24 October 2010
Ever since I learnt to read I have been an avid reader. Where reading was concerned, I was always on the receiving end. Little did I imagine I would be on the sending end till I joined Watani International some 10 years ago, and even then, I could never abandon the eye of the reader in everything presented by Watani International.
It was thus with awe and interest that I attended the World Editors Forum (WEF) recently held in Hamburg, along with some 500 journalists from all over the world. Watani was invited to participate by the Media Development Program, a programme for the training and development of journalists financed by the USAID and operating in Egypt jointly with the Ministry of International Cooperation and the Journalists Syndicate.
Hamburg is famous for being one of the busiest and most important ports in Europe, but it is also a significant cultural hub, a thriving publishing and media centre, and has made a reputation for itself as a green city. On the first evening the conference was held, Hamburg Mayor Christoph Alhaus invited the participants to dinner at the city hall (Rathaus), a magnificent building which was constructed in the 19th century and is decorated by superb paintings.
Mr Alhaus welcomed the conference participants and reminded of Hamburg’s huge interest in culture and publishing. Dinner followed; a warm, relaxed event during which the participants sampled some of the best German cuisine.
Golden pen of freedom
The conference began by granting the Golden Pen of Freedom award to the Iranian journalist Ahmad Zeid-Abadi, who is serving a six-year prison sentence, for “his courageous actions in the face of persecution and for his outstanding contribution to the defence and promotion of press freedom.” Mr Zeid-Abadi was among at least 110 journalists arrested following the disputed re-election of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in June 2009. At least 23 remain behind bars, about a fifth of all journalists imprisoned world-wide.
The Golden Pen of Freedom is the annual award made by WAN-IFRA to recognise the outstanding actions, in writing and deed, of an individual, a group or an institution in the case of press freedom. WAN-IFRA, based in Paris, France, and Darmstadt, Germany, with subsidiaries in Singapore, India, Spain, France and Sweden, is the global organisation of the world’s newspapers and news publishers. It represents more than 18,000 publications, 15,000 online sites and over 3,000 companies in more than 120 countries. The organisation was created by the merger of the World Association of Newspapers and IFRA, the research and service organisation for the news publishing industry.
“Though we honour Mr Zeid-Abadi here today, it is also important to remember the other jailed journalists, the ones who don’t win awards but nevertheless suffer under despotic regimes,” said Xavier Vidal-Folch, President of the WEF, who presented the award. The award was accepted on behalf of Zeid-Abadi by Akbar Ganji, one of Iran’s leading investigative journalists and a celebrated author who, because of his refusal to renounce his criticism of the Iranian State, spent six years behind bars. Ganji was awarded the Golden Pen of freedom in 2006.
Throughout a plethora of presentations and round-table discussions the conference tackled topics which are today pivotal for journalism. Shaping the future of journalism, new ways to finance quality content, multimedia newsrooms, innovations in newspapers, “our news and Google”, and crowd-sourcing were among the topics discussed. Speakers included key players in the field; the New York Times’ Janet Robinson, Die Zeit’s Giovanni di Lorenzo and Wolfgang Blau, Christian Science Monitor’s John Yemma, Le Monde’s Sylvie Kauffman, and L’Espresso’s Mario Tedeschini-Lalli. Google was represented by Philipp Schindler and Madhaf Chinnappa; and from Egypt Al-Ahram’s Mohamed Abdel-Moniem Said gave a presentation on “How to break from the ‘He said yesterday’” journalism.
Though several American papers have stopped printing and gone online, European and Asian papers did not complain of shrinking circulation. On the contrary, distribution and circulation figures for 2009 rose. And even though the global economic crisis has cost papers advertisement revenue, they were able to absorb it through reducing costs. But the glitch is that readership average age is above 45 years. Obviously, younger readers prefer electronic content, whether offered online, on mobile applications or on the iPad or Tablet.
It goes without saying that each market has its own characteristics, peculiarities, and predicaments, so there is no single rule that applies to all. Meaning that for every paper to develop and succeed, it should adapt to its own market conditions. The general rule, however, is that despite the fact that papers in print are not generally dying, electronic journalism is inevitable; it is the future.
The content offered in the print version can never be the same as that offered electronically. Naturally, this owes to the different media through which content is presented, and the different reader. The younger readers on the Internet, mobile applications, or iPad prefer shorter, more newsy, and better illustrated content. And they like to interact. Interaction with readers is a domain much better offered by e-journalism. Crowd-sourcing, or the participation of readers as sources of news and stories, was cited as a rich source of journalism.
Several papers today offer special content for the Tablet; content of quality journalism and astounding illustrative features.
With news published on electronic media now offered in real time, how can papers earn distinction? The advice that gained unanimity was: “If you want to be global, be local, be local to the extreme”.
Such advice made absolute sense; international news is easily accessible but it is local news that needs to be highlighted. “Identify your readers, offer them what is of interest to them and what would be interesting for the world to know about them.”
To pay or not to pay?
Quality journalism costs. Everyone agreed that web content cannot be free of charge, and that advertising alone would not cover the costs. Forms of payment, whether flat rate or partial subscription, are subject to the circumstances of each paper.
If, by now, the reader thinks the printed press is on its death bed, he or she had better think again. Just as cinema was never able to dislodge theatre from its place, and TV never displaced cinema, the WEF participants voiced an opinion that electronic press will not do away with the print version. The future holds hope for both. All it requires is quality, passion for the job, and adaptation.
Let a thousand blossoms bloom!