The premise of the Aspen Institute’s conference I just attended at the Dead Sea in Jordan was somewhat different from the others I had in the past. This one took on the shape of an informal round table discussion with leaders and visionaries of the industry; in them was the grounded wealth of experience unparalleled outside of that room. Their level – board members, CEOs, journalists of note, university professors and renowned new media practitioners – is indicative of the seriousness at which the Aspen Institute’s genuine desire to add value to an oft used and malleable mantra of rapprochement between East and West; Arab and US relations to be exact; and how specifically to harness the power of the emergence of new media to ameliorate differences and elevate the level of discussion within that sphere to be objective and cohesive to engender true understanding.
The agenda was given direction by her royal highness princess Rym Ali who is no stranger to journalism; having been an international correspondent with world broadcasters like CNN with stints in Iraq and other trouble spots in the world. She spoke with passion tempered with erudition drawing on her experience in the field and raising many difficult questions challenging the attendees to consider; in her keynote speech she drew many parallel situations in world reporting which demonstrably shows the dichotomy of ignorance on both sides of the equation recognising the prejudices held in the news media explicitly on both sides of the divide and laying down a challenge to the attendees to come up with practical implementable solutions for us all to take on board.
As the conference was chiefly considering the effects of new media – a term which is traditionally interpreted as blogs exclusively; but in really should also encompass capital intensive endeavors like news-sites, satellite television, internet radio as well as old media’s forays into the internet – the sessions started appropriately with short presentations followed by round table discussions in those regards.
First to be discussed was the current state of online media – Web 2.0 – which has given rise to new user experiences as well as an interactivity boosts which engaged the consumer and captured his attention especially in the current environment of – what some would term – the collapse of traditional news print, given the alarming exponential decrease in share prices of news paper owning International conglomerates over the last few years.
Concrete examples were shown which might have contributed to the acceleration of this collapse; from the Huffington Post, the Washington Post Online, Talking Points Memo, Real Clear Politics, Now Public, Paid Content, Washington Independent, Second Life, Electronic Intifida among many others all of which share a common denominator of engaging the user through innovative crowd generated reporting and others through immersive graphical environments.
But the costs of this change is dire; major news papers have less impact now as they reduced their international presence by depending on fewer experienced journalists in their foreign bureaus – if those have not already been closed and just as dangerously, have reduced their investigative reporting operations citing drastically reduced sales; hence, available budgets.
True, those situations present huge opportunities which have slowly been filled by disruptive products borne out of the immediacy of internet platforms; however, those have not yet filled the void created by the collapse of old media, especially considering what the internet is at its infancy, some have even justifiably likened its state to that of what television was in the 1950s, barely starting to crawl let alone walk.
The manifestation of this void is severe; news papers traditionally have set the agenda. It is through them that the majority of real and studied investigative reporting is done, but faced with shrinking readership, dearth of financial resources and their stasis in creativity makes them cautious in their reporting and find themselves driven closer to their sources of funding, be they advertisers or government. Some, of course, have continued to be creative and have re-invented themselves on the Web. Sites like the Washington Post online receive in excess of 300 million page views a month, rendering them one of the most popular sites on the internet. Their innovative site engages the modern news consumer and through their offerings engenders loyalty in their readership.
For every one Web offering of the likes of the Washington Post; however, there is a multitude of new news and opinion ventures on the internet. Sites like the Huffington Post which generate over 100 million page views a month through to the Jordan-based Maktoob which enjoy over 270 million page views and many hundreds of thousands of registered users and over 100,000 registered blogs.
These sites use all the new approaches and tools to attract more eye-balls; chief amongst those is the “stickyness” factor, that is, deeply engaging the user with a plethora of media from text, audio, graphics and video proving this fusion of technologies in a well thought out and intuitive user interface enriching the experience of consuming all forms of news and entertainment, something that traditional news papers cannot emulate without intrinsically changing their business models.
The sad irony; however, is that a large proportion of what is posted in new media sites is almost always dependent on what has already appeared in news papers. They – the traditional news papers – do all the hard work in reporting from foreign locations through their dwindling pool of foreign correspondents, provide analysis, investigation and even considered opinion while the new media – generally – simply captures those and amplifies on them.
Individual endeavors on the web are showing the way forward. Some of the aforementioned sites have been initiated by a single person with a passion. That person’s motives could have been their own desire to cover local events which do not make it to the larger news papers, while others simply wanted to aggregate some content from disparate sources to make them easily available on a single website. Endeavours like these should be encouraged and supported as they are the vanguard of the next wave.
Entrepreneurs and publishers should recognise that pressing for change through innovation is right now. A large window of opportunity does exist but they should consider new working models and then share those experiences as well as continue to welcome new ideas and ways of doing things in order to expand the horizons of this new media. Money is available from various sources to help in creating these new models of business. Capital especially is available from foundations, investors and venture capital to support these new ventures. Success stories the world over are quite apparent; take Maktoob, Paid Content, Blogher, GigaOm, Seeking Alpha and of course the Huffington Post as cases in point.
It is; however, a mistake to consider that blogs alone are the exclusive “new media”. Internet radio stations and satellite television with internet presence as well as “old media” created new interactive websites must be included in this category. Radio stations like AmmanNet and television stations like LinkTV and even Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya are ample examples of these offerings which have a considerable following brought in through their extensive use of multi-facetted media and interactivity.
The general situation in the Middle East; though, is less than ideal and is not conducive to innovation in the press nor in new media. There are several detriments which directly impact the creative atmosphere required for sustainable creativity: threats against the journalist and opinion writer are ever present through legal and extra-legal tools, chief amongst them is the qualified constitutional guarantees to freedoms of expression.
There is hardly a single country in the Middle East which does not put in place legislation which stifle expression by tying defined infringements in press and publications laws with higher penalties in penal codes. This situation allows the journalist to be tried in criminal rather than civil courts for infringements such as libel.
Access to information is also very difficult at best as there is no legislation to guarantee that right, giving rise not only to unsubstantiated reporting, but more importantly to opaque governance.
These conditions impacts reporting, especially as publishers and editors-in-chief are automatically implicated for perceived transgressions by their journalists; thus, by default ensuring that factual reporting of local issues and communities are left to external news sources; witness the oft-repeated and somewhat valid charge levied against Al-Jazeera for not criticising its country of residence, even though it is widely accepted that this particular station was the real catalyst for the intrinsic change in journalism in the area.
This sensitivity in local reportage fortunately does not seem to have tainted the new new media. Blogs and internet-based news sites do habitually cross social, cultural, religious and political taboos to their owners’ detriment. There is a concerted effort by all authoritarian regimes to silence or at least quash the free spirits and creative endeavors who initiated them. The situation here is serious; there are hundreds, if not thousands, of websites blocked selectively in various countries through administrative rather than judicial orders, and some of their authors have not only been harassed but imprisoned or detained without any charges being levied against them.
The potential for this new media is multi-facetted: it’s impact is economic and cultural. Both should be quite apparent to the astute observer; in economic terms, they are the natural evolution of old media and hold the keys to excellent sustained economic growth. In the cultural aspect, this media is dichotomous as it could be used for both closing the cultural gap between East and West as well as expand the fissures between the two. We see sites sponsored by terrorists spreading hate and vitriol and advocating violence while others diligently try to emphasise the common denominator between peoples to capitalise on shared values.
The Aspen Conference sought to investigate the new media environment and particularly find paths to understanding. Its stated goals were to convene leaders in Arab and American media to address the opportunities available for new media to bridge current gaps in cultural understanding and the roles that governments, technology companies, and media owners, publishers and journalists can play in expanding the influence of online projects that represent their own and other cultures fairly and thoroughly.
During the two days of round table discussions and break-out sessions, participants were asked to focus on real and potential roles of both exasperating and repairing these fissures, and asked to consider how political, economic, cultural and other forces impact the growth of new media in each of these worlds, and how traditional media could positively influence their younger counterparts’ development while playing their own unique role.
To answer these serious questions, the participants were split into three groups and given the mandate to look at these questions through three different approaches. They were all given strict instructions to come back not only with an identification of what the common problems are as they see them, but offer concrete and implementable recommendations and suggestions on how they might be put in motion.
The suggestions coming back from the groups are many very important practical points which could be implemented with alacrity. They specifically identified the importance of online media and specifically suggested a daring departure from the usual recommendation of having online media be subservient to its older print master; the relationship should now be completely reversed in that the online publications should have a print byproduct, rather than the other way around.
It was also suggested that new online tools should be comprehensively utilised to help ameliorate differences between East and West by not only utilising blogs; but also integrate the next iteration of tools like Facebook and Second Life to provide virtual immediate meeting spaces through which journalists and online publishers can meet each other and exchange information, resources, ideas and seek each other’s support in various legal and technical issues.
Recognising that ignorance is a major component of conflict and animosity, and knowing that there is almost no representation of Arabs in the American media as this was suggested that ways be found to develop more visibility for Arab bloggers in the American media. This will create familiarity between the two peoples and demonstrate and emphasise the common values, thus create friendly relations which will remove suspicions and create a platform of trust to continue to build on that relationship.
What will further remove the barriers to enable this friendship is to humanise Arabs and Muslims, and what better way to do so but through comedy? Some of us might have heard of the “Axis of Evil” comedy group which have found fame throughout the world. Through their comedic efforts, they have shown the human side of the Arab and Muslims by unashamedly poking fun at themselves. This method is very effective at engendering good relations as it removes stereotypes and shows how ridiculous they are, and allows the other the benefit of the doubt. Another approach is to encourage renowned television shows like Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show to host Arab thinkers, actors, comedians and media personnel to allow the American public to see how “normal” we are.
The recommendations didn’t stop at these integration techniques, but also identified other venues which must be addressed. Of those is a suggestion to improve the quality of reporting in the US by developing relationships; work to build expertise in US newsrooms; improve awareness of Islamic feminist movements as well as practical steps as in creating web-based resources like FAQ products containing facts and figures about the Middle East for all journalists to use, compile a list of contacts for media outlets and provide useful Arab web sites’ links for US media to use. Arab publishers and journalists are to be encouraged to engage and participate in digital journalism organisations like the OPA/ONA.
Regional events should be utilised fully in explaining the Arab and Muslim views to a world audience, especially given that two very important events will soon take place; the first being the 60th anniversary of the creation of the State of Israel, and the other is the US elections, both of which will witness countless news crews being present in the region. Knowing the workings of television and radio reporting, it is highly important to make all resources available to those crews to enable them to create broadcast packages for their networks which feature Arab and Muslim stories and their particular input to the events as well as those which explore the art, culture and traditions of this area, emphasising the positive while also identifying ares in need of improvement and attention. These suggestions will greatly enable such endeavours.
As to the Arab perspective, the harsh reality of the absence of democracy and weakness of civil society were identified. It was concluded that by offering support for the new media environment would lead to a more robust, more diverse and more effective civil society. In this respect, the new media was felt would perform many of the functions (such as the watchdog function) that existing media do not now perform, due in part to the closeness to its sources of revenue, be that governments or advertisers.
In order to guarantee success in supporting new media endeavours, it is essential that the enablers to their success be identified and steps be enacted to implement them in this region.
The legal system in particular was recognised as a major detriment to creativity and factual reporting; therefore, it is essential that legislation governing content be minimised, effective access to information maximised, and criminalising matters of expression of opinion be removed.
The structure of information should also be reformed. Wider internet access much be taken as a national strategic goal and provided at much lower cost and provided without government interference with users.
The cultural and social advantage of the blogger must also be recognised as a “digital-pamphleteer” of this age, restoring a practice that was vital to creating a public sphere in the 18th century.
To be effective, civil societies must be strengthened in the enabling of a broad range of players. It is important to recognise the lone bloggers exposing corruption and railing against rigid societal norms, to the capital intensive enterprises seeing emergence from older forms of the press. A diverse society, after all, requires a diverse set of new media forms.
The effectivity of the practitioners of this disruptive change in this region will not happen overnight. They need to be trained and nurtured. Endeavours like the Ford Foundation and the Jordan Media Institute are key to attaining this existential success which will ensure the closure of the burgeoning gap between our cultures.
Recognising those who contribute particularly to strengthen civil society in a positive way is key, as this will provide real and tangible examples which others could emulate, that, in turn, will further strengthen civil society.
Therefore, identifying, celebrating and encouraging support for champion new media persons and endeavors must be seriously considered. And what better way to do so other than naming a prize for such persons and endeavours after respected Middle Eastern personalities who are no strangers to the profession?
An annual prize organised by the likes of JMI and named after its patron would go a long way at establishing a nobel custom, one that would encourage institutes and new media ventures to push to enact the prerequisite enablers and affords the whole industry inherent protection as well as raise the quality of reportage in new media.