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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

BRAVE NEW WORLD: the 'Tra-digital' journalism era

Did you buy the newspaper today? This is the question I put to a group of Kennedy School of Government graduates last week during a class assignment. Not one student put up their hand. When I asked if they had read the news online, most put up their hands.
Although I wasn't expecting a full house of newspaper readers, the picture painted in that classroom was worse than anticipated.
There may have been only 25 students in the class, but they were mid-career professionals in their late 20s upwards, and so not necessarily from the savvy young Web generation.
For the past six months, I have been engaging with journalists from around the globe about our craft. I have met an incredible bunch of passionate people – from the Nieman fellows and affiliates to visiting journalists such as the New York Times’s David Rohde and the New Yorker’s Jon Lee Anderson (pictured below left). I have been inspired and uplifted by the high standards and quality of reporting around the globe.

I have attended award ceremonies where journalists have been honoured for their excellence and bravery. Tunisian Naziha RĂ©jiba, editor of the online news journal Kalima (pictured above right) and Somalian Mustafa Haji Abdinur, correspondent for AFP and editor-in-chief of the independent radio station Radio Simba. Others, notably Sri Lankan Lasantha Wickrematunga have been honoured repeatedly, though posthumously (Lasantha was assassinated just over a year ago).
But during our special time together, it has been hard not to talk about the elephant in the room - the crisis in newspapers and the doom and gloom in the industry. At times it has been depressing. At others, painful. Such as when a colleague bluntly told a seminar recently that: “The epitaph has been written… newspapers are dead.”
But what does it mean when we talk about the crisis in the print industry? And why is the public debate centred around the loss of newspapers per se?
As US media columnist Clary Shirky puts it, society doesn’t need newspapers. It needs journalism.
So, shouldn’t we be talking instead about journalism, of the importance of saving quality reporting, of making sure we are still out there where the action is? Shouldn’t we be talking about the struggle to keep the craft of reporting alive amid the technological revolution that is rapidly changing the way the world communicates?

"85% of online content is generated from newspapers"

The newsgathering process is unpredictable, messy and costly. There are no guarantees. Reporting is like fishing. If you don’t cast your rod, you have absolutely no chance of catching a fish. First-hand accounts are paramount.
It is about being there, on the ground, doorstopping people, hounding them at odd hours, hanging out and waiting. It is not about sitting at your computer waiting for a press release to land in your inbox.
And if newsrooms become so stretched that they stop sending out reporters to cover news, then the web will not be getting much news either. Why is this so?  Because most of the news on the web is aggregated content. And where does most of this aggregated news come from? Struggling newspaper newsrooms.
Former Los Angeles Times editor John Carroll estimated in 2007 that "roughly 85 percent of the original reporting that gets done in America gets done by newspapers. ... They're the people who are going out and knocking on doors and rummaging through records and covering events and so on. And most of the other media that provide news to people are really recycling news that's gathered by newspapers."*
Increasingly newsrooms are transforming and catering to both mediums - the Web and newspapers, but the point remains: there is a heavy dependence on traditional newsrooms. It is these newsrooms - the engine rooms of news - which need to be protected and boosted. Newspapers and the Web both need solid newsrooms.
If a newsroom is forced to cut back so much they don’t have reporters covering key beats, it is a loss to society. If a reporter is not given the chance to spend time on an investigative story, then we are going to lose our vital place as the muckrakers of society, keeping the rich, powerful and influential on their toes.
And if we start to let other people compile the  news for us - ie politicians, publicists or Public relations officers - then we are not doing our jobs properly and society is at risk.Let's fact it. News that lands in a reporter's inbox is usually some form of spin.
And if we allow a culture to develop in which managers become so risk-averse that they don't send teams out unless they are absolutely sure they are going to return with a story, then we are on a road to nowhere.
There is a lot to be excited about  in this media revolution. Blogging and twittering have opened up new avenues for citizen journalism and first-hand, on-the-ground reporting. But newsrooms should not go out on a wing and a prayer in the hope that a blogger will do their work for them. They still need to be there, out in the field. They are the professionals, they have the expertise.
Last week during a seminar presented by Columbia Journalism School professor Sree Sreenivasan, a name was thrown around the room for the emerging journalist of today: a "tra-digital journalist" (coined by Sig Gissler, administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes). This is a journalist who retains the traditional, good old-fashioned values of the craft but who has the right attitude to be able to adapt to the changing technology.
Sounds good to me.
* Caroll source:

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Life without Mandela in SA? it's like Wonderland without Alice.

SNEAKING A SHOT: Janet and Mandela in Lavender Hill, Cape Town, about 10 years ago. Picture: Richard Shorey

I want to get sentimental today and talk about a very old man close to my heart, and presumably yours too - Nelson Mandela.

Like America’s freedom fighter Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela had a dream. Unlike Martin Luther King, Mandela lived to see his dream realized. In so doing, he inspired the world.

Mandela is the glue that holds the new SA together.

So the question I want to tackle today is the following: How can South Africa forge ahead without Mandela?

How do we build on the ideals of peace and unity that he helped to carve out of a country shattered by apartheid?

Mandela was released from 27 years in jail exactly 20 years ago today – on February 11, 1990.

That day, I reported the euphoria from the streets of Johannesburg as a journalist for the local newspaper. I feel privileged to have been witness to such an extraordinary event.

Many of you will have seen that seminal freedom clip – Mandela walking out of the prison gates, his fist in the air, his wife Winnie at his side. Some of you have seen it being re-enacted in the film, Invictus. And for those who haven’t, it is worth checking it out on YouTube. I watched it again this morning. Once again, it brought tears to my eyes.

Today, Mandela is frail, fragile and forgetful. In July, he will have 92 candles on his birthday cake. Rumours of his poor health circulate constantly, his office frequently putting out statements reassuring the public that Mandela is still very much with us. On this special day today, he made a rare public appearance in Cape Town just a few hours ago.

But the clock is ticking. The country can no longer rely on his influence to keep everything together.

Although South Africa has made progress in its freedom years, the signs of juvenile decay are a real threat if left unchecked.

So what does the country need to do to ensure that his legacy endures after he is gone?

Mandela’s party, the ANC, needs to get back to its core values – the values that Mandela is so famous for – justice, equality, unity, forgiveness and the fight against poverty.

After 16 years in power, there is an arrogance and complacency that has crept in to the ruling elite and which has led to corruption and abuses of power.

The party also needs to nurture credible leaders in its kindergarten, the ANC Youth League.

At the moment, the only name that keeps cropping up publicly is Julius Malema. He is a controversial hothead whose rantings have alienated many groupings, including women and whites. His comments are not helpful when rebuilding a deeply fractured country, which is one of the reasons why he is dressed in nappies in newspaper cartoons. The ANC may be nurturing other talent, but it should throw the names of other young rising stars into the public ring.

But it would be foolish to leave it up the ANC to be the torchbearers of Mandela’s legacy.

Opposition parties, civic society, business, trade unions, sports and artists groupings also have a responsibility to keep Mandela’s dream alive. Fortunately, we have a glut of talented leaders in many fields.

My profession cannot rest on its laurels. The media has a responsibility to challenge authority and defend the media freedoms we gained in 1994. Again, robust leadership is vital. Disillusionment will get us nowhere. We need bulldog reporters, independent editors and media owners prepared to invest in journalism that encourages debate, exposes corruption and highlights issues such as HIV-Aids, human rights abuses and poverty.

Mandela is a symbol of South Africa’s freedom. But he is also a symbol of reconciliation and forgiveness for the globe. He led the country to democracy at a time when horrendous human rights atrocities by one grouping over another were taking place in other parts of the world such as Bosnia-Herzegovina and Rwanda.

Mandela’s leadership – often expressed with humour and a smile - provided a ray of hope even among hardened cynics that peace is possible in the most trying of circumstances.

To many, the idea of a new South Africa is like Wonderland without Alice.

But we better get used to life without Tata, the father of the nation. He has passed on the torch, and it is up to all South Africans to keep the flame alive.

* This speech was presented by Janet to a Kennedy School of Government section class run by Professor Tim McCarthy on February 11, 2010..

MEETING MADIBA: My coy daughter Ella (coaxed on by her dad Steve Pike) meets Mandela in his home in Cape Town, about four years ago. In the bottom photo, my son Tyler presents a picture that he drew of Mandela being released from prison on 11 February 1990. The two excitable ushers are my father Tony Heard, and his brother Ray.