06
Feb 12

India and Hong Kong: two new editors to watch

I normally rely on Twitter to keep me up to date on developments in journalism round the world but, reliable as this normally is as a quick check on what’s happening, I missed two watershed moments in the east. One retirement and one appointment.

India and Hong Kong: two new editors to watch

N.Ram

The retirement was of the editor of The Hindu who had always styled himself N. Ram. Narasimhan Ram is 67, so his retirement was hardly a surprise. But he has been so closely identified with The Hindu’s stubborn qualities for so long that it would be natural if readers worried about the future direction of the paper. Dubious as I am about much of its political philosophy (Ram, like many of his generation, flirted with communism when young), The Hindu stands out as a newspaper which cares about quality. I was in India last year when the newspaper began publishing the American diplomatic cables passed to Wikileaks. I can’t share Ram’s reverential attitude to Julian Assange, but his paper’s handling of the Wikileaks material was exemplary both for its journalistic care and political impact. Those disclosures still reverberate in Delhi today.

But The Hindu’s business is under pressure: while India is one of the largest countries in the world where newspaper circulations are still rising, those are not the circulations of the English-language titles but of the Indian-language papers. Business pressures have been part of the complex intrigue which has been played out at the group’s headquarters in Chennai (for a flavour of the passions aroused see here and here). I can’t pretend to explain the ins and outs of this internecine family/corporate struggle. So I hope that Ram has handed over to successors who will preserve his legacy. The Hindu is an important benchmark of what Indian journalists can achieve in print.

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15
Aug 11

PageOne: a good news story about news in New York

Somewhere around the middle of this past decade, the New York Times suffered a near-death experience.

The paper’s finances were shaky in the usual ways: print income was falling, digital revenue failing to compensate. A Mexican telephone tycoon lent a lot of money in exchange for an uncomfortably large stake in the company. Magazine profiles openly disrespectful of publisher Arthur Sulzberger’s abilities began appearing. Rupert Murdoch took over the Wall Street Journal and declared war on the Times’ hold on New York.

One media guru put the previously unsayable into print: that the Times might soon fold or be sold. (Even this blog has occasionally been a little snarky about the Grey Lady.)

And what happened? No newspaper dependent on those dropping print revenues is out of the wood yet, but things have looked up. The Journal has not broken through in New York and Murdoch and the News Corp hierarchy have phone-hacking lawsuits, trials and revelations to worry about. Reporters from the New York Times made a significant mark on the phone-hacking disclosures.

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03
May 11

About blogging, this much I now know

This blog is just over a year old and so that – and a refreshed design – seems the right moment to round up what I’ve learnt so far. What you learn about blogging when you do it is not necessarily the same as what you read on the subject. This is what I’ve found about what works and what doesn’t.

  • Few blogs are instant hits. Virtually everyone who publishes their own work – that’s now a colossal number of people – nurtures a secret dream that their words will be found to be so dazzling, so wise and so eloquent that thousands will circulate these posts among themselves and fame will be instant. This gradually gives way to a much older and more solid truth: stamina, patience and the long haul matter in this, just as in most things. This blog has gradually grown a loyal core of readers who keep coming. But boy is it slow.
  • I have written just under 200 posts in a bit over a year. Call that 400 days and I find I’m posting on average every other day.
  • You’re a prisoner of your past: my background (see here) is in print journalism. I write in that mode, for good or ill. I am conditioned not to write too carelessly or too hastily. Does this occasionally inhibit me from pushing out a quick post? Maybe.
  • My largest contributor of incoming traffic so far is Twitter. (I’ve only just set up a Facebook site for blogposts).
  • One of the best things about blogs are links, making a post not only an opinion but text with the evidence for the argument in the background and opportunities for the reader to wander through the links to somewhere quite different. I’ve even suggested that more journalists should use links more frequently as footnotes (see here). But I’ve got to admit that putting in the links is painfully time-consuming. I haven’t timed it precisely, but I reckon that linkage usually takes at least half as much time again as the writing.
  • People talk a lot about “engagement” as the quality which readers look for in a blog. Experience tells me that by far the most effective form of engagement is aggressive disagreement. Some of the largest hits I’ve had have been for posts with strong criticism, needling or disapproval: Lee Bollinger’s dotty ideas about an American BBC, the first and fluffy set of figures from The Times on online subscribers (now superseded by better ones) and almost anything disobliging about Julian Assange. Say what you like about the man from Wikileaks but he has fans who spring to his defence with passion. (It was one of them who called me a “supercilious weasel”). People find reasonableness, common sense and – worst of all – the ability to see both sides of a question simply dull. So bash someone hard and watch the hits climb.
  • Best of all, bash an Australian. Don’t ask me why a verbal walloping for anyone from that blameless and lovely country should be such a powerful blogosphere boost, but it is. The single largest number of hits this blog has ever had in a day followed a post casting some doubts on Assange and Wikileaks (and that was before Assange had gone supernova with the US warlogs and diplomatic cables). The name of Rupert Murdoch is of course likewise catnip.
  • I’ve read that short posts fare better than long ones and posting at the weekend boosts traffic. My experience contradicts both. I see no correlation at all between the hit rate of a post and length. Hardly surprising in that this is a blog about professional and not personal things, but traffic falls at the weekend.
  • I am addicted to Google Analytics, distracted and fascinated by the traffic level wiggling across the days and months. The world map is even better. I know a few of my fans outside Britain (hello to Chris and Katherine, my faithful readers in Cairo) and can see where talks and lectures of mine have created clusters of readers. But the rest is a mystery. Taking a quick look at the last three months and readers in 94 countries…even a tiny number of blog visitors in Sudan, Kazakhstan and Algeria are a surprise. Why am I more popular in Poland than Morocco? But thank you to every single visitor anyway.

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31
Mar 11

Tunileaks wins Index recognition

The Tunileaks site, which posted the relevant Wikileaks diplomatic cables almost as soon as they were released, was rewarded for its work with an award the other night. The award was collected by Sami Ben Gharbia, co-founder of the Tunisian blog Nawaat, which set up Tunileaks.

Proper acknowledgement of its likely influence I’d say. This blog argued way back that in certain circumstances – and the situation in Tunisia looked like those circumstances – a few cables could have a big influence. (Please bear in mind that the post linked here was written in December).


24
Mar 11

What next for Wikileaks?

Did you think that Wikileaks was last year’s drama? Think again. In the next few weeks, there’s going to be a lot of Wikileaks about. Julian Assange’s own book is due for publication at the end of the first week in April. Whatever else may be said of Assange, his ability to detonate high explosive in public life is beyond dispute.

For those reading this blog in Britain or the US, it’s worth remembering that the gradual disclosure of the US diplomatic cables continues piece by piece around the world. I was in India last week, where Wikileaks’ editing-and-publication deal is with The Hindu and the open disclosures from a set of just over 5000 cables set off a storm. Among other things a member of the staff of the American embassy in Delhi reported being shown cash which he was told was to be used to bribe members of parliament to support the government in a close vote in 2008.

Fascination with the spectacle or with the implications of Wikileaks runs as strongly as ever. Is this what journalism is going to be like in the future? Does Wikileaks signal that in the digital era relations between government and the governed will be changed? These were the kind of questions kicked around at a seminar convened by Polis director Charlie Beckett at the LSE last night, when I lectured on Wikileaks at the Xavier Institute of Communication in Mumbai (slides here) and in a draft paper by Yochai Benkler of Harvard’s Berkman Centre. A few points to watch:

  • Wikileaks holds a quarter of a million US diplomatic cables. With only a few (but significant) exceptions, a relatively small number have been published under the supervision of established media, who staff have redacted sensitive names. One person with good knowledge of Wikileaks estimates that something above 5000 have now been released. Perhaps, he speculated, the total published via major media outlets might be 15,000 in all. There’s only a certain number of newspapers and magazines in the world with the staff and the interest to go through and “redact” such bulky material.
  • All of which begs the question about what happens to the remaining 235,000 cables, many of which may contain sensitive names and details (of US informants, for example). This is apparently under discussion inside Wikileaks, with voices in favour of complete, unredacted release and voices against.
  • Quite apart from very likely getting people killed, the unedited release of such a cache would provoke a completely new kind of reaction. That assumption is based on the US reaction to the limited and relatively careful release so far: a wide array of government opinions (Benkler is very good on the dissenting opinions of Defence Secretary Robert Gates, who quietly insisted that the damage to the US was being hyped; Gates has of course announced his retirement and has nothing to lose), private-sector attempts to harm Wikileaks and political figures calling for Assange to be either prosecuted or killed. Would the American government unplug the internet? Could it? The consensus on the second is a resounding “Yes”.
  • Wikileaks has now spawned many imitators, local and global. Will they go commercial and become more like exsting media operations? Or will such sites, whose key asset is their digital indestructibility and ability to hide a source, act as a leaking route of last resort, a compliment and accompaniement to more conventional media?
  • There seemed to be general agreement that governments would now bolt the stable door. Documents of the kind that Wikileaks has surfaced would be harder to extract and seen by fewer people on the inside in the first place. The ship of state may have sprung a leak, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be patched.
  • That’s all fine in liberal societies to the west of here, said one Indian student in Mumbai. But is it right for Wikileaks to be tolerated by open societies when those societies are up against aggressive, ruthless closed societies? I began on a pompous answer about how liberal societies have to take risks that closed societies don’t, stopped and asked him if he had any particular closed society in mind. China, he said firmly.

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01
Feb 11

Lionel Barber on the risk of political blowback from phone-hacking

A quick plug for the full text of the Cudlipp memorial lecture given last night at the London College of Communication by the Financial Times editor Lionel Barber.

The headline on his talk was, unsurprisingly, drawn from Barber’s warning that politicians, bruised and resentful over the parliamentary expenses scandal, are liable to use the phone-hacking scandal to limit journalism’s freedom to manoeuvre. He’s dead right about that. A lot of journalism sails close to the wind and to the limits of the law, but the lies and the silence over phone-hacking are doing more damage than just lowering credibility and reputation. They are courting the risk of bad new law.

In a lecture last year I said that “editors might profitably concentrate on the moral behaviour of their own journalists for the simple reason that they should fear other agencies doing so.” I had in mind there judges and their current practice of assembling a privacy law by cumulative court judgements. But Lionel Barber is almost certainly right that political blowback is a greater risk still.

There are other reasons to celebrate the good sense of this lecture: Continue reading →


15
Jan 11

Tunisia: what lessons?

Events in Tunisia continue to move at speed, so it seems worth coming back to the topics of yesterday’s post. The fear that nobody was paying much attention to the riots in Tunis and other cities has dissolved with the flight of President Ben Ali. Now everyone’s watching.

On the long-range issue of the role of social or informal media in the Tunisian drama, Ethan Zuckerman (of Global Voices and Yale) gently disagreed with my assertion that social media had played a decisive role. We agree that what’s happened isn’t a “revolution” until Tunisia holds free elections, but Ethan says that “social media’s a part of the equation, not the whole.”

He’s right of course. Ethan also makes the good point that by making it hard for foreign correspondents to operate in Tunisia, the regime paved the way for global media to rely on, and to amplify, the voices of bloggers and tweeters when the riots began. But in such a situation all sources go into the mix: trusted personal contact (digital communications offer great opportunities but are vulnerable to interception and manipulation), mainstream media (in this case such as Al Jazeera, coming from outside) and social media such as Facebook and Twitter. (Update 15/1/11: Ethan has since posted on the Foreign Policy blog a fuller overview).

The only way to truly determine cause and effect would be a proper survey of thousands of Tunisians and their sources of information. Conditions probably aren’t going to allow that for some time. My hunch is that such a study will show that social media – powerfully fuelled by a handful of lethal revelations from Wikileaks – played a powerful role in mobilising people onto the streets and convincing the regime that they had lost the battle to spin people back into line.

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29
Dec 10

Wikileaks and…Tunisia

A few posts back, reflecting on the arguments swirling over the release by Wikileaks of the American diplomatic cables, I said that I couldn’t see any geopolitical situation which might have been changed by the appearance of the information. I’ve spotted one case which might (only might) be an example of a specific country being changed by the revelations.

 Wikileaks and...Tunisia

President Ben Ali

The country is Tunisia, where anti-government demonstrations and riots have broken out in the last ten days. The events have not been widely reported, but are extremely unusual in a state held in a tight grip by an old-fashioned ex-military strongman, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. There’s a summary here (but the parallel with the fall of Romanian dictator Ceaucescu is implausible), more detail and rumours here and Tunisian blogger Lina Ben Mhenni here. The picture on the Al Jazeera piece of the protesting Tunisian lawyers in their black gowns and white collar tabs doesn’t suggest that a violent revolution is under way.

Now recall that one of the diplomatic cables to get early attention was the one from the US Ambassador in Tunis which mentioned seeing the pet tiger kept by the President’s son-in-law (and possible successor) and glimpses of the son-in-law’s “over the top” lifestyle. In a less gossipy despatch a year ago the ambassador put Tunisia’s problems in a nutshell:

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