Media: Around the world for 50 years

Media Around the world

It's a good feeling to be ahead of the times, particularly when you work in print journalism. As newspapers all over the world struggle to survive, Rosh Hashana this year marks a very special celebration for The Jerusalem Post. The International Jerusalem Post or "Weekly overseas edition" as it was known, was launched exactly 50 years ago, on Friday September 18, 1959. It was long before the words "global village" had been combined, in an age when journalism was still a vocation and personal computers belonged to the realm of science fiction. "It is an Israeli paper written in English," Meir Ronnen, the International's first editor, used to say. Sadly, Ronnen died last month, but we remain true to his original principles and, ever the art critic, Ronnen voiced his approval of the way the International now stresses graphics and photos as an essential part of the paper. The International edition was conceived in 1949 when legendary Jerusalem Post editor Gershon Agron decided the local market was shrinking as the British and Commonwealth soldiers were leaving the newly founded state. After a few false starts, the trial issue came out the week ending September 5, 1959, shortly before Agron, who gave it his sickbed blessing, died. On Friday September 18 the first full issue (1,000 copies) was published, consisting of eight pages. The headlines included: "US and UK VOICE SUPPORT FOR FREE SUEZ PASSAGE" and "US-Israel Friendship Stressed As Harman Hands Credentials," reporting on the meeting between the new Israeli ambassador in Washington, Abraham Harman, and president Eisenhower. Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion wrote a letter of congratulations saying: "Modern science has made the world smaller by high speed communication. But the nature of the world will be largely shaped by what is communicated. Anyone who promotes a wider knowledge in other countries of what goes on in his country is helping to promote peace and good will among nations..." Page 3, or Page III as it appeared, carried a long piece by Shimon Peres under the headline "Slogans - Or Security" which led with: "One thing on which practically all circles in Israel are agreed is that the safety and well-being of Israel's citizens must come before either the restoring of the 'historic boundaries' of the country or even peace with our neighbours..." The ads - all in black and white, of course - largely promoted hotels (or pensions). One of the most interesting items in the first issue was the subscription form which offered an annual airmail subscription rate to the US, Canada and Cuba for $15, and more curiously to the UK, Europe, "Iran, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, East and West Africa" for $12. THE INTERNATIONAL edition is a digest; how to make it digestible is the challenge. The New York Times's motto "All the news that's fit to print" was always more a cliche than a truism. We have often quipped that the slogan should be changed to "All the news that fits we print." Even before the advent of 24-hour news coverage, headlines in Israel could change drastically from one minute to the next. Throughout the good times and bad The Jerusalem Post's motto has always been "responsible journalism." The challenge is how to keep the balance between both elements. Despite Agron's declaration that "The Palestine Post [as it was first called] will not seek to promote personal ambitions or party advantage," Ben-Gurion's greetings were partly a sign that the early Post closely identified with the government line. Now, owned by Mirkaei Tikshoret Group, the Post is proudly politically independent, a witness not a mouthpiece. If I had to choose a slogan for the IJP, it might be - paraphrasing a previous editor, the late Alec Israel: "Broad and balanced." Producing a 32-page paper which reaches tens of thousands of readers around the world - all thirsty for news of what life in Israel is really like - is both a great privilege and a huge responsibility. Readers abroad get potentially lethal doses of negative coverage of Israel, so I try to include the positive stories of scientific and other successes. Fortunately, there are many achievements to cover. However, "responsible journalism," and just plain common sense, determines that you cannot sweep the bad news under the rug. It will just pile up until you trip. Long before Internet talkbacks, our readers had a way of letting us know how they felt. Letters and e-mails now arrived from Evangelicals in the US Bible Belt, ultra-Orthodox Jews in New York, Reform Jews in Las Vegas and just about every other religious stream and school throughout the US. A visiting Chinese journalist once told me he sees a copy in Beijing. We also receive a surprising amount of mail from what we fondly call "our captive audience," prisoners in penitentiaries all over the US, and even in New Zealand. One chance encounter before I took over at the helm proved to me the far-reaching impact the International has. On vacation in Scotland in 1994, I was sitting on an Edinburgh "hop-on-hop-off" tour bus. At one stop, a large man "hopped on," sat down next to me and started one of those touristy conversations: What's your name, where do you come from, what do you do? As I answered, a broad smile crossed his face. He was a Canadian who had visited Israel a couple of years before and on his return had taken out a subscription to The International Jerusalem Post "to keep in touch." As soon as he put my name and byline together - this was in the days before photo bylines - he blurted out: "Oh, I'm so pleased I bumped into you. I have a question about that piece you wrote about the Hula Valley last month." Today, he would probably simply have e-mailed me but the letter would have lacked the magic of that meeting. The Internet and e-mail make everything easier and more accessible - including the news and writers - but judging by the letters I treasure, nothing can beat the feel of a newspaper, and, as one family noted, "It makes a great gift for a relative abroad and is a lot easier to stick through the letter box than a crate of Jaffa oranges or a bottle of Golan wine."