Hermes' Wings

History, Writing and Personal Musings

A Paper Trail: My Work in Newspapers

Newspaper-Mast

Talk about newspapers these days and people’s eyes seem to glaze over. Papers belong to the era of one’s grandfather, a bygone age when trees were felled, wood smashed into paper pulp and printed to carry day-old news. They are quaint, and their total extinction forestalled only through the bewildering, continued existence of the likes of the New York Times, the WSJ, The Guardian, Le Monde and all those venerable broadsheets which still shape national policies the world over.

In my incarnation as a journalist, I mostly describe myself as a newspaperman (new media man/person doesn’t sound right). But why would I attribute myself as being part of an archaic order that is being gradually hacked to oblivion by television and the internet? Back in 2007, when I was graduating from college in Texas, the national consensus of journalism was that it was dead as we knew it — in the form of newspapers and magazines anyway. Pundits proclaimed the rise of the citizen journalist, the neighborhood scribe who stalked the streets, taking to online forums to report on what he or she saw, replacing traditional reporting, and triggering the demise of the old order. These scribes, the pundits said, would give rise to Social Journalism — a transparent and community driven form of news gathering whose results would be bared online. And here I was with my newly minted BA in English Lit and Mass Comm facing a potential hostile population of one billion “citizen” journalists – the odds and economics of which sounded untenable and outright insane.

But what the pundits, with their prognostications failed to understand was that journalism is a trained profession, much like how lawyers are trained, albeit without the longevity of law school. Imagine if suddenly one day, the populace declared lawyers were obsolete, and proclaimed the rise of the citizen-lawyer? Well, we’ve all heard the one about the man who acted as his own counsel…

Print journalism is inherently a white collar profession, with an intricate, mental tool-set, but which over the last 25 years has been arguably eroded through the interference of media barons, incompetent publishers, corporate advertising, and quisling, piss-poor editorialists and pressure to “sex up” the news. At its core, print journalism seeks only to illuminate, explain and inform, at the cost of near anonymity. Nobody every really became famous merely working in papers, except for maybe Jimmy Breslin, Gay Talese and others whose names escape me… I rest my case. But mostly the work is intended to help create a more informed public and an electorate. The same can be achieved in new media, but newspapers are simply more tangible and vetted. When Edward Snowden decided to leak the NSA files to the world, there is a reason why he chose newspapers to leak to and not outlets like CNN, Fox, ABC, BuzzFeed or Vice. Newspapers carry an inherent legitimacy.

How then can I quantify a hypocritical part of my nature which sees to it that my primary source of quick news at home continues to comes from a free online portal? (The BBC World app or radio, with another 40% gleaned from Flipboard and the New York Times app). We convince ourselves that free news is good even if it happens to be inferior because all we need are the basic facts.

A case in the point is the BBC which partly uses a “robot,” an advanced algorithm to edit and format some of its stories. Which seems to explain many of the articles have regurgitated facts. They seem to have been written by a 10-year-old. Although the system has improved, there was a time when stories fail to ask and answer the most basic of questions. And if we can’t get our news for free, we fall back on self-proclaimed news outlets with grandiose titles and strange urls, and social media, that great echo chamber with its air of pseudo-authenticity and drivel. The end result is an entire generation of people who cannot tell the difference between reporting and propaganda, op-ed and news pieces, fact and hyperbole, press and prostitution.

Personal experience has also shown that there is nothing quite gets users of Flipboard into a frenzy of commentary and “likes” than a story highlighting female nudity. Not Trump, not Syria, or stories of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. There is something seriously wrong when a story about ten new ways to make a tofu burger gets 30 “likes” while a story on the CIA wikileaks gets just five. Pure digital news seems to perpetually condition and reflect the public’s aversion to serious news.

Worse, in our non-patronization of legitimate news organizations, we have ensured the gutting of newsrooms which further erode journalistic quality and further engender public apathy at the profession – an abstract, catch-22 idea transformed into reality when I took on a job at a respected Asian daily covering international news, running the gamut from the Syrian Civil War, US politics,  MH370, wildfires in California, to Brexit, the Mediterranean migrant crisis, to elections in Sri Lanka. The work clearly illustrated the challenges faced by newsroom everywhere and the struggles of journalists to present the most accurate facts possible in an age of widespread propaganda and distractions.

In my role as editor in-charge of the foreign news section, it quickly became apparent that for traditional print media to thrive, it must reinvent itself to offer subscribers that which they cannot often get from TV and the internet – context. It must largely abandon news briefs to the internet and ticker-tape of TV news and once again become a repository of serious journalism. The newspaper format, by nature, enjoys the luxury of respite to check facts — often denied to TV news and online news, engaged in a frantic scramble for “immediacy.”

But my heightened workload and responsibilities as a journalist also betrayed shrinking newsrooms. Not only did I have to identify every pertinent story of the day, but I also had edit each of them, conceive a news package design and — although it was beyond the purview of my job description — voluntarily create new graphics or modify existing art obtained on license from Agence France-Presse (AFP) and the New York Times, to aid context. The choice of photos were also my own and thus I became wholly responsible for all content — and all errors, and any or all resultant fallout either from the public or the board of editors the following day. The photo cutouts were created by the paper’s graphics department of just four artists, consuming valuable time and resources. The pages displayed below were in fact, wholly conceived, edited, fact-checked and designed by just one person — Me — over the span of six-eight hours per day, often with benefit of a critical five-ten hours of hindsight.

I write all this to illustrate the tedious and intricate amount of work that goes into bringing the news to your doorstep or desktop every day, and my final segue, although clunky, is this: without the public’s support of responsible media (yes, the mainstream media), we are headed for trouble. A dumbed-down electorate benefits only the politicians. If that doesn’t at least convince you to subscribe to a newspaper, then allow me to make a baser argument for today: all newspapers are ultimately recycled into toilet paper.  No newspapers, no loo roll. Now, who would want that?

And about tomorrow, when newspapers have completed their transformation into the realm of digital print, of tablets and e-paper? Well, I’ll think of another analogy then. I just hope it isn’t too late.

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IN 2014

This was a year dominated by the Gaza War, the rise of Islamic State, the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, the “Umbrella” protests in Hong Kong and the growing power of Boko Haram in Nigeria. In many ways, 2014 was an exciting time to be a journalist —and I used the word “exciting” with some caution, as the year was also witness to a phenomenal amount of bloodshed in Gaza, Syria and Iraq. It was an interesting year because it allowed for the analysis of Israeli actions in Gaza and for us to chart the rise and progress of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria in real-time. This was, obviously, only possibly through high-quality reporting and photojournalism from Africa and the Middle East, achieved by some courageous men and women whose work should repudiate all the bad press that we journalists get (pun intended). This reporting, however, was arguably stymied following the execution of James Foley, Steven Sotloff and others. Once the shock of their deaths subsided, the world largely lost interest in Iraq and Syria, and as 2014 wound down, the focus next turned to the migrant crisis assailing Europe.

IN 2015

The focus largely turned from Syria, where Islamic State (IS) had entrenched itself, to a counteroffensive against IS in Iraq, by the government. This was the year in which China’s activities in the South China Sea also began to attract increased scrutiny. Again, it was very interesting to chart China’s reef-building activities via reporting and high-quality satellite imagery. We also covered the Greek “Grexit,” the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean, and terrorist attacks in France. In many ways, 2015 was a prosaic year, full of bad news. It was a year dominated by lone-wolf shootings and terror bombings and the escalation of the war in Syria after Russia sent combat aircraft to help the government regime recapture lost ground. There were many high points, however, such as the Kurdish recapture of Mount Sinjar and the liberation of the battleground town of Kobane and the increasingly optimistic political climate in Myanmar (Burma). And of course, 2015, was also when “Jihadi” John was killed in a drone strike.

IN 2016

As 2016 rolled around, the migrants crisis came to a head after several EU nations closed their borders. This, the biggest story of the last three years, seems all but dead for the time being although the Mediterranean crossings continue. Some 300,000 migrants are expected to arrive in Germany this year alone. The coverage of the Syrian Civil War and the battle against Islamic State in Iraq began anew after it was announced that US Special Forces would be embedded with Kurdish fighting troops. The “Panama Papers” scandal also clogged headlines for a couple of weeks, but by the far, the biggest story of the year was the US presidential elections and coverage of “The Donald.”

This year has also been witness to another instance of stark inhumanity to come out of of the war in Syria. Another viral event. I refer to the case of Omran Daqneesh, the bloodied little boy who, like the drowned toddler Alan Kurdi, has tugged at our conscience. Suddenly, there is an appeal for a mass movement to end the Syria Civil War. As if mere mobilization on social media can translate into real-world impetus to halt President Al-Assad, stop Putin’s jets, stop Turkey from attacking the Kurds, and stop Islamic State from its reign of terror. Syria has many players.

In an unrelated move, my decision to resign from the paper, to concentrate on a book, and pursue full-time field reporting/photojournalism in Africa or the Middle East coincided with a major revamp of some of the newspaper’s pages. I handled science and technology coverage during my last two months at the paper. The switch was fun — and illuminating. But all good things must come to an end.

P.S.> In all, in about four years of work (with my working roughly 290-300 days a year, excluding vacation-time and holidays), there resulted about 240 pages which I deem as “good” or “outstanding.” I was responsible for one page each day. Therefore, 240 days out of 1,200 working days yielded work which I deemed as satisfactory — in the sense that I felt I had nailed our coverage, and had produced world-class work. About a 20% hit rate.

The inherent design elements of the newspaper was formulated by the Palmer Watson Agency, Scotland.

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