Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Is Bezos journalism’s saviour?

Whatever was in the mind of Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos when he decided to buy the Washington Post for $250 million, you can bet your house it was not about upholding the traditional methods of newspaper journalism.

The man himself probably has no firm ideas on what happens next. “This is uncharted terrain which will require experimentation,” he told Post staff shortly after taking over. Interestingly, this is not a corporate merger. Bezos bought the newspaper out of his personal pocket; no funds from Amazon were involved.

Those pockets are deep – Bezos is reportedly worth $25 billion, easily able to cover the losses of roughly $50 million a year the Post is currently suffering – so there will be time for consideration and experimentation.

One thing he will consider is that although it is deep in the financial mire the Washington Post is one of the world’s great newspapers, renowned for its aggressive yet responsible reporting. Its breaking of the Watergate scandal in the 1970s turned reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein into media superstars and brought down a sitting president. It has won 47 Pulitzer Prizes and has representatives in 16 major cities across the globe. Its brand is recognised and trusted.

So where to from here? As I have written in previous blogs, the future of newspapers as papers is limited, yet many are struggling to come to terms with a mixed media future in which online publication plays the dominant role.

To be fair, the problem is not entirely of the newspaper owners’ making. The old thinking that everything on the internet should be free has persisted, and attempts to get their readers to pay online for what they had willingly paid for at the news stands in the past have been mixed to say the least.

And yet it is clear that while newspapers are in decline, the thirst for news is still strong. In fact it is probably stronger than at any time in recent history. In some ways attitudes today can be compared to the conditions that led to the advent of newspapers in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Previously people had had to rely on rumours and gossip for what was happening in the world outside their immediate environment. Facts got mangled, became victims of exaggeration and lurid imaginations. People turned to the fledgling newssheets as a reasonably reliable source of information.

And in the 21st century the internet has become a much faster and more efficient way of spreading information – but also misinformation, gossip, rumour and downright lies. People want to know what is going on, locally, nationally, and internationally, but they want it in the medium with which they are most comfortable, and increasingly that is online, through their laptops, tablets, mobile phones and whatever else technology is devising.

The Editor-in-Chief of Huffington Post, the news and blogging website, Arianna Huffington, says the Washington Post purchase is an opportunity to move the emphasis away from the future of newspapers to the future of journalism. Her belief is that great journalism can be done online, but there must be ways of finding it among the dross spewed out each millisecond by every bigot and crazy with a computer.

The most valuable commodity the Washington Post can bring to the online community is its goodwill, built up over the decades by outstanding journalists, editors and photographers. This, combined with Bezos’ proven ability to create hugely profitable internet businesses, may show the way print enterprises can survive, even flourish, in the digital age.




Thursday, August 15, 2013

Livni’s long march to peace

Overshadowed by the crisis in Egypt, the United States-sponsored peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians have completed a second session with agreement that the negotiators should meet again.

The talks are shrouded in secrecy. We know only that they were held in Jerusalem and that both sides were “serious” about moving forward – even that information had to be dragged from a reluctant official on agreement of anonymity.

As someone whose memory stretches back to the 1967 War which set up the current situation, I am not surprised at the information blackout. Similar events have degenerated into grandstanding and name-calling and have done no good to the senior American officials who laboured to bring them into being.

For instance, I can remember Richard Nixon’s Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, fresh from what he thought was a settlement in the Vietnam War, proclaiming that the Middle East was next on his list.

Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton are other US Presidents whose names have been linked with negotiating disappointments. Barak Obama and his man at State, John Kerry, are just the latest in a long line.

So what are the chances of them succeeding when so many have failed? Less than 50-50 would be a very generous prediction. Outwardly, the signs are not good. Current Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu is hardly a peace dove and his decision to release plans for up to 3100 settler homes on occupied Palestinian territory more than offsets the gesture of releasing 26 Palestinians jailed for attacks on Israelis, with the promise of a few more to come.

As one Israeli official once told me about a previous high-profile prisoner release: “We can round them up again anytime we want to.” 

If there is one positive point in the whole affair, it is the choice of Justice Minister Tziporah ‘Tzipi’ Livni as Israel’s chief negotiator.

Livni comes from an ardent nationalist background, similar to Netanyahu’s, but has been completely converted to a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine stand-off. She is high profile, having formerly served as Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister in the previous Government led by Ehud Olmert.

She is able and ambitious – should she achieve a breakthrough in these talks she could write her ticket in future Israeli governments. I believe she would not have taken the job if she thought there was no chance of an at least partially successful outcome.

Before the second round of negotiations began Livni posted on her Facebook page: “Today, I will continue the important mission I began – to achieve a peace agreement that will keep the country Jewish and democratic and provide security for Israel and all its citizens.”

It remains to be seen whether circumstances allow her to turn the rhetoric into actions.  

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Kashmir killings – who is responsible?

This week’s killing of five Indian soldiers in Jammu and Kashmir has led to heightened tensions between India and Pakistan and the very real possibility that proposed talks over the disputed territory will be derailed.

This is a severe blow to Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s hope of better relations with his neighbour, even a settlement of the Jammu and Kashmir issue, which has been a source of conflict between the two countries for more than 60 years.

Sadly the incident demonstrates once again what international analysts have known for decades – that civilian governments in Pakistan never have full control over their armed forces.

The Indian troops were caught in an ambush while on patrol by around 20 heavily armed opponents dressed in Pakistani Army uniforms who had crossed the unofficial border, or Line of Control (LOC), into Indian-controlled territory. 

The Sharif Government immediately issued a statement that the group consisted of terrorists bent on wrecking the peace talks who had somehow obtained army uniforms.

This was initially accepted by Indian Defence Minister A.K. Antony in an address to Parliament. However, the following day Antony reversed his position. “It is now clear that specialist troops of the Pakistani Army were involved in the attack,” he said.

In the Pakistani capital of Islamabad, the Foreign Ministry was sticking to its ‘terrorist’ explanation, describing allegations of official involvement as “baseless and unfounded”. 

But behind the bluster there is recognition that the only plausible explanation is that rogue elements of the Pakistani defence forces were involved. The only question is at what level was the attack sanctioned?

The Pakistani military is known to contain elements which are unwilling to pursue campaigns against the Taliban and other Islamic militants operating in the country’s more remote regions. Many agree with their fundamentalist aims and believe the dispute with India can only be resolved with the incorporation of the entire province of Jammu and Kashmir into Pakistan.

Since the death of the five soldiers a Pakistani civilian has been seriously wounded close to the LOC, allegedly when Indian troops opened fire.

Once again the two old rivals are facing off over Jammu and Kashmir and the prospect of a resumption of stalled peace talks is rapidly receding. Chalk up another win for fundamentalist terrorism over the voices of reason.    

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Ukraine key to Russia’s resurgence

Russian President Vladimir Putin is taking every possible opportunity to thumb his nose at the United States. First it was the unconditional support of Syria’s tyrant President Bashar al-Assad; then came the sheltering of former American intelligence operative and whistle-blower Edward Snowden.

But there is lot more to the changing relationship than these headline events. Under pressure at home from an increasingly strident opposition movement which believes he is returning Russia to a Soviet-style authoritarian state, Putin is using foreign policy – and in particular the mixture of fear and envy that Russians feel for the US – to shore up his position.

At the same time he is taking deliberate steps to revive, if not the old Soviet empire, certainly its sphere of influence. While there is no hope of drawing the old Warsaw Pact allies in Central Europe back into the fold, countries that were once directly ruled from Moscow are softer targets.

Little Georgia was roughed up and firmly put in its place during the five-day conflict in 2008 in which Moscow backed separatist movements in the Georgian province of South Ossetia.
Belarus is less of a problem with its president, Alexander Lukashenko, adopting Soviet-era tactics of manipulating elections and violently supressing dissent. As a result Lukashenko leans heavily towards Russia where there is much less concern over his repressive policies than in Western capitals.

Putin has also pursued a ruthless campaign to supress breakaway movements in the Caucasus and elsewhere in the vast Russian Federation. Now he is using a mixture of charm and coercion to pull Ukraine back into Moscow’s orbit. 

For a while it seemed that Ukraine was destined to embrace the West and Western democratic values. The so-called Orange Revolution which propelled the pro-Western Viktor Yushchenko to the presidency appeared to herald a new era in which country was heading towards membership of both NATO and the European Union. However, disillusionment soon set in when Yushchenko failed to produce the reforms or curb endemic corruption, and he was replaced in the 2010 presidential poll by the pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych.

Since then Yanukovych has consolidated his position by using many Soviet-era tactics such as the curbing the freedom of the press and harassment of political opponents, including former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko who he jailed. A delighted Putin has welcomed what he calls a “big improvement” in relations with Ukraine under Yanukovych’s presidency.

Yanukovych claims to be as enthusiastic as his predecessor about EU membership, (although NATO is firmly on the backburner). In fact, he is being far more receptive to Putin’s call for Ukraine to “look east” and ‘come home” to the embrace of Mother Russia.

How this plays out over the next few months will be an indication of the success or otherwise of Russia’s new, aggressive foreign policy.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

News flourishes as newspapers decline

Reading an extract from Colleen Ryan’s new book, Fairfax: The Rise and Fall, I couldn’t help thinking of the legend of Sultan Mehmet II battering down the walls of Constantinople while the Byzantine Senate was busily debating the sex of angels.

Gina Rinehart, John Singleton, Mark Carnegie, Trevor Kennedy…all buzzing round the Fairfax media empire, forming alliances, grappling for the levers of power – and all either unaware or ignoring the digital cancer that is eating away both profits and influence.

Almost a year ago I wrote in this blog about how British regional newspapers were confronting the challenge of the internet by gradually moving the emphasis from print and paper to their websites. Former dailies had become weeklies with their journalists breaking stories 24/7 online and the print edition serving more as a synopsis of the news for the dwindling band of readers who still wanted to consume it in this way.

Managed properly this is a good model for the future of journalism, both in Britain and around the world, but in Australia we are locked into the old thinking, with the major media empires still seeing the internet as a threat to be confronted rather than an opportunity to embrace.

As a result the “rivers of gold” – the classified advertising that has supported Fairfax, News Ltd and all the other major Australian newspaper companies for generations, are rapidly being diverted into specialist websites such as Seek and allhomes. This trend will inevitably continue with increasing percentages of the population becoming computer literate and the number of devices multiplying.

Slowly, relentlessly, the new technology is knocking down all the old arguments in favour of newspapers. As an example, it was once said they had the advantage over computers because they could be read in the toilet, but that was before the iPad, Android and all the rest.

The hopeful message that executives at Fairfax and the rest have to really learn is that while newspapers are an anachronism, news isn’t. More people than ever are interested in what is going on around them whether it is gossip about the latest adulterous celebrity, the new hybrid car off the assembly line or the performance of their favourite sporting team. But apart from these ‘light’ topics there is increasing demand for ‘hard’ news both domestically and around the world.

I would suggest that the proportion of Australians who are news consumers is greater now than at any time in the country’s history. The difference is that they find it at places other than the newsstands.

Australian media companies can still prosper in the digital world, but only if they sever their attachment to the printed word. “Hot off the presses” and “deadline midnight” now belong to the world of period fiction rather than the 24-hour news cycle, but for the moment at least titles such as the Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian and even the Canberra Times, still carry goodwill that can be translated into the digital age.

Talented, professional journalists working for online news services, rather than news papers is the way of the future. A commitment to quality and good, old-fashioned beat reporting in the new technological environment would eventually see the rivers of gold running back home.

It remains to be seen whether Rinehart, Singleton and the rest can pause from their intrigues long enough to understand that old-style journalism is under siege and like the Byzantines, will soon belong to history.