, no-one is saying that everything will go this way, but he has a point.

The trend can only continue; I have some (non-rhetorical) questions about this:

  1. Is this a good use of money (Can’t they get a proper job)? Why does journalism deserve charitable status or money? What are the non-profits getting out of it that they couldn’t through other means?  Why pour money into activities and people that apparently weren’t capable of generating it themselves?
  2. Will this produce good journalism (Up to a point, Lady Bountiful)? Does the institutional culture of journalism work with a foundation culture? Will people still pick fights, dig dirt, kick against the pricks? Or will it tend towards the worst aspects of non-profits and trade journalism: inward looking, clubby, self-satisfied? Does the need to sell and be read actually have a role to play 9and can these be decoupled)?
  3. What about competition (Mr Gates)? What impact will this have on other media that remains revenue-focussed? Will it price some of it out of the market? Will there still be a role for competition in the coverage of, say, development through (for example) the New Internationalist (a workers co-op, btw). Does it make sense to have competition in any case?
  4. Does this only work for some things? Does this decouple investigative and public interest journalism from the city beat, sports, financial, community reporting, politics etc? One of the advantages of the old model was that everyone competed for space and shared resources; is that over? Does public interest journalism now exist in a subsidized, gilded ghetto?
  5. What happens to the stuff that gets left out? We accept that not all new business models will cover everything. So: if some stuff can be paid for (business, sport and celebrity); and some can be locally  or crowd-sourced (community news, reviews etc); and some gets paid for by non-profits, what falls through the cracks? What can’t be covered by money, vanity, love and charity? And does it matter? Reporting on mental health? Local government?

The Independent: Onwards and upwards!

March 28, 2010

I worked for the Independent for ten years and loved it; and I love it still. It is all very well for detractors to talk about the good old days, or lament the change of ownership, or decry the fact that the new owner used to work for the KGB,  but the fact is: still it moves, and it now has a future.

The newspaper has continued to break stories, and to attract talent. The foreign correspondents in particular remain remarkably unchanged (though age has withered them, like the rest of us). Robert Fisk, John Lichfield, David Usborne, Rupert Cornwell, Andrew Buncombe, Donald McIntyre – these are amongst the best correspondents of their time, anywhere.  (If I left anyone off that list, don’t read anything into it. It’s Sunday). It has a global audience and it should play more to it.

What matters is: is it still independent, meaningfully? Is there a place in the market for it? Can it survive commercially? And are these questions intertwined?

My view is that it can survive commercially, but it will need to reduce and focus still further. That means losing some paid circulation, not doing everything a full service paper does, getting more webby so it can deliver to the global audience that values it most highly, and focusing on what it does best rather than OK (or badly). What it does best is global news and comment, in my view. It isn’t resourced to do domestic or business news, which require more investment than it can make. And it is better at making an argument than many papers: it is scrappy and it likes the underdog.

Is it really independent in anything but name? Yes. It is not politically parti pris (which the other papers in general are). Better to make a virtue of this than suffer because it doesn’t have the reflexive, loyal audience that the others have.  This asset has been less valuable for the past fifteen years than it might because there has been little in the way of two party competition to be independent of; it should now be more valuable. And equally, it needs redefining as the paper hopefully recognizes that its audience is global.

As for the ownership: that ceased to be meaningfully independent years ago, when the Mirror Group got its paws on the thing, and then O’Reilly. Forget it; that bit was over a long time ago. But it is still worth making the point that the new owner is an important part of the action.

So this guy is a Russian: so what? There are some great Russians and some not so great Russians, and this one seems pretty good. And he worked for the intelligence services: so did some senior executives on one or two other large British and American media companies over the last fifty years (you know who you are). Some of them were rather less ready to acknowledge it; and some of them were less bright, entrepreneurial and imaginative. The fact of having worked for an intelligence service is not a negative, any more than having worked for a foreign diplomatic service. His record doesn’t seem to indicate that he ever tortured anyone (unlike at least one short-tempered Scottish editor of my association).  No guilt by association, and no xenophobia please. Better a bright Russian ex-spook than some dim Englishman who can’t find his ass with both hands, a map and a copy of the Rough Guide to Asses.

Lebedev is an asset to the degree he is a voice for tolerance, pluralism, and rights in the world – and that certainly seems to be his intention. The fact that it is a useful calling card for him is worth recognizing, but that was also the case for Tony O’Reilly. That is how papers work, especially those that don’t make money. He will need watching (all owners do). But his ownership is a net positive for the paper. He has money and he knows what he’s getting into.

Is there a place in the market for Mr Lebedev and his Independent? Yes, since it sells; but not at the level of expenditure it commands now. It will have to shrink and jobs will have to go. That is an upsetting fact, but a fact. It cannot keep losing (this much)  money. It will have to find new models for production and sales, and make those work. The Independent spirit is to make do and mend and that will have to go even further. It spends much more than it earns. Funding that isn’t “investing,” it is throwing away money that could fund better journalism.

Is it worth it? Yes. The space in the market for a paper that is critical, readable, incisive, has character and insight, looks where others won’t and speaks its mind is still there. It just has to cost less and make more money. Easy.


Finding the news through Facebook

February 4, 2010

Facebook is increasingly being used as a way of reading the news – real news about real-world events, not just the tedious meanderings of self-obsessed friends.

ReadWriteWeb has an interesting article on the use of facebook as a news source. “Hard numbers have now confirmed that Facebook is already the biggest news reader on the web,” it says.  Hitwise has some good stats and a good graph. Last week, Google Reader accounted for .01% of upstream visits to News and Media websites, about the same level as a year ago. Google News accounted for 1.39% of visits and Facebook 3.52%.” Any facebook user will have noticed that friends increasingly link to news; and that news producers increasingly encourage staff to use Facebook as a means of distribution. “Facebook was the #4 source of visits to News and Media sites last week, after Google, Yahoo! and msn,” says Hitwise.

Many people use RSS readers like FeedDemon to read news; but for the casual browser, these are a bit intense and clunky. Facebook is easier: you encounter what your friends suggest, and that element of casual surprise that is part of the news experience is reproduced.

Facebook is increasingly aware of this, and targeting the phenomenon. “Late last week Facebook threw its hat in the ring and called on users to use its service as a news feed reader,” says ReadWriteWeb.

“Last week, Facebook’s Malorie Lucich posted to the company blog encouraging users set up their Facebook accounts for news reading. Lucich suggested becoming a “fan” of news organizations that publish to Facebook, then adding those connections to a dedicated “list” that only displays updates from news sources.”

Other news on social media use: a new survey from the Pew Research Center shows that blogging is (predictably) less fashionable and microblogging is (predictably) more fashionable, especially amongst the young. “Since 2006, blogging has dropped among teens and young adults while simultaneously rising among older adults. As the tools and technology embedded in social networking sites change, and use of the sites continues to grow, youth may be exchanging ‘macro-blogging’ for microblogging with status updates,” says the survey. Meanwhile, “Both teen and adult use of social networking sites has risen significantly, yet there are shifts and some drops in the proportion of teens using several social networking site features.”


Economist puts up the wall

October 6, 2009

The Economist has put in place a pay wall for some content, the latest sign of a coming trend. But it isn’t the Great Wall; more a hedge.

“Beginning October 13th, we will be limiting access to certain sections of our site to subscribers only,” says Ben Edwards, Publisher of Economist.com. “Over the past few years, Economist.com has become a hub for intelligent discussion, with news commentary, blogs and an award-winning debate series. We will continue to encourage both subscribers and non-subscribers to participate in those conversations. We will also enhance the experience we offer our most loyal readers by expanding our subscribers-only features.”

“Currently, all content published within the last year is free of charge. Soon, this access will be limited to articles published within the last 90 days. The print edition contents page, which offers a convenient way to browse articles and features from the latest issue of The Economist, will also be limited to subscribers only.”

As PaidContent notes, “The press release calls this “experimentation with a new website pay wall”. But the magazine, which is proving especially resilient in print, is rejecting the opportunity to go entirely pay-for.”

The Guardian notes that “The Times and Sunday Times yesterday revealed plans for a readers’ club with a £50 membership fee to non-subscribers, another example of newspapers attempting to develop new revenue streams from loyal readers rather than following a high-volume strategy.”


Biz news focusses on Wall St, not Main St

October 6, 2009

Most economic and business news in the recent recession focussed on policy and markets – New York and Washington, in American terms. So says a study released by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

“Citizens may be the primary victims of the downturn, but they have not been not the primary actors in the media depiction of it.,” it says.

Newspapers probably do a better job of reporting the local aspects and the people stories. “Newspaper front pages stood out for devoting the most attention to the economy, offering more localized coverage, giving voice to a more diverse range of sources and producing a higher level of enterprise reporting than other media sectors,” the study says.

Business and economic news will probably benefit – overall – from the shift to digital. People pay for it, and want both quick, fast-moving stories and deep analysis. But the content they will want – or want to pay for – will be market-focussed. Local economic news – which can matter a lot for local business development people, and for local communities – will likely suffer. Worth remembering: it is not just investigations and local politics that will be hit as newspapers fold. It is easy to just take agency and slam in the Reuters or Dow Jones copy.