media chinwag

Musings on Journalism in the Online Age

Chasing the Bin Laden Story

Reporters like to think of themselves as empiricists, but journalism is a soft science. Absent documentation, the grail of national-security reporting, they are only as good as their sources and their deductive reasoning. But what happens when different sources offer different accounts and deductive reasoning can be used to advance any number of contradictory arguments?

Jonathan Mahler poses this good question in a lengthy report on investigative journalism in the New York Times Magazine this week. The headline on the piece is “What Do We Really Know About Osama bin Laden’s Death?,” but the piece is essentially an examination of how investigative reporters operate. It follows how they—and others, such as the makers of the Hollywood blockbuster Zero Dark Thirty—told the story of the Bin Laden raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan in 2011.

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Mahler’s piece focuses on the 10,000-word article by celebrated investigative reporter Seymour Hersh in the London Review of Books, which strongly challenged the narrative of the Bin Laden raid developed by the Obama administration as well as by a number of journalists. To Hersh, famous for his stories on the My Lai Massacre and the Abu Ghraib prison abuse among many others, “the story stunk from Day 1.”

Hersh disputed the official line that Bin Laden was located due to years of methodical intelligence gathering, reporting instead that it was a tip off from a retired Pakistani intelligence officer. Rather than being a daring raid on Abbottabad, Hersh reported, Pakistani authorities were informed about the mission and allowed the U.S. Navy Seals to enter Pakistan airspace to conduct it. Hersh even reported that the Obama administration’s claim that Bin Laden had been given an Islamic burial at sea was a lie; instead, Hersh wrote, the Seals apparently tossed what was left of Bin Laden’s body out of a helicopter. The White House spokesman trashed Hersh’s story, calling it “riddled with inaccuracies and outright falsehoods.”

Although Mahler did not set out to corroborate or challenge Hersh’s account, in the end he cites a number of reports and viewpoints that prompt him to conclude that “many of Hersh’s claims could be proved right”—for example, Times correspondent Carlotta Gall had reported in 2014 on Pakistani complicity in sheltering Bin Laden.

Mahler concludes that we don’t know the whole truth of the Bin Laden raid, and it’s not only because the government is keeping it a secret: “There’s also the more modern, social-media-savvy approach: Tell the story you want them to believe. Silence is one way to keep a secret. Talking is another. And they are not mutually exclusive.”

It’s worth noting in this context, as Mahler does, that the Central Intelligence Agency reportedly cooperated with the makers of Zero Dark Thirty, who would lay claim to telling the definitive narrative of ‘‘the greatest manhunt in history.’’

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Hersh deserves the last word on narrative writing. As he told Mahler: “Of course there is no reason for you or any other journalist to take what was said to me by unnamed sources at face value. But it is my view that there also is no reason for journalists to take at face value what a White House or administration spokesman said on or off the record in the aftermath or during a crisis.”

At age 78, Hersh retains the fierce skepticism about government secrecy and official spin that he has been known for since breaking the My Lai Massacre story in 1969:

I love the notion that the government isn’t riddled with secrecy. Are you kidding me? They keep more secrets than you can possibly think. There’s stuff going on right now that I know about—amazing stuff that’s going on. I’ll write about it when I can. There’s stuff going out right now, amazing stuff in the Middle East. Are you kidding me? Of course there is. Of course there is.

Postscript: For some insights into how Hersh operates as a freelance journalist and investigative reporter, read the interview with him in Slate probing his Bin Laden story in LRB.

—Scott MacLeod

A Tribute to Éric Rouleau (1926–2015)

Éric Rouleau had a deep relationship with Egypt and the Middle East—he was Le Monde’s correspondent in the region for 30 years, and later served as France’s ambassador to Tunisia and to Turkey. He was born in Cairo, began his journalism career on the Egyptian Gazette, and maintained a lifelong attachment to his native country.

A tribute to Éric will be held in Cairo on October 13 on the occasion of the Arabic translation of Éric’s final work, Dans les coulisses du Proche-Orient: Mémoires d’un journaliste diplomate (1952-2012). The event is hosted by American University in Cairo’s Middle East Studies Center, the Institut Francais d’Egypte, and the Al-Tanany Publishing House.

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One of the speakers is longtime Le Monde Diplomatique Editor-in-Chief Alain Gresh, who wrote a poignant appreciation of Éric’s life and career in Orient XXI last March. A translation appears in the Cairo Review of Global Affairs. Here’s a brief excerpt:

In 1985, Rouleau transitioned to a diplomatic career at the request of President Mitterand. He was appointed ambassador, first to Tunis—then headquarters of the Arab League, and the city where the Palestinian Liberation Organization sought refuge after its expulsion from Beirut in 1982—and later to Ankara. After this time, only diplomats would benefit from his culture, analyses, and countless connections. Ironically, Rouleau himself noticed that the number of his readers dropped from hundreds to two, and even sometimes one—the president of the Republic.

During the first meeting of French ambassadors held in Paris after his appointment, each of the diplomats introduced themselves and their country of assignment—for example the Ivory Coast, Jordan, Argentina, etc. When it was his turn, he stood up and said: “Éric Rouleau, Le Monde.” There was silence, then the audience broke into laughter. Freud believed that slips of the tongue expressed unconscious desires. Did Rouleau consider himself the ambassador of the daily newspaper? Or did he see himself as ambassador to the world, monde in French, as he crossed from north to south? Or, might he have simply meant that he was our ambassador to a planet whose glitches he would help us solve?

Also, read “Cairo: A Memoir,” by Éric Rouleau in the Summer 2012 edition of the Cairo Review.

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“A Tribute to Éric Rouleau (1926–2015)” will be held in Oriental Hall, AUC Tahrir Campus, from 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. on Tuesday October 13.

—Scott MacLeod

 

Are Millennials Newsless?

In a column in The Hill earlier this year titled “The young and the newsless,” Washington strategy consultant Mark Mellman summed up a number of studies indicating that young Americans are not paying attention to politics and public affairs. Data suggested that Millennials—young adults aged 18–34—don’t follow news online, in newspapers, or on television. “The simple truth,” Mellman argued, “is that young people do not like news.”

For another take on this issue, see the studies issued in 2015 by the Media Insight Project, a collaboration of the American Press Institute, Associated Press, and NORC Center for Public Affairs Research at the University of Chicago: “Breaking Down the Millennial Generation: A Typology of Young News Consumers,” issued in September; and “How Millennials Get News: Inside the Habits of America’s First Digital Generation,” issued in March.

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The March study found that nearly two-thirds of American Millennials “keep up with what’s going on in the world and/or read or watch news.” The study said that the young people are getting their news through networks such as social media, rather than traditional “news sessions”—sitting down to read the daily newspaper, or switching on World News Tonight every time the clock strikes 6:30 p.m.

For Millennials, the study reported:

Keeping up with the world is part of being connected and becoming aware more generally, and it often but not always occurs online. In many cases, news comes as part of social flow, something that may happen unexpectedly and serendipitously as people check to see what’s new with their network or community of friends… This generation tends not to consume news in discrete sessions or by going directly to news providers. Instead, news and information are woven into an often continuous but mindful way that Millennials connect to the world generally, which mixes news with social connection, problem solving, social action, and entertainment…

By any number of measures, staying in touch with the world is an important part of the lives of the first generation of digital adults…

Millennials are hardly newsless, uninterested, or disengaged from news and the world around them.

A few key points in the study:

Receiving news through networks may broaden rather than restrict exposure to different ideas:

Contrary to the idea that social media creates a polarizing “filter bubble,” exposing people to only a narrow range of opinions, 70 percent of Millennials say that their social media feeds are comprised of diverse viewpoints evenly mixed between those similar to and different from their own. An additional 16 percent say their feeds contain mostly viewpoints different from their own. And nearly three-quarters of those exposed to different views (73 percent) report they investigate others’ opinions at least some of the time—with a quarter saying they do it always or often.

Millennials are actually willing to pay for information, but tend to feel that news should be freely available for all:

When it comes to paying for the news, 40 percent of Millennials report paying for at least one subscription themselves, including a digital news app (14 percent), a digital magazine (11 percent), a digital subscription to a newspaper (10 percent), or a paid email newsletter (9 percent). When subscriptions used but paid for by others are added, that number rises to 53 percent who have used some type of paid subscription for news in the last year.

Interestingly, this digital generation is more likely to have paid for non-digital versions of these products. For instance, 21 percent say they have paid in the last year for a subscription to a print magazine, and 16 percent for a print newspaper, rates that are higher than for digital versions of the same products.

News publishers also may have some work to do in the digital space when it comes to subscriptions. In the qualitative interviews, we heard the notion that, because news is important for democracy, people feel they should not have to pay for it. It should be more of a civic right because it is a civic good.

Facebook and search engines like Google are critical pathways for Millennials’ acquisition of news information:

Facebook has become a nearly ubiquitous part of digital Millennial life. On 24 separate news and information topics probed, Facebook was the No. 1 gateway to learn about 13 of those, and the second-most cited gateway for seven others…

When Millennials want to dig deeper on a subject, search is the dominant method cited by 57 percent (and it is the one cited most often as useful).

The September study classifies Millennial news consumers into four categories: the Explorers and the Activists (the groups more likely to seek out news and information online) and the Unattached and the Distracted (well, you get the idea). Eight-five percent and 80 percent of Explorers and Activists, respectively, regularly go online to learn what’s going on in the world; and 44 and 51 percent pay for a news subscription (compared to 31 and 40 percent of the Unattached and the Distracted).

The API-AP-NORC studies may prove that Millennials are not completely “newsless,” but I am not too reassured. The finding on search engines may highlight the problem: when Millennials want to dive deeply into a topic, fewer than 5 percent turn to a national newspaper (in print or online) and the figure is about the same for local newspapers. The study seems to confirm that young people do not fully understand and appreciate the importance of journalism in our societies—the presentation of reliable news by professionals using a well-developed discipline for assembling, verifying, and being accountable for facts. As the Center for News Literacy at the Stony Brook University School of Journalism warns:

News aggregators, bloggers, pundits, provocateurs, commentators and “citizen journalists” are competing with traditional journalists for public attention. Uninformed opinion masquerades as news. Lines are blurring between legitimate journalism and the propaganda, entertainment, self-promotion and unmediated information on the Internet. This superabundance of information has made it imperative that citizens learn to judge the reliability of news reports and other sources of information that is passed along their social networks.

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Another study released in 2015 should justify concerns about the news literacy of the current and coming digital generations: “America’s Skills Challenge: Millennials and the Future,” published by the Educational Testing Service’s Center for Research on Human Capital and Education. It found that young adults in the United States fall short of Millennials in other developed countries when it comes to the skills employers want most: literacy, practical math, and problem-solving in technology-rich environments. The study also found that the U.S. Millennials lagged behind other age groups within America itself. This is in a context in which 43 percent of Americans have earned college degrees, and 90 percent of Millennials now own a smartphone.

Equally troubling is that these findings represent a decrease in literacy and numeracy skills for U.S. adults when compared with results from previous adult surveys… In literacy, U.S. Millennials scored lower than 15 of the 22 participating countries. Only Millennials in Spain and Italy had lower scores.

The ETS study defined literacy as “the ability to understand, evaluate, use, and engage with written text to participate in society, to achieve one’s goals, and to develop one’s knowledge and potential.”

—Scott MacLeod

Glamour of Blogging

Journalists, take note.

Blair Eadie is one of the most successful bloggers out there. She blogs about fashion at Atlantic–Pacific. Her blog consists solely of photos of herself wearing different fashion outfits on locations mainly in New York. But she is connecting with people on the web, a goal that journalists need to think much more about: Atlantic–Pacific is getting some 2 million page views per month.

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You wouldn’t call what Eadie does journalism—fashion bloggers typically make their money through sponsorship, paid collaborations, and hosting links to retail products, so their work is akin to marketing or public relations. In fact, Eadie got into blogging while working as a merchandiser for Gap in San Francisco and witnessing how bloggers were influencing fashion lines. A challenge for journalists in the online age is to find business models to achieve what Eadie is managing to do—while strictly maintaining journalistic independence.

Blogging isn’t as glamorous as it looks, even for branded fashion bloggers like Eadie. Researchers Brooke Erin Duffy and Emily Hund have a report in the latest issue of Social Media+Society about this titled “‘Having it All’ on Social Media: Entrepreneurial Femininity and Self-Branding Among Fashion Bloggers.” (They summarize the report in an Atlantic piece here).

The bloggers we interviewed unanimously described their work as more than a typical full-time job; many estimated they devoted more than 80 hours a week to their blogs and related activities. Others shared how they were up into the wee hours responding to commenters, crafting posts, and editing images to fit the technical and strategic requirements of various platforms.

—Scott MacLeod

French Press: Mon Dieu!

France’s crise de la presse has no end in sight. Like almost everywhere, France’s print newspapers are grappling with declining sales, slumping ad revenues, and the challenges posed by digital media—how to join the digital revolution, or be crushed by it.

WWD has an interview with Francis Morel, CEO of France’s Les Echo Group, that gives a glimpse into the boardroom forces driving change in the French media. Among those forces: the takeover of French newspapers by conglomerates with no experience in journalism or professional stake in a free press; a trend toward boutique products like weekend magazines to attract elite readers and advertisers who want to reach them; and a determination to exploit marquee newspaper brands to develop consulting units and other sidelines.

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Morel reports that such services could soon represent almost half of the business at Les Echos, which began publishing as France’s first daily financial newspaper in 1908:

There are always activities to develop to complement the main business of media. We launched Les Echos Solutions in June with services ranging from crowdfunding to market studies and incubators for start-up companies. We are developing a publishing arm for companies with a separate staff. Services will represent one-third of the group sales in 2016. Down the road, they could be up to 45 percent of Les Echos’ business. We define ourselves as “the first media outlet for information and services,” which makes us stand out. On the services front, I think we are at the forefront.

Les Echos is just another case of how French journalists find themselves entwined with conglomerates. The paper was closely held by the Schreiber family and then the Beytout family for eight decades before being sold to Britain’s Pearson PLC, itself a publishing and education company. In 2007, Pearson sold it to LVMH, the French luxury goods conglomerate focused on brands like Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior, and Moët & Chandon. Under Morel, Les Echos Group is now about to take ownership of two more French dailies, Le Parisien and its national counterpart, Aujourd’hui en France. That will put Les Echos Group in the top rank of French mainstream press, along with Le Monde and Le Figaro.

The marriage of journalists and conglomerates has not been a happy one. Shortly after the LVMH acquisition of Les Echos, editor Erik Israelewicz resigned over alleged editorial interference, and his staff went on strike to insist on editorial independence. Similar tensions arose in 2010 when a trio of French tycoons took control of Le Monde: Matthieu Pigasse, Pierre Bergé, and Xavier Niel. Since then, the paper has gone through five chief editors. (The trio, meanwhile, has acquired Le Nouvel Observateur, now simply L’Obs, a leading French newsweekly). Le Figaro, another French newspaper of record, is owned by the Dassault Group, known for its aerospace business in Mirage fighter bombers and other military aircraft.

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Critics accuse the French (and their labor unions) of being resistant to change. Where independent journalism is at stake, that may not be a bad thing at all. Last year journalists at Libération went on strike against a plan by its shareholders led by chairman Édouard de Rothschild (38.6 percent share) to “save” the paper—besides the usual staff cutbacks, the plan would turn the newspaper’s headquarters into a cultural center and reinvent the paper itself as a social network. Journalists at Libération, which was founded by philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre after the 1968 student and worker upheavals in France, explained their walkout with the front-page headline:

WE ARE A NEWSPAPER not a restaurant, not social media, not a TV studio, not a bar, not a startup incubator…

—Scott MacLeod

The Press, the Public, and the President

Leslie T. Chang has a good report in NYR Daily titled “Egypt’s Media: Endorsing Repression.” She writes on how journalists, perhaps notably the country’s influential political talk show hosts, are making energetic efforts to build a consensus behind the policies of President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi. It seems to be helping: the leader’s approval rating after a year in office was around 90 percent.

Abroad, the Sisi administration is criticized for allowing more than a thousand people thought to be sympathetic to Morsi to be sentenced to death in mass trials; in Egypt, newspaper columnists say they should be executed without trial. Journalists occasionally criticize government performance on issues like education, health care, or religious policy. But as I discovered in interviews with leading talk show hosts and editors, they regard the defining feature of Sisi’s administration—the use of state-sanctioned violence and politicized trials to maintain order and crush its opponents—with near-unanimous approval.

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Chang reports on El-Sisi’s moves to influence the media, holding monthly meetings with editors and presenters, and telling television hosts they are responsible “for promoting unity and raising morale.”

As Chang notes, it’s not simply an issue of control from above. Egyptian journalists, especially those working for the independent media, were increasingly free to report during the last years of the Hosni Mubarak era—criticism of the president and even his family was tolerated. Journalists briefly became more assertive in their watchdog role after the January 25, 2011 uprising that ended Mubarak’s 30-year rule. In one of the most celebrated examples, Ahmed Shafik, an interim prime minister, abruptly resigned from office after being aggressively questioned on Baladna bel Masry, a political talk show on ONTV hosted by Reem Magued.

But the Egyptian public mood has become deeply fearful of instability, due to the polarizing presidency of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi, the protests and violence involved in his removal from office, the rise of jihadist chaos throughout the Arab word including in Egypt, and the nosedive of the Egyptian economy. El-Sisi is seen by millions as the nation’s protector—and only hope. Many journalists share the fears, or at least are influenced by the public’s intolerance for any further destabilization of the state. (The logic was no doubt at play last week in the Egyptian government’s ban on media coverage of the Egyptian military’s lethal attack on suspected insurgents who turned out to be Mexican tourists—few Egyptians want to see their army’s honor besmirched.)

Chang concludes:

In the two years since the army removed Morsi after huge demonstrations against him, the mainstream media has lost most of the openness it briefly enjoyed. Especially during major political events, the press speaks in one voice; journalists who break ranks sometimes find themselves vilified—not by the government but by their own colleagues and the public.

Egypt’s revolution taught the world that the power of a dictator can dissolve in an instant. But the lesson of the years since may be that, in a country threatened by chaos and violence, authoritarianism can hold a powerful appeal of its own.

—Scott MacLeod

Vacating the Tower of Truth

We all know too well how the technology-driven disruption of the news business has led newspapers to slash their staffs—nearly 23,500 jobs (out of 56,400) at U.S. daily newspapers since 2001. David Uberti has a neat follow-up piece in the September/October 2015 Columbia Journalism Review—on the demise of America’s great newspaper buildings. (See a related piece by Tim Adams in the Guardian.)

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Some of the landmark edifices were actually destroyed once journalists had been re-located to less expensive digs—One Herald Plaza, the Miami Herald headquarters on Biscayne Bay since 1963, pictured here, was torn down last year by the property’s new owner, a Malaysian casino operator. The art deco Inquirer Building, home to the Philadelphia Inquirer for 87 years, nicknamed the “Tower of Truth,” was purchased in 2011 by a property developer who wants to turn it into a hotel. Symbolizing the struggles of the Inky, which had been sold five times in six years, the remaining staff moved to smaller premises a year later. Other papers that vacated historic sites in recent years include the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Cleveland’s Plain Dealer, and Chicago Sun-Times, among others.

Uberti’s CJR cover story nicely captures the nostalgia for the pre-digital newspaper trade. He quotes the late journalist Al Martinez’s 2007 reflection on his old Oakland Tribune newsroom:

We were a brotherhood of young lions back then, working hard through a half-dozen deadlines a day and drinking hard. We did it, we told ourselves, for the people’s right to know, and affixed it like a knight’s pennant to the end of a spear.

But Uberti’s piece, headlined “Why the sale of old newspaper buildings isn’t all bad,” points out that the fading businesses can use the cash to pay down debt or reinvest in new products. And there’s more. He writes:

After the Inquirer departed the Tower of Truth, Inga Saffron, the newspaper’s architecture critic, was optimistic that it could forge a new identity elsewhere. “Making our home in a newspaper building froze us psychologically in history, and kept us from interacting physically in the city,” she wrote in a 2012 Inquirer column. “The future for all media is an interactive one.” In that environment, she added the next year in a New Republic piece, “the most valuable real estate is online.”

Such new offices certainly won’t solve newspaper companies’ long-term financial problems. But they’re a symbolic step forward into the unknown, an acknowledgement that there’s no going back to what came before, however glorious it was. The resulting psychological benefits can’t be overstated, especially for the younger generation on whose shoulders the fate of journalism rests. If the companies that formerly produced only newspapers have any chance of survival, they will need that energy—not the baggage that accompanied vaunted historical headquarters.

This job isn’t as noble as it seems, most journalists would admit, but it’s as noble as any job is going to get. The real reason it’s so difficult to let go to of aging buildings is that they’re relics of an era in which journalism was simply a calling, not a struggling business with corporate ownership, quarterly earnings reports, not enough money coming in, and too many journalists going out. The physical structures remind us of a time when those in our profession felt in control of their own destiny.

—Scott MacLeod

The Alan Kurdi Debate

The photograph of a lifeless 3-year-old Syrian boy face down on a Turkish beach shocked us to the core. It appeared on front pages, news websites, Twitter feeds, Facebook posts, and television broadcasts around the world, bringing unprecedented attention to the Syrian refugee tragedy.

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The boy, Alan Kurdi (evidently wrongly identified in news media accounts as Aylan Kurdi initially), was among the steady flow of desperate Syrians seeking refuge in Europe aboard small and overcrowded vessels crossing the Mediterranean Sea. Strong waves apparently forced the boat carrying Alan to capsize, leading to the deaths of 12 people including the boy’s mother and 5-year-old brother.

The image of Alan, taken on September 2, sparked a debate about whether publishing the photograph was journalism or voyeurism. Many media organizations showed reluctance to run it, instead opting for a frame showing his partially obscured body being carried away by a Turkish police officer. Max Fisher writes in Vox: “There is a line between compassion and voyeurism. And as that photo was shared and retweeted over and over again, converted into listicles and social-friendly packages, it felt more and more like the latter.” Many shared the feeling that the image was another violation, and that withholding the image showed respect for human dignity.

Such concerns are valid, which is why the decision to publish or not to publish was debated so thoroughly in many newsrooms. But in this instance the photo achieved the higher journalistic purpose of informing the world about news that we need to know about. It did so in a way that humanized a tragedy that has otherwise become numbingly familiar with almost daily accounts of refugees fleeing new conflict zones or drowning in the sea.

Aiden White, writing in openDemocracy, where he includes some good links to the discussion, argues that the disturbing image helped media and social networks “shape the refugee crisis into a more sensitive, humanitarian and people-focused story.” Indeed, the image prompted debates from Britain to Australia on whether leading developed nations were doing enough to alleviate the humanitarian crisis including taking in higher numbers of refugees. British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President François Hollande were reported to have been personally moved by the image. On September 10, President Barack Obama announced that the United States would admit 10,000 refugees over the next year, compared to 2,000 this year. Senator John McCain presented a blow-up of the photo on the floor of the United States Senate to urge stronger American leadership in the Syrian crisis.

Aiden White noted how the Alan Kurdi photo even seemed to change some hard-line attitudes inside newsrooms :

Some media were forced to reverse their previously hostile coverage of refugees. The Sun, Britain’s leading tabloid newspaper, quietly erased its promotion of dehumanising rhetoric from columnist Katie Hopkins who in April referred to Mediterranean refugee victims as “cockroaches” and said: “Show me bodies floating in water, play violins and show me skinny people looking sad. I still don’t care.”

In Germany, Bild, the country’s best-selling newspaper, performed a dramatic act in response to a public uproar over its decision to use the image: on September 8, it published its print and online editions with no photos at all. In France, Le Monde director Jérôme Fenoglio defended his paper’s decision in a front-page editorial: “No voyeurism, no sensationalism here. But the will to capture a part of the reality of the moment. Maybe it will take this photo for Europe to open its eyes.” Olivier Laurent has a good discussion of the newsroom decision-making on TIME magazine’s Lightbox blog.

The photo of Alan was taken by Nilüfer Demir of the Turkish Dogan News Agency, who explained her actions in an interview here.

AFP’s Bülent Kiliç, the Turkish photographer who won the World Press Photo 2015 contest for the best spot news photograph (covering the Istanbul protests in 2014), has done superb work documenting the tragedy of the Syrian refugees this year. Check out a gallery of his photos here.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported in August that more than 4 million Syrians had registered as refugees with the agency. The UNHCR reports that more than 300,000 refugees from Syria as well as other conflict zones like Iraq and Afghanistan arrived in Europe via Mediterranean crossings so far in 2015. This year as of August some 2,500 refugees and migrants are estimated to have died in the process; the figure was 3,500 for all of 2014.

—Scott MacLeod

Innovating at the New York Times

In March 2014, the New York Times produced a report titled “Innovation,” a fascinating internal study of the American news business in general and the Times in particular. The study (soon leaked on the Internet—download it here) candidly admitted that the paper’s readership was falling—including its audience online and on smartphone apps—and something needed to be done about it as a matter of urgency.

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The fate of the New York Times is a concern for all of us. Whatever its flaws, the Times is the best newspaper in the world—if we judge it on the basis of the depth, breadth, and excellence of its reporting and commentary. Countless successful online media organizations are what they are today because they aggregate or pinch New York Times journalism. American democracy is suffering from the demise of legacy media institutions, and the fall of the Times would be an unbearable blow—an end to quality journalism as Americans know it.

The Innovation report made various recommendations to Times executives under the headings of “Growing Our Audience” and “Strengthening Our Newsroom.” One of the recommendations was for a belated but nonetheless revolutionary step: “Map a strategy to make the newsroom a truly digital-first organization.” Note the words: Digital-First.

Lately, some observers have been assessing how the Times is doing since the Innovation report was issued. A few views: here, here and here.

The consensus seems to be that the paper is taking the recommendations very seriously. Arthur Gregg Sultzburger, who led the Innovation team and is the son of the Times’ publisher, has spent the past year heading the Newsroom Strategy team on digital transformation. He has now been promoted to associate editor of the Times.

—Scott MacLeod

The Scoop on HuffPost Arabi

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HuffPost Arabi is off to a surprisingly rocky start. There was a good rundown of the problems recently on Brian Whitaker’s Al-Bab blog:

DIDN’T Arianna Huffington realise what she was getting into when she decided to launch HuffPost Arabi? In the first three weeks it has certainly been attracting attention, but mostly of the wrong sort.

The new Arabic-language website was born amid a show of bravado from Ms Huffington. Avoiding “any kind of censorship and control,” she said, would be “absolutely key”. For that reason it would be operating from London and Istanbul rather than any of the Arab countries, and would pursue stories “relentlessly”.

She also vowed to back the website’s writers to the hilt. “We will support [contributors] in every way,” she said. “Anyone persecuted for opinions published on the site” would be given legal funding and “extensive coverage” across other sections of Huffington Post.

But promising that kind of blanket support to largely unknown writers for as-yet-unwritten articles was inviting trouble – especially considering that the editorial director of Huffington Post’s Arabic offshoot is a Qatari known for his pro-Islamist stance and its Egyptian editor-in-chief is a self-declared member of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Read Whitaker’s entire article here. Among the problems he cites: an article by an Egyptian writer that castigated gays that Huffpost Arabi found it necessary to delete; a rosy tribute to the late Taliban leader Mullah Omar by the former Al Jazeera correspondent in Afghanistan; and an essay by an Algerian researcher denouncing selfie photographs as “sick.”

This is what the Independent had to say when HuffPost Arabi launched in July. Check out Arianna Huffington’s launch announcement.

Huffington spoke about HuffPost Arabi and her ever expanding international reach in an interview with me for the Cairo Review of Global Affairs Winter 2015 edition.

—Scott MacLeod