Navigating the News

Press Freedom in a time of constant change

News | Dardis McNamee | October 2010

"New media has a whole different meaning in the US or Europe from places like Africa," said Jim Clancy of CNN, as he strode down the center aisle of the conference hall at the Kempinski Hotel in Bratislava, Slovakia in the final hours of the 2010 IPI World Congress. The room was packed for the session, labeled a Town Hall Meeting and moderated by Clancy, stepping in for famed broadcaster Dan Rather, who had cancelled because of illness.

The topic, "Media Freedom in a Time of Change," bordered on a repetition of earlier discussions and Clancy was doing his best to pump in some new life.

"There have been times over the last few years when I didn’t know if I was on the trail to the promised or getting a cup of Cool-ade," he quipped. So much hype for technologies that soon vanished like morning dew. "Remember ‘Second Life’," he asked? Time was when everyone at CNN had signed on to this must-have virtual reality. Now it had taken him a minute to even remember its name.

So what were today’s ideas that were changing the news business?  He called on Bill Mitchell of the Poynter Institute’s Entrepreneurial and International Programs. Mitchell was all for innovation, but he had also been struck by Slovak Prime Minister Iveta Radicova’s reflections, on how she begins every day with a cup of coffee and a newspaper. "Sorry," she had said to the online crowd, "I need to touch them, to hear the voices when I read, to have the smell of the paper, and the form: how large or small is the title, where is it on the page, and what is around it, and the photographs."  Here was a visceral lover of the print-news page, for whom the Internet would never be anything more than evening updates.

But Mitchell had also been struck by how many had come to the conference with an iPad – which still isn’t available yet in most places – which, with its book format display, he also saw as "an invitation to reconsider the role of traditional platforms." Some 90% of all newspaper revenue still comes from the print editions, for example, and a new free-circulation tabloid version – "with zinger headlines and more graphics" – of the St. Petersburg Times called TBT was considered a huge success, already bringing in more revenue than the website.

New Media are very successful in the Ukraine, reported Victoria Slumar of Institute for Mass Information. But while the on-line editions of newspapers are used by all the politicians, less than 20% of the general public have access, figures similar to other Eastern European countries.  And in Poland, related journalist Piotr Koscinski, a newspaper had solicited letters from 1,500 new mothers whose descriptions of chronic insensitivity and degrading treatment helped transform practices in the country’s maternity hospitals.

On the down side, the phenomenon of ‘libel tourism’ is becoming a growing threat to on-line news sites. According to U.K. solicitor Jennifer Robinson, a series of awards for material downloaded from foreign publications and "consumed" in Britain has been possible under the country’s plaintiff-friendly libel laws is sending a chilling effect through the industry.  However, stronger protections in countries with Continental Law traditions may provide useful alternatives, possibly through coordinated EU action. "The UK has the worst laws," challenged Victor de la Serna, deputy editor of the Madrid daily El Mondo.

Ultimately, the vast differences in cultures and in political and economic systems and circumstances made focused examination of many of these questions difficult if not impossible, leaving the feeling of a heavily Anglo-American bias in the discussion of media realities a world apart from the threats to free speech in developing countries and in crisis regions  around the world.

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