Cameroon - Loi anti-terrorisme au Cameroun : un régime de sanctions disproportionnées pour la presse
Le Cameroun est en train de se doter d'une loi anti-terroriste dont de nombreuses provisions font craindre une application sans nuance du texte et des conséquences néfastes pour la liberté de l'information. RSF exhorte le président Paul Biya à ne pas ratifier cette loi.
Alors que les autorités ont récemment opéré un tour de vis à l'encontre de la presse, le Cameroun s'apprête à ajouter à son arsenal législatif une loi anti-terroriste qui pourrait accroître les difficultés que rencontrent les journalistes à exercer leur métier dans le pays. Reporters sans frontières relève en effet plusieurs problèmes dans ce texte, parmi lesquels la définition extrêmement vague du terrorisme, la disproportion des sanctions prévues et la compétence exclusive des juridictions militaires pour juger des actes de terrorisme.
“Reporters sans frontières demande au président Paul Biya de ne pas ratifier cette loi à la rédaction approximative, et aux dispositions qui pourraient se révéler extrêmement pénalisantes pour la liberté de la presse”, déclare Cléa Kahn-Sriber, responsable du bureau Afrique de l'organisation.
Le texte semble en effet avoir été rédigé sans tenir compte des recommandations contenues dans de nombreux instruments internationaux permettant de concilier lutte contre le terrorisme et respect des libertés. L'infraction de terrorisme n'est pas clairement définie dans le texte de loi, qui ne présente qu'une succession d'intentions et de moyens, sans jamais les relier clairement à une définition du terrorisme.
En effet, bien que le gouvernement camerounais se réclame des textes internationaux qui recommandent de "respecter les droits de l'homme et les liberté fondamentales”, et notamment la résolution 2178 du Conseil de sécurité des Nations unies sur le terrorisme, adoptées en septembre 2014, la présente loi ne respecte pas les conditions de proportionnalité des sanctions. C'est le cas pour le secteur des médias où l'infraction d'"apologie du terrorisme" est passible d'une peine de 15 années minimum d'emprisonnement (20 ans au maximum) et/ou d'une amende de 25 à 50 millions de francs CFA (28 000 à 76 000 €) pour de simples paroles ou des écrits. Certes, des lois similaires concernant l'apologie du terrorisme ont été adoptées dans d'autres pays, notamment en France, ce que ne manque pas de relever le gouvernement camerounais, mais celles-ci comportent néanmoins des peines bien moindres et plus équilibrées.
Enfin le texte prévoit que l'application de la loi relève exclusivement des juridictions militaires. Cette disposition est préoccupante, car l'usage de ces juridictions pour juger des civiles devrait demeurer l'exception et non la règle. De plus, le ministre de la Défense dispose des pouvoirs pour nommer et affecter ces magistrats, ce qui soulève la question de leur indépendance vis-à-vis du pouvoir exécutif.
Interviewé sur RFI, le 12 décembre 2014, le ministre de la Communication, Issa Tchiroma Bakary, a balayé d'un revers de la main les préoccupations de la société civile sur les conséquences que pourrait avoir cette loi sur la presse et la liberté d'expression, préférant insister sur le fait "qu'il n'y a pas de chance qu'il y ait confusion entre une manifestation politique et une manifestation à caractère terroriste".
Un durcissement déjà amorcé
Le Cameroun ne semble pas avoir attendu le passage de cette loi pour durcir son attitude envers les journalistes. En effet, deux journalistes, Félix Cyriaque Ebole Bola et Rodrigue Tongue, des quotidiens Mutations et Le Messager sont depuis le 28 octobre poursuivis devant une juridiction militaire pour “non dénonciation” de faits susceptibles d'atteindre à la sûreté de l'Etat, après avoir contacté la police pour vérifier des sources à propos d'un article qu'ils ont fini par ne pas publier. Empêchés de travailler, ils sont contraints de pointer à la police chaque semaine et interdits de toutes communications avec la presse nationale ou internationale.
Deux autres journalistes, Amungwa Tanyi Nicodemus et Zacharie Ndiomo sont actuellement derrière les barreaux pour des offenses en lien avec leur profession, respectivement depuis près de neuf et deux mois.
Le Cameroun occupe la 131e place de l'édition 2014 du Classement mondial de la liberté de la presse établi par Reporters sans frontières
I remember the early summer day in Moscow well. I had one day to myself to explore a bit of the city after conducting a two-day workshop for Russian regional publishers. By late afternoon, I was ready to return to the hotel and prepare for the next morning’s flight home. I braved the Moscow Metro, knowing that a single line could bring me close to the hotel without transfer. The subway offered little English and I hoped my matching up of the Cyrillic station name on my notes and on the train would work.
It almost did, taking me close to the Tatiana Hotel, at 11, Stremyanniy Pereulok. While I splurged for an exorbitantly priced Russia data plan, Google Maps failed to locate me or my destination. Wandering the streets, looking for familiar buildings, I happened upon a beacon of hope — a Western-looking coffee cafe. I ordered and then asked for help. Two women behind the counter tried their best to figure out where the Tatiana might be, took their best guess, and then patiently and broadly gestured out a route. Believing I had the right direction in mind, I thanked them for their generous help and ventured out.
I never thought the sight of the tattered Tatiana would be so welcome, after 45 more minutes of wanderings. Heading upstairs past the still Soviet-styled “reception” area, as unwelcoming as it had been when I checked in three days earlier, I figured I could relax a little, pack up, and have a good sleep for the long flight home. Opening the door, I felt off balance. Something wasn’t right; things weren’t what they should be. In my growing uneasiness, I wondered whether I should quickly close the door or leave it open.
I put on every light in the room, and then checked it out. Almost everything in the room had been moved. Suitcases from one part of the room to another, their contents mixed and matched, and then hung, randomly, from hangers around the room. Toiletries taken out and proudly displayed on the desk, without order or reason. The contents of my computer bag stacked here and there, again seemingly randomly. Nothing was missing, except my sense of well being. The message was clear: “We’re here, and we’re watching.”
What had I done to bear messing a bit with me?
My sessions had been arranged by an international group bent on improving civic, and civil, society, through press and small business community-building. The experience of my two-day workshop had been both heartfelt and hilarious. These Russian publishers of newspapers and dailies didn’t care much about the tolls of digital disruption, my core area. What they really wanted to know, like publishers everywhere, was how to make money. So I role-played ad selling and buying — all through translation. We had some learning and some laughs. In the bar after day one, we talked more about the perils of publishing in Russia: “Competing” dailies, financed wholly by the government. All their newsstand editions scooped up within hours by someone taking them in bulk. Pressures, most indirect, to tow the government line.
My hotel experience gave me a tiny chill. As we approach 2015, there’s a big chill bearing down on almost every continent. The press — weakened by its own business bad fortunes — is seeing an unprecedented level of challenge. The easy number to repeat is this one: 54 journalists killed in 2014. In the raw numbers of dead, imprisoned and exiled we see a decade-long trend. Just Wednesday, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) released its annual tally: 220 journalists jailed this year for doing their jobs. It’s the third year in a row in which more than 200 have been tossed in the hole; until 2012, no more than 179 had met that fate in a year.
It’s not just the numbers that tell the story here. The pressures on journalists have multiplied, with the digital revolution creating some of those in unpredictable ways.
Is 2014 an historically tough time for journalists?
“This is the worst time ever for journalists,” simply states Joel Simon, executive director of CPJ, whose new book The New Censorship: Inside the Global Battle for Media Freedom was published in November, with an excerpt (“What’s the Difference Between Journalism and Activism”) available in Nieman Reports.
Why is our era tougher? The toll in those killed, imprisoned, and exiled reflect two big trends, says Simon.
First, digital technology — in everything from reporting tools to greater mobility to instantaneous, massive mobile/social distribution — has democratized the craft. That’s produced a “greater mix of front-line news gatherers,” says Simon.
Second, “journalists are much less powerful than the institutions they cover.” He makes the point that pre-digital information monopolies served as a heartier counterweight to government authority. Now those authorities have bolstered their capacities of repression and suppression, aided both by technology and their scared populaces too often more concerned with “security” than public and press rights. The sad but largely invisible truth is that as news businesses have weakened financially, their wherewithal to take on costly legal battles is constrained. Further, the press’ institutional clout — sometimes used poorly to be sure, but also one that has served as a bulwark against various press chills — is weaker than it’s ever been.
Further, we can count on one hand the number of major publishers who have put the resources into covering the fundamental tradeoffs of security and openness. We’ve yet to fully understand the impact and deeper capabilities behind the Snowden revelations of massive government intrusion into its citizens’ (and the press’) lives; financial constraints mean that just a few dozen deeply experienced journalists can be paid to track the security story. That’s one reason a site like The Intercept, despite its organizational stumbles, serves an important role.
It is indeed getting worse, and it’s a season for all of us concerned about the future of news media to stop and consider the toll, the danger, and the chilling impact on our craft and the public’s need to know. It’s great to concern ourselves with the latest news tech wizardry and the holy grail search for sustainable business models. There’s a time, though, to pause — and provide even small help — to those plying the basic craft around the troubled world. They do that sometimes with social media magic, but sometimes with an old-fashioned Nikon.
Jon Stewart, the country’s best media critic, shown a light on one edge of press crackdown, in his movie Rosewater. It often takes the story of a single person to tell that of thousands, and the imprisonment of Maziar Bahari did that. It’s done only minor box office of $3 million so far, unfortunately, but Stewart knew it wouldn’t be a blockbuster: He, too, understands the connection between the economic decline of the press and the new value that freelance, stringing journalists bring to their own nations and the wider world. “As larger news organizations cut back in infrastructure, you have more of these people freelancing, getting the stories you can’t get anywhere else,” he noted at a premiere.
Those freelancers are perhaps the people most at risk, as the murder of Global Post’s James Foley and others remind us too often. Then there are increasing pressures brought on full-time in-country journalists (with names like Mexico’s Gregorio Jiménez de la Cruz, India’s Andhra Prabha, and Somalia’s Yusuf Ahmed Abuka, all killed this year). Certainly Western journalists are part of the toll, from the killing of the Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Pearl to the current imprisonment of The Washington Post’s Jason Rezaian. We can distinguish among these three kinds of journalists, here, though I’m not sure the differences are as important as their commonality.
The deaths and imprisonments are measurable. Lethal crackdowns can be reported, though they quickly passes from public view. Censorship, its evil cousin, remains far more elusive, and increasingly devious. It’s a kind of censorship that isn’t just creeping into new geographies — it’s cascading, as one authoritarian leader borrows tricks from another. Sandy Rowe, who retired as editor of the Oregonian in 2009, after a distinguished career in the business, now serves as chair of the board of the Committee to Protect Journalists. She and Joel Simon, along with 10 others, journeyed to Istanbul in October, CPJ’s third visit in two years to argue for press freedoms. Government officials had rejected meetings on the first two trips, but in October, they got meetings with Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and other top officials, applying pressure. (Simon’s report on the meetings shows the half-a-loaf diplomacy that is sometimes possible in this cases.) It’s too often a case of two steps backward, one step forward, as this last week’s further arrests of mainstream editors and journalists in Turkey show.
“In Turkey, self-censorship is greater, economic crackdowns are greater, and the divisions are greater than even two years ago,” says Rowe. “They are seeing changes almost month by month.” Arrests are one thing; economic pressures can be more effective. “They can be taxed out of existence, and then a supporter of president can buy it. In Russia, there’s a Russian TV station that first had Russian cable and satellite operators drop it, and then they were told their [office] lease wouldn’t be renewed. Finally, the state passed a law banning advertising on private channels as of Jan. 1.”
Rowe also makes a hugely important point about the very nature of democracy in this millennium: “Our view of Western democracy is that it automatically includes freedom of speech. In many, many countries, even with democratically elected leaders, the view is much more narrow than that, and doesn’t include what we take for granted as basic values. In many countries, when they speak of democracy, they think of the election. When we think of democracy, we think of the package of freedoms.” Hence the coverage, and our misunderstanding, of the Arab Spring.
What actually works to win release of some prisoners and reduce the journalistic toll? “You’ve got to make them feel it,” says Simon. In a word, amplify the concern. It’s a combination of advocacy group intervention and social pressure that can get journalists released more quickly. Simon can tick off the cases where he thinks it has helped. For more on what individuals can do, see “What can you do?”
As the levers of news dissemination multiply, so do the pulleys of press disruption. We see the methods used by the Putins and Erdogans, and now we stand amazed by the likelihood that Kim Jong-un is conducting his own war of information by new means. (Excellent Jacob Weisberg take on the press’ responsibility in this new world of leaking), only furthered by the news that Sony is cancelling the release of The Interview.
In many ways, it’s a digital arms race as the forces of both repression and anti-repression use the means at their disposal to battle.The map of repression
We can look at the map of crackdown and see how globally the issue looms.
- Turkey: This once rapidly democratizing nation has reversed course, as we saw in massive street demonstrations over the past year, the kind of news that pops in, and out, of our consciousness too quickly. On the ground, it’s a closing vice of pressure on news media. Over the last week, we saw the severest of pushes, as Ekrem Dumanlı, editor-in-chief of the most circulated Turkish newspaper Zaman, was arrested, along with two dozen other journalists. Yesterday, tens of thousands of protesters reacted by taking to the streets. One charge: “forgery, fabricating evidence, and forming an alleged crime syndicate to overtake the sovereignty of the state” — the kind of charge that marks governments gone power mad. Five years ago, while visiting Istanbul, I visited an art show, and there depicted were the killings over time of more than 20 journalists, most cases unsolved. Since then, the “otherness” of the press has only gotten worse. A Turkish journalist friend wrote me this week, “There is a media crackdown…Turkish police arrested senior journalists, media executives and even the scriptwriter for a popular television series on charges of ‘forming, leading and being a member of an armed terrorist organization’…This is an alarming situation for democracy and basic human rights. Any sign of solidarity for our fellow journalists from your side is highly appreciated. Many thanks in advance.”
- China: “China is world’s worst jailer of the press,” headlined CPJ’s annual report Wednesday, and China quickly responded, showing the power of public light. “The 44 journalists in Chinese jails are a jump from 32 the previous year, and reflect the pressure that President Xi Jinping has exerted on media, lawyers, dissidents, and academics to toe the government line,” says the report, laying out the specifics of multiple repression.
- Iran: Together with China, the two countries are holding one-third of journalists imprisoned in the world. CPJ reminds of the reality of Evin Prison — where Jason Rezaian is now held, and where Maziar Bahari was incarcerated, the place that the Shah used to silence his critics 40 years ago. CPJ cites Iran’s “revolving door policy of imprisoning reporters, bloggers, editors, and photographers.”
- Russia: A set of new media laws continues to strangle free expression as the country’s leadership has turned xenophobic. From the coverage of the Crimean invasion to the battle over eastern Ukraine, Russia is moving closer to a Soviet-style system of single viewpoint, cracking down in myriad ways.
- Hungary: As prime minister Viktor Orban has consolidated power, a new “Media Authority” further restricts the ability to provide free press — right in the middle of Europe. Among its loosely defined authorities: “Media organizations must surrender data about their employees and contracts, as well as editorial and advertising content, at a level of granular detail that no media outlet in any other part of Europe has to provide to their governments. And the Media Authority has been given unusual enforcement powers: This single agency of doubtful independence has at its disposal a full suite of fines, suspensions, license revocations, and business closures.” What can — and will — the European Union, of which Hungary is a member, do to respond?
- Latin America: While we’ve seen great democratizing and pushing forward with press freedoms in big nations like Brazil, Colombia, and Chile, the press toll around the continent offers a steady drumbeat. Just Monday, the longstanding free press advocates at the Inter-American Press Association (or Sociedad Interamericana de Prensa, Inc.,) demanded action in the murder of Honduras’ Canal 28 television channel owner and journalist Reynaldo Paz Mayes. From Argentina at its southernmost tip to Venezuela and up into Central America and Mexico, IAPA details the constant pressures on the press.
- Japan: The Abe government just won a landslide vote, and with it comes the likelihood of a national secrets act, which in the voice of leading daily Asahi Shimbun would “give the government a monopoly on information and places extreme limits on the people’s right to know and inquire, and on the freedom of the press.” Already, those trying to monitor policy and practice in the nuclear industry, post-Fukushima, have felt stymied in their efforts. The new laws — aimed as with most Western nations at combatting terrorism — would offer new chilling ability to the government.
What about the U.S.? Our own issues in the U.S., of course, pale against death, imprisonment, and the iron hands of censorship. Yet New York Times reporter James Risen’s years-long case proves best that the battle is ongoing, as the security vs. freedom issues play out in the years ahead; CPJ’s U.S. page catalogs some of the issues. It is, of course, our continuing package of freedoms, as Sandy Rowe puts it, that lets us shine lights on ourselves. That’s a package all the more precious as we survey a perilous press world, and one worth taking time to celebrate — and act on.What can you do?
In the holiday spirit, let’s consider these possibilities.
Support the organizations that support press freedom with yearend donations, or gifts in your name for the relative who can’t figure out what to buy you. Among them:
- Committee to Protect Journalists: promotes press freedom, donate here
- Reporters Without Borders: supporting and protecting journalists, donate here
- AccessNow: tech-oriented support of digital/human/journalist rights, donate here
- Amnesty International: supporting human rights, donate here
- Human Rights Watch: defending human/journalist rights, donate here
Spend 10 minutes a week in your social media diet to support journalist prisoners. Put in our your calendar, as a to-do, as you remember images from Rosewater of the absolute isolation imprisoned fellow journalists endure. Facebook and Twitter posts have largely replaced letter-writing campaigns as ways of applying pressure, pressure that has paid off in the release of a number of cases CPJ, and others, have highlighted. The power, of course, here is viral — and in the encouraging non-journalists to add their voices.
Badge your support. Simon also suggests letting people know that you support press, and human, freedoms in bio lines like “cat lover, Scorcese fan, pilates enthusiast, free press advocate” in social profiles. The hashtag #pressfreedom provides a running storyline of causes to support, as, of course, do the sites highlighted here.
Photo of 2013 Cairo protest by Egyptian photographers condemning violence against journalists by AP/Khaled Dessouki.
Reynaldo Paz Mayes, a regional TV station owner and presenter, was gunned down in a sports centre in the northern city of Comayagua on 15 December. Reporters Without Borders urges the authorities to examine the possibility that his murder was linked to his journalistic work.
Paz's programme on RPM TV Canal 28, the station he owned, often touched on sensitive issues such as impunity, and he had received threats in connection with the opinions he expressed on the air. He was also a member of the opposition party LIBRE.
The police nonetheless say they think he was killed for his pistol, which was not found at the scene of the murder.
“We call on the authorities to carry out an exhaustive and independent investigation into Paz's murder and to not rule out the possibility that it was connected to his journalistic activities,” said Claire San Filippo, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Americas desk.
“They must end the unacceptable impunity for crimes of violence against journalists in Honduras. This murder is a tragic reminder of the need to quickly create a mechanism for protecting journalists and human rights defenders that is appropriate to the needs, and to give it the required financial and human resources.”
Freedom of information has declined dramatically since a June 2009 coup d'état and Honduras is now one of the western hemisphere's deadliest countries for journalists, with at least 27 killed in a clear or probable connection with their work since 2000.
Honduras is ranked 129th out of 180 countries in the 2014 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.
2015 should be the year your digital publication rethinks its community strategy. First question: Do you really care enough to do it right?
As Kyle Chayka wrote this week, people are increasingly retreating to safe spaces. All the best conversation is happening in GroupMe, Slack, WhatsApp, private email lists, or over drinks after work. People feel comfortable analyzing, debating, and joking in these places, where they can express themselves without fear of judgment, unwanted notifications, or death threats.
We can’t say the same about many discussion platforms or public comment sections. And that’s too bad, because the web is an interactive medium. Let’s hope we never again see the phrase “Join the Conversation” as a call-to-action below an article. But going forward, where should that call-to-action even lead?
Medium fights Godwin’s Law by rethinking comments as something closer to distributed annotations, allowing users to engage throughout the article. Reddit’s upvoting system gives its most engaged users control over what’s amplified. Metafilter reinforces community guidelines and cultural norms thanks to a highly engaged readership, 24-hour moderator coverage, and tools developed over 15 years. On most Vox Media sites, authors and moderators regularly stay engaged in comments and forums, encouraging civil conversation and removing comments that violate community guidelines.
That’s the sort of work required to keep those spaces respectful, safe, and rewarding for participants, and it’s not always easy or successful. In a year when Pacific Standard and Popular Science shuttered their comments, Vox.com launched with none.
Twitter functions well for RSS-style broadcasting, or for lighthearted status updates from straight cisgendered apolitical white men. But the year of #ferguson and #gamergate made it clear that Twitter is broken and downright toxic for nearly any other purpose, or for any other set of users. By coupling a format that encourages intimacy with a network design that encourages out-of-context amplification, Twitter has evolved into something fundamentally volatile. It’s fun, fast and powerful, but remains highly risky for anything approaching honest conversation, or even satire.
This fall, Paul Ford, on a whiskey-infused whim, created something called tilde.club, where people granted shell access can…publish some HTML. Browser default fonts and starfield backgrounds promptly flourished. But what at first seemed like a nostalgic throwback quickly resonated with possibilities missing from the modern web: Thanks to relative server obscurity and the technical barriers to entry, people felt safe and downright excited expressing themselves on Tilde’s public pages. Thanks to a context-reset of a blank canvas, much of that expression came with an honesty and openness that’s been sadly lacking on the web for several years, as personal blogs have given way to streams and apps.
The environment for both reading and creating on Tilde is much different from the experience of posting to Medium, bantering on Twitter, chatting in iMessage, ignoring middle school friends on Facebook, reblogging on Tumblr, or replying to a thread on Gawker. What context does your site or product set up for the conversation you want your audience to have?
There’s a widespread notion now that every media company must also think like a technology company, investing in the platforms that power the creation, presentation, and distribution of our content. But if we truly want to engage with our readers, we also need to put in the time and resources required to create and maintain safe community spaces. We need to articulate to ourselves and our users what those spaces should be for, and why the effort is worth it.
Audience engagement in 2015 will either require interacting with readers on (often noisy) social platforms we don’t control or devoting the resources required to create and maintain healthy community spaces ourselves. Or both. We need to be thoughtful about what context we create to guide conversation, and how we engage with the people who are willing to interact to create value and a rewarding experience.
But not everyone in the publishing business needs to be in the community management business. Bad community is worse than no community. Feedback and conversation around published work will increasingly happen in spaces you can’t see, or forums you don’t like or understand, and in ways you can’t directly influence or control. If you don’t care enough to take on the responsibility of creating and maintaining a safe space, just disable comments, add a “Share on WhatsApp” button to your article template, and focus on the things you can do well.
Ryan Gantz is director of user experience for Vox Media.
Jer Thorp is an artist who works with data and software.
As someone who puts “dissecting future-of-news discourses” high in her research interests, coming up with my own prediction for 2015 is an awkward exercise. I leave the real attempt at futurology to the crew of talented media gurus that write in these columns, but there’s still something that I would like to see more in 2015: immersive journalism that builds on the possibilities of virtual reality.
Virtual reality journalism — is that even a thing? Well, there’s a Tow Center research project aimed at prototyping “live motion virtual reality journalism.” Journalist Nonny de la Peña has produced several immersive reportages. And the topic gained some attention here and there.
Not that it would save journalism (even if you’ll always find people ready to make that kind of argument). But it would be plain fun. Having seen how people (myself included) react around an Oculus Rift, there’s definitely a sense of enchantment and playfulness that goes with a maturing technology previously confined to ugly, unconvincing depictions of badly animated reality.
The interesting questions don’t solely reside in the wonderment of geekery, of course. They’re also in a peculiar conceptual connection. Who else used to invoke the phrase “immersion journalism”? The tenets of literary journalism, new journalism, creative nonfiction — whatever you want to call it — were built on a long tradition that brought together George Orwell and gonzo frenzy. To them, the concept refers to the need for journalists to immerse themselves in a first-person experience in order to be able to account for the world. The fact that there is a conceptual connection between Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and geeks with VR headsets — between, on one hand, extreme forms of subjectivity conveyed in literary storytelling and, on the other, attempts to represent the world as realistically as possible with the help of the latest technologies — is exactly the kind of strange parallel I find intellectually exciting.
Because ultimately, these ways of doing journalism question our relation to reality — how journalism is about the world and how different ways of accounting for/mediating/constructing (choose one according to your own level of constructivism) the world constitute the diversity of journalism. The question is an old one, the epistemology of journalism: How can reality be known? Through the drug-hazed account of Dr. Gonzo, or with a good old factual, inverted-pyramid report? So far, virtual reality focuses on the eye-witnessing role of journalists and attempts to replicate it faithfully in the experience of the user — with a realist epistemology that seem to imply that seeing with our own eyes (and maybe interacting?) is what matters most. I’m really curious to see what you’ll make of that, 2015.
Juliette De Maeyer is an assistant professor at the Université de Montréal.
2015 will see a tipping point in favor of subscription-based journalism online.
The Gamergate debacle demonstrated conclusively that the public’s access to information is vulnerable to those least equipped to guard that door — publicists and brand managers. Whoever imagines that Gawker — which recently lost substantial ad revenues in the wake of a literally incomprehensible attack launched by a pack of moronic Internet trolls — is uniquely at risk is mistaken. Every online media property that relies on ad dollars for its survival is in equal danger. (Tangentially related: Design schemes that interfere with an online publication’s readability, such as infinite scrolling, popups, quizzes, “sponcon,” and interstitials, will also be kicked to the curb. For example, Gawker’s homegrown CMS, the unpardonable Kinja, was meant to optimize reader engagement. But the result of permitting Kinja to dictate reader experience is…words fail, but okay, it’s like throwing a perfectly beautiful magazine into a Vitamix, whizzing it to shreds and then asking the reader to glue the bits back together.)
Harper’s, The New Yorker, the Financial Times, and The New York Times are proving that readers will pay for online access to worthwhile content. Publishers have come to learn, sometimes the hard way, that Facebook and Google wield an unseemly, even dangerous amount of power over their audiences. A publication can be brought to collapse with the tweak of an algorithm, as Metafilter learned last May, owing to such a tweak at Google — whereupon they instituted a subscription/donation model that appears to be working fine. Facebook now consists of a stream of advertisements interspersed with your friends’ wedding and baby photos. Why should this organization have any effect whatsoever on news, politics, or any other serious area of our culture? It should not. There is Upworthy, there is The Huffington Post, there are penny-ante aggregators of every description, flush with venture cash. Apparently Pinterest drives a substantial amount of traffic to news sites now. Considerations of search engine, advertising, and social media optimization are bound to have an increasingly detrimental effect on what the public can read.
As a reader, I am very eager to pay for better managed, better edited, better looking publications. I do not care to rely on Pinterest, or Facebook, or even Google to learn what I need to know. So it is a great relief to see signs that readers, editors, and publishers are taking back the reins.
Maria Bustillos is a critic and writer in Los Angeles.
I have a confession to make: What you are about to read is as much a plea as it is a prediction. But in the spirit of the holiday season, I trust you will not shy away from reading an analysis written from a place of hope.
Historically, news organizations have invested a very small portion of their revenues in research. And the little that they have invested has been mostly devoted to a kind of market research with very clear short-term goals and a narrow focus — the opposite of the type of more long-term and broadly focused research that sometimes leads to nothing, but other times yields useful product or process improvements, and once in a while is the backbone of major breakthroughs.
I remember a speech by Bob Cauthorn at an industry gathering in the late 1990s, when he was still at the Arizona Daily Star. He scolded his fellow media executives for spending so little on R&D in comparison to the levels of expenditures of large organizations in other mature sectors of the economy. His remarks were received with welcoming applause. But one could see the disinterest in the eyes of his peers. Back then, traditional media organizations still had healthy profit margins; the founders of Google and Facebook were still in school.
Nowadays, traditional media organizations are fighting for their existence — a scaled down version of it, compared to that enjoyed by the executives Bob addressed at that meeting less than a generation ago — while Google and Facebook have become regular destinations for doctoral students in a number of disciplines, including graduates from our program.
Do companies like Google and Facebook hire PhDs and routinely fund external projects because they see themselves in the research business or want to expand into higher education? No — they do it because they are convinced that investing in R&D is essential to remain relevant in a knowledge economy, especially one in which the pace of innovation has greatly accelerated and whose future direction has become increasingly uncertain.
News organizations used to get by with minimal research expenditures because, for most of the second half of the 20th century, they had major profits and operated in fairly stable markets. This environment was also hospitable to the skepticism among journalists about the value of media research undertaken by social and behavioral scientists. This attitude of “we know better” contrasts with the deference that journalists have traditionally displayed towards research about almost any other topic.
We can call it a turf war and agree it was tolerable when times were good. But now that the survival of journalism is at stake and those winning the battle for the public’s attention — and advertising dollars, which usually follow that attention — are research-intensive enterprises, that kind of turf war has become between stupid and suicidal.
But there are recent glimmers of hope, both inside news organizations and in their external relationships with universities and other relevant parties. The R&D unit at The New York Times is a promising example of the kind of innovative work that can emerge when a news organization is not focused only on tomorrow’s deadline but also on the medium-term horizon. Last year, Tom Rosenstiel at the American Press Institute and Jack Hamilton at Louisiana State University began convening a task force composed of industry and academic leaders aimed to foster research-focused collaborations. I participated in two meetings of this task force and was delighted to see a transformation from the historical attitude of skepticism to a contemporary tone of engagement. But this engagement was hindered by an industry position of “what can you do for us?” Until this position — representative of that held by many journalists — shifts to “what can we do together?” it’s unlikely that fruitful partnerships will develop.
I hope 2015 will be remembered as the year that news organizations got serious about research. If that’s the case, it will be a major step forward for them towards regaining a position of relevance within the knowledge economy. If it isn’t, they will continue chronicling that economy from the sidelines, including many more stories about their own steady and painful decline.
Pablo Boczkowski is a professor in the School of Communication at Northwestern University.
Newspapers are not done experimenting with paywalls. This is unfortunate, because valuable energy is wasted on figuring out how to charge for content rather than producing content readers will want to pay for.
Newer generations of readers are not accustomed to paying for the news — a trend introduced not by social media or the Internet, but by television and the 24-hour news cycle. Before people shared news items on Facebook, they shared newspapers and magazines. Whatever people are willing to pay to get the news is very little, and well below the mark that many newspapers set for their paywalls. Yet people do splurge on other things, including devices like tablets that deliver the news, among other things. People will pay for gonzo.
I draw inspiration from the style of journalism pioneered by Hunter S. Thompson, but I’m not suggesting that journalists should imitate him — or that people are willing to pay for that form of journalism. Thompson’s work was specific to an era and right for that era. Transplanting that ethos to our own era would be desperate, and being out of tune with your own era is a tragedy.
I’m more interested in the idea of gonzo as a metaphor — for what it signifies in rethinking the meaning of journalism. To me, gonzo means doing the opposite to what stands for the norm in a given era. So if the norm suggests an obsession with instantaneity, scoops, being the first to report something, then gonzo would mean slow news, context, and being the last to tell a story — but possibly the one to tell the most interesting and thoughtful story.
But the gonzo mentality also provides a way for reconciling the temporal and other incompatibilities introduced by online platforms for news storytelling that make it difficult for journalists to be the first and only ones broadcasting a story. The gonzo approach emphasizes getting to accuracy through personal experience, emotion, sarcasm, humor, exaggeration, and many of the other traits that characterize collaborative news storytelling on a platform like Twitter. It’s a mistake to characterize gonzo as emotional and thus erratic: On the contrary, the approach is about emotion applied carefully — curated emotion, emotion and reason working together, objectivity and subjectivity as parallel processes and not polar opposites. In the past few years, a few news outlets have taken such steps, with many missteps in the process but also with a lot of merit and promise. So here’s to more of that!
Zizi Papacharissi is a professor of communications at the University of Illinois-Chicago.