Sunday, October 28, 2007

Where fair winds no longer blow

It was at the Frankfurt airport, while waiting to board a flight to Vienna, that I picked up a copy of the Financial Times. Its special report for the day focused on environmental impacts of global warming. Writing in it, Fiona Harvey says that Wal-Mart, the world’s biggest retailer, has asked all its suppliers to measure their greenhouse gas emissions. The supermarket chain will label all the products it sells to show how much carbon went into their manufacture. Wal-Mart’s decision to seek the ‘carbon footprint’ of is suppliers is reflective of businesses around the world stepping up efforts to reduce their environmental impact.

Carbon footprints provide a measure of how much of an impact an individual or company is having on the planet, and a carbon label is an indication of the amount of carbon-di-oxide emitted as a result of producing goods and services. So, Harvey adds, that if you are eating a Cadbury Dairy milk chocolate bar, you will know the impact you are creating on the environment.

It is not only on manufacture that companies are focusing. They are also seriously looking at transporting goods in ways that can reduce emissions. It is all about greening fleets and reducing route distances.

In the special report, Clive Cookson points out that it has been a year of unusual weather in many parts of the world. In Europe, the southeastern part of the continent has suffered heat, drought and forest fires, while exceptional summer rainfall inundated the northwest. In the U.S., Texas was flooded while California was hot. Heavy monsoon rain has caused devastation in South Asia. Cookson adds that enough computer modelling has been done for meteorologists to warn with confidence that a warming climate will bring more extreme and more variable weather, and that global warming is increasing flooding because warmer air holds more moisture – a 1 degree C temperature change can increase rainfall by 7 per cent.

Writing in the same report, Andrea Felsted says that according to Torsten Jeworrek, a member of Munich Re’s management board, the year has not seen an extraordinary event hit the insurance and reinsurance markets such as Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma in 2005. Munich Re is one of the world’s largest insurers, re-insurers and insurance brokers that have signed up to a series of principles for managing and reducing the risk of climate change. The industry aims to influence public policy to help manage climate change. Felsted says that insurers believe urgent action is needed to reduce the risk from climate change if cover is to remain affordable and widely available. The Association of British Insurers, for instance, has suggested that insurers offer incentives, such as lower premiums on insuring more efficient cars, and ask for improvements in energy efficiency in buildings.

A headline in the special report that caught my attention was ‘China’s future clouded by smog’. According to Geoff Dyer, as the pace of growth of the Chinese economy continues to surprise many, the environmental damage the boom is causing is also causing surprise. The country is becoming one of the world’s main sources of pollution, he adds. With the Chinese economy galloping at the rate of 11 per cent a year, Chinese emissions of greenhouse gases could surpass that of the United States by the year-end. As a result of the pollution from factories, nearly 60 per cent of China’s rivers cannot be used as sources of drinking water and more than a quarter of rivers are not clean enough for industrial use. About 700 million people drink water contaminated with animal and human waste. There’s industrial smog, too. Dyer points out that a number of studies have concluded that the cost of pollution in China could be between 8 per cent and 12 per cent of the country’s GDP every year.

After reading it all, I was left wondering where India was headed!

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Citizens of the world

Helping Ifra publications with the multiblog at IfraExpo 2007 were three young journalism students – Arlette Mazic, Claudia Grünwald, and Johanna Schönfeld – from the FHWien University of Applied Sciences of WKW, a Vienna-based institution. An enterprising lot, they would suddenly burst into laughter in the midst of keying in stories; somehow, they brought more life into the Ifra Gazette and Multiblog newsroom.

Arlette, the senior most, has that rare passion for journalism and a fire in her belly, if you will. She would stay late evenings to complete her pieces, breaking away to take pictures of scenes at the Expo past 7 pm. She joined a few of the editors and myself the first evening over glasses of beer and champagne. We were soaking in the atmosphere at the Reed Wien Messe foyer – it was the Cross Media Awards Nite and the general spirit was one of partying. She mentioned how much she enjoyed it all. The following morning, after I had edited some of her pieces, she said, “How much I could have learnt from you…” I could have told her the same thing – there is quite a bit to be learnt from young journalists these days.

Arelette loves Hindi films and her favourite star is Sharukh Khan. She hasn’t seen many Hindi films though. But she vividly remembers Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham and sought explanations for certain scenes in the movie I couldn’t recollect. Her boyfriend, Ramitin Abidi, had seen Sholay several times, and she is desperate to see it too, but has not been able to get hold of a CD or DVD so far. Areltte would walk me sometimes to Hotel Hilton Danube where I stayed; her car was parked close by. She would make it a point to ensure that I reached the hotel gates safely before walking her way back to the car park. I gave her a list of Hindi films she should see with Ramtin and I promised to get her a few CDs if I ever visited Vienna again.

Areltte was keen that I help her with her multiblog effort on the final day. However, that was not to be as both of us were saddled with work and just when it seemed I might find the time, it was late afternoon and time for the newsroom to close down.

That was not the last I saw of Arlette. As promised, she arrived at the hotel at about 10 pm, complete with Mirabell chocolates and Marillen Likor (a mild drink). I was, of course, taken aback. She wanted me to meet Ramtin who was waiting on the other side of the road, and hastily we crossed the Hilton overbridge.

Ramtin is from Teheran. He studied in Vienna after leaving Teheran with his mother and brother during the Iran-Iraq war. Together, we drove towards Vienna’s District 1, filled with imposing buildings such as the Burgtheater and the Parliament. It was a part of Vienna I had never seen earlier.

Dinner was at Café Landtmann (opposite the Burgtheater), where we shared a Tafelspitz, Areltte’s choice. When were they planning to get married, I asked. When he decides to put the engagement ring, Arlette shot back. Ramtin had visited Bombay as a child, and he still remembers the crowd and the atmosphere. He, with his strong views on various aspects of life, seemed to me to be a man of this world. Arlette matched this with her exuberance and love of adventure and new media.

After I returned to Chennai, I was pleasantly surprised one evening to receive an email from Arlette. Open the attachment and have a look, she had written. It was a picture of her with Ramtin, and she was displaying the engagement ring on her finger. It was a special moment they both savoured. And I couldn’t resist raising a toast and saying,” All the very best, dear friends!”

(A triumphant Arlette shows off her engagement ring as Ramtin savours the special moment.)

Where old coexists with new

The Hilton Vienna Danube has a prime location on the Danube River, close to Vienna’s fair and exhibition site. The hotel has 367 rooms, two restaurants, a coffee house, a bar and a wide range of wellness facilities. You can use the Internet facility if you wish – it costs a minimum of Euro 5 for 15 minutes, and you will need a credit card. Indeed, a credit card is the preferred mode of payment even when you check in.

The city centre is only ten minutes away by shuttle service or public transportation, so you can enjoy all the attractions Vienna has to offer, from St. Stephan’s Cathedral to the Spanish Riding School. The hotel provides a complimentary shuttle service to the city centre at regular intervals.

There are several sightseeing spots in Vienna – St. Stephan’s Cathedral, State Opera, Art History Museum, Parliament, National Theatre, Town Hall, the University, the Danube Tower, Belvedere Castle, and many churches. The Ifra team arrived in Vienna on a Saturday afternoon. I, like most others, had only that afternoon and the following morning to spare for sightseeing. The rest of the time, till we left the following Friday, was just work.

Well, we got into our stride almost immediately after checking in at the Hotel Hilton Danube. Dean Roper, editor-in-chief of Ifra publications, my Chennai colleague Antony and myself headed towards Stephanplatz, a square at the centre of Vienna named after its most famous landmark, the Stephansdom, Vienna’s cathedral and one of the tallest churches in the world. St. Stephan’s Cathedral and horse-drawn carriages usually form the backdrop to most visit-Austria brochures and Vienna city maps. The sight of Stephansdom is simply awesome and you have to be there to experience it. Opposite Stephansdom is Haas-Haus, a piece of striking modern architecture – on its glass and steel structure you can see Stephansdom silhouetted – Wow!

The whole area around the Cathedral is a mixture of the old and new – some of the world’s best known brands in exclusive shopping streets vying for your attention with centuries-old buildings and churches around them. There is probably no better example of how the old can exist with the new in a harmonious blend, and if we have to protect and conserve our heritage, we must learn from Viennese and other Europeans as well. Because, in Darmstadt too, I noticed how well cared for some of the old buildings were. Either people live there or the basements are let out to shops. The buildings are in use, and that is the best way you can preserve heritage.

(Picture, from top: a view of St. Stephan's Cathedral; the glass and steel Haas-Haus; and a tourist overawed by the atmosphere.)

Monday, October 15, 2007

An event to remember

The IfraExpo in Vienna, this year, a first for the city, saw 10,600 newspaper and media experts from 87 countries participating. Whew! Some numbers that. At the international exhibition for the newspaper industry held in the city of music, it became clear that while print continues to play the lead, it is receiving increasing cross-media support from the Internet and mobile services.

The Expo, held in the two exhibition halls (15,126 m² floor space) of the Reed Messe in Vienna, recorded the highest number of exhibitors since the first Ifra exhibition in 1970: 367 exhibitors (a 9 percent increase compared to Amsterdam in 2006) from 33 countries showed proven and innovative technology solutions as well as new business models for publishing houses. These included 100 companies, mainly from Austria, the neighbouring Eastern European states and the U.S.A.

One of the main attractions during IfraExpo was the special exhibition dedicated to the Ifra XMA Cross Media Awards 2007 competition that was held for the second time. Thirty-six publishing houses from 18 countries entered a total of 50 projects for Ifra XMA 2007. This year’s focus was on cross-media projects for ‘creating and building communities’. From the Hotel Hilton Danube, where the Ifra team stayed, it is just a 15-minute brisk walk to the Rein Messe. Of course, most of us took the bus that was arranged in the morning, but there were quite a few who trudged along a shorter route alongside the Danube to the Expo. The arrangements at the venue were superb – several resting spots, cafes, two large restaurants, even coffee-and-snack trolleys on the move. While Halls A and B where the suppliers exhibited their ware became the focus of activity through the three days, with supplier-prospective client groups engaged in discussion after discussion, the conference halls (Schubert and Lehar) were much quieter, with various speakers focused on engaging the audience. Attendance was not even for all sessions though, it depended on the ability of the speaker. Delegates felt free to get up and leave or to not attend at all. I was helping the Ifra publishing team headed by Kerry Northrup with the Gazette. Except for a couple of stories I really did not have much work – the strong Ifra edit team comprising of editor-in-chief Dean Roper, deputy editors Valerie Arnould and Mari Pascual, and senior editors Charlotte Janischewski, Klaus Plummer and Brian Veseling took care of everything. I chipped in with some support for the multiblog as well, but only towards the end. There was also Stephan Leib, print publishing manager, and Anton Jolkovski, digital publishing manager. Quite a team! Kerry as usual was in charge of the multiblog. This time, he had three girls to help him. And they did not disappoint. One of them, Arlette, impressed me with her hard work and passion for the job. But more about Arlette, Ramtin Abidi, and the sights and sounds of Vienna later.

(Picture: a section of IfraExpo 2007 participants at the Cross Media Awards Nite, which was followed by celebration with cocktails on the first day.)

Sunday, October 14, 2007

A day in Darmstadt

Ifra, the world’s leading organisation for newspaper and media publishing, is headquartered in Darmstadt, Germany. I was on my way to attend IfraExpo 2007, the annual event of the newspaper industry in Vienna, and thought a halt in Darmstadt would be useful. The flight to Frankfurt was uneventful. Lufthansa Airlines had only a Tamil movie to offer those who were keen to watch something. In any case, most people on board preferred to get their two good winks of sleep. When we arrived in Frankfurt, we (two of my colleagues and myself) got through Immigration quickly (where do you get to see the crowds except in India?) and proceeded towards the exit gate. Yohan, the driver on contract with Ifra, was waiting to receive us. And off we headed in a Mercedes Benz towards Darmstadt, about 40 km away.

Darmstadt has only a small variety of sights. Most of them within walking distance from the hotel where we stayed, Best Western, which exuded an old-world charm. There were quite a few places listed on the map to see – St. Ludwig’s Church, the Residential Palace, Market Square and Old City Hall, the Wedding Tower, Russian Chapel, House of History and State Archives, the Hessian State Museum, the Prince-Georgs-Palace with Porcelain Museum, the Forest Spiral…

After refreshing ourselves, colleague Antony and I caught a cab near the city centre to the Ifra Office. The office itself is an old building, about 100 years old, but well maintained, and like Best Western, it has an old-world charm, and is quite unlike the typical office you expect to see. I had meetings with Dean Roper, editor-in-chief of the Ifra news magazine called newspaper techniques, and Anton, Ifra’s digital publishing manager and newsflow editor of the Ifra multiblog. Several Ifra colleagues had already left for Vienna to ready the stage for the Expo.

A quick tour of the office over (thanks to Anton), Antony and I found that we had the rest of the day to wander the streets of Darmstadt. One of the places we chose (because it was very close to the Ifra Office) was the Artists’ Colony on Mathildenhohe. In 1899, Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig of Hesse invited seven artists of the Jugendstil School to come to Dramstadt to create a ‘living and working world’, including private houses and studios. In the premises is the Wedding Tower, a plant-tree grove at its foot, and an exhibition building. There is an eatery here as well, but we couldn’t find anything suiting our taste. We found our way to a curio shop, run immaculately by two women, and they were happy to pose for pictures.

A couple of hours later, we decided to break for lunch at a wayside restaurant. The pizza margarita was simply huge and, sadly, we had to forego a quarter of it in spite of our best efforts. Our walk through the streets of Dramstadt made for an enjoyable afternoon. We passed some of the landmarks – the Technische Universitat, the Hessisches Landesmuseum, and the Marktplatz mit Altern Rathaus.

What struck me was the way heritage buildings are cared for in Germany. Old buildings are not only well maintained but also inhabited, mostly by shops and stores, to ensure that the buildings remain alive and well. A lesson for us in India. But will we ever learn?

Arunoday, from RIND, joined us for an evening outing. The weather was almost perfect – chilly winds and temperature tipping below 10 degrees Centigrade. Stores were not crowded, many were empty or closed, but well lit, showcasing the interiors. Dinner was at a wayside restaurant again. There were few residents on the streets, but the city centre was as usual packed with children and teenagers, waiting for trams and buses on their way home.

Darmstadt was picture perfect that night. And we enjoyed every minute of it.

(Picture was taken inside the Artists' Colony on Mathildenhohe.)

Monday, October 08, 2007

Think multimedia

I am now in Vienna, Austria´’s capital city. It’s a great city with a great history, a mixture of imperial flair and modernity, and a great place to live. But more of the sights and sounds of Vienna later. And of Darmstadt too, a small city near Frankfurt where Ifra is headquartered. I must dwell today on the first day of IfraExpo 2007 here in Vienna, a forum for the world’s top publishers and editors to meet. I am here to witness firsthand the going-on at the Expo and also to do stories for the Ifra Gazette, which will be produced every day of the Expo.

There was an interesting session I attended this afternoon. Naka Nathaniel, a journalist from The New York Times Company, U.S.A., has during the past seven years travelled from Alaska to Zimbabwe, creating content for the newspaper’s website. Nathaniel’s kit includes a Canon HV20 high-definition camera, a Mac Book Pro, a portable hard drive, a tripod, a wireless microphone and a backpack. His kit has grown smaller – for example, his camera is tiny and does not draw much attention. “It makes a difference when you are doing sensitive stories,” Nathaniel told the audience at the Focus Session on Cross-media Publishing, speaking about his experience as a backpack and multimedia journalist. It was an interesting presentation from a journalist who has never worked in a newsroom for the most part of his career. And it showed the packed house how newspapers in recent years have embraced the opportunities of multimedia.

“Don’t worry about what everybody else is doing. Just put your journalist on to the field and do your own story,” Nathaniel exhorted the editors and publishers, mentioning how The New York Times follows this example. He had words of advice for them – narrative storytelling, tight and well-edited content, closely-shot pictures, an exclusive or unique story, and conversation with readers usually works best. Nathaniel’s presentation included a chilling video on the genocide in Darfur, which he had shot with his senior colleague and award-winning columnist, Nick Kristof. Such videos have helped The New York Times hold the attention of online reader for longer periods, he said. He pointed out that the newspaper has been sharing such videos with major U.S. television networks as well.

Dwelling on audience behaviour, Dr. Dietmar Schantin, director of Newsplex, Ifra, Germany, said that the audience expects comfortable access to relevant editorial and commercial content, at all times, in any place, and on any media or device. Readers, he added, normally follow the ‘best of breed’ approach for media services and want to be actively integrated into the communication flow. “Media usage changes during the course of the day. While newspapers, radio and television score high in the morning, the Internet and magazines take over later.

Kicking off the session, Chris Lloyd, Assistant Managing Editor, The Telegraph Media Group, U.K. (among the first newspapers to install an integrated newsroom), explained that the focus of the Group is not only to keep its readers updated, but also to want them to react and respond. It has been more than a year since the Group made a historic move from Canary Wharf to Victoria in Central London. The objectives of integration are now slowly being realised. Online traffic has recorded terrific growth, with unique users crossing the 10-million mark. The newspaper has benefited too from online gains. Advertising revenue has grown as well, across all platforms.

(Picture: Eight students from the International School in Vienna at a conference session voice their opinions about what they like and do not like about online media.)