Thursday, August 20, 2015

Nothing quite matches the ‘spellbinding’ power of a newspaper

Have you ever heard of an alphabet being the focus on the front page of a newspaper? Well, if you haven’t, here’s a story that might interest you – it’s all about how The Alphabet Project transformed a newspaper’s front page. Catherine Payne’s article on the Newspaper Association of North America website caught my attention. She writes about how one letter dominated the front page of the Sentinel & Enterprise, a community newspaper in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, Monday to Saturday, July 13 to August 11 this year. The project, supported by a National Endowment for the Arts Our Town Grant and commissioned by the Fitchburg Art Museum, was led by New Orleans-based artist Anna Schuleit Haber. Payne says Haber invited 26 typographers from different countries to contribute an original letter to the project. Each letter inspired not only a day's front-page design but also content – amounting to 103 written pieces. Haber worked with contributors and interns, says Payne. The interns, including high school and college students, helped with writing, editing, research, communications and logistics. Sentinel & Enterprise editor Charles St Amand summed it up well when he said the project had brought energy to the newsroom. But what a wonderful achievement – getting the young interested in contributing to a newspaper. In Payne’s words, the project showed how spellbinding print media can be. If you are interested in ordering for a collector’s set of 26 issues (each for one alphabet), you can log on to fitchburgalphabet.wordpress.com where the details will be up soon.

Another interesting piece I read – by Aralynn McMane, executive director, Youth Engagement and New Literacy, WAN-IFRA – mentions a former prisoner, Chandra Bozelko, writing in an essay (that appeared in Quartz, the online news outlet of Atlantic Media) how she found newspapers better than books for herself as well as for women with low reading skills. McMane quotes Bozelko: "Better than any book, newspapers were lifesavers that pulled me closer to shore because each new edition marked a new day, an invitation to rejoin a world that kept moving while I was inside." Well, such is the power of the newspaper. So, how can newspapers ever die?


It is perhaps just a coincidence, but a pointer nevertheless, that at the World Printers Forum Conference in October, in Hamburg, keynote speaker Hermann Petz, CEO of the Austrian newspaper Tiroler Tageszeitung, will be making a strong case for the power of print. Petz, according to a WAN-IFRA release, is on a bold mission to put an end to today’s endless bashing of newspapers. ‘The newspaper is dead? Long live the newspaper!’ is the title of Petz’s recently published book, written on the occasion of the Tiroler Tageszeitung’s 70th anniversary. The title pretty much sums up the sentiment and I wouldn’t be surprised if eventually all talk about the death of the newspaper will cease.

Too much knowledge can be a dangerous thing

In India, the recent horrific deaths of Jogendra Singh (in Uttar Pradesh), and Sandeep Kothari and Akshay Singh (Madhya Pradesh) are only reflective of how unsafe the country has become for journalists who dare. Jogendra Singh, in a declaration made before a judicial officer shortly before he died, identified his assailants and charged they had carried out the attack on behalf of a local government minister. Clearly, investigative journalism is a risky venture these days and if your work antagonises people (those in power) within and outside government, then you are in dangerous territory. Yes, too much knowledge can be a dangerous thing for journalists.

Trends in Newsrooms 2015, the annual report published by the World Editors Forum, lists ‘source protection erosion’ as the rising threat to investigative journalism. It used to be possible to promise confidentiality to sources – guaranteeing the protection of their identities, even on pain of jail – in countries where legal source protection frameworks were robust. But these protections are being undercut by government    surveillance and data retention policies, and it may no longer be ethically possible to promise confidentiality. These developments have an enormous impact on investigative journalism and are giving rise to increasing attention to risk assessment, self-protection and source education, says the report. 

It was quite by coincidence that I chanced upon a report in the PressGazette, UK, stating that parents in the UK would rather their daughter marry a banker, marketer or teacher than a journalist. The article by William Turvill refers to a Yougov Survey which found that 3 per cent of 1756 UK adults would like their prospective son-in-law to be a journalist. Women journalists (as prospective daughters-in-law) fared slightly better, with a 4 per cent score. However, the rankings fell way short of other professions. The most popular son-in-law profession was doctor (38 per cent), followed by lawyer (24 per cent) and architect (23 per cent). Even teacher (15 per cent), entrepreneur (11 per cent), banker, musician (both 6 per cent), and nurse, soldier, athlete (all 5 per cent) ranked higher. Doctor was also the most popular choice of profession for daughters-in-law (35 per cent), followed by teacher (26 per cent), lawyer (24 per cent), nurse (16 per cent) and architect (14 per cent). So, is there a story here? Is it because journalists are losing jobs and are considered rolling stones, because journalism has become dangerous, or because people are slowly losing trust in the media? Perhaps it’s a combination of all this and more. 

Trust. Which brings me to the BBC’s annual review. The report shows that BBC News has “yet to fully recover from the scandals of 2012 in terms of perceptions of trust from the public… Audiences continued to rate BBC News much more highly than other news providers, although perceptions of trust in BBC News have not returned to the record levels of 2012.” BBC still scored with 53 per cent for “impartiality of news”. 

Overall, the situation is rather grim. It’s a trying time for journalists worldwide. Apart from the daily pressures of the job, you now have to contend with danger at every corner. And when your job is to expose, without bias, the misdeeds of those in power, the harsh realities on the ground are making it well-nigh impossible.