My Word: Media changes and ‘press’-ing concerns

Having a job in print journalism these days is no small matter – and working at a paper celebrating its 90th anniversary is a doubly satisfying achievement.

 THE WRITER works in her ‘Jerusalem Post’ office, amid evidence of being a print journalist.  (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/Jerusalem Post)
THE WRITER works in her ‘Jerusalem Post’ office, amid evidence of being a print journalist.
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/Jerusalem Post)

A journalism lecturer at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem used to joke with his students: “What’s the difference between a doctor and a journalist? Doctors bury their mistakes and journalists publish theirs.”

The joke shows my age and my teacher’s. For a print journalist who started working in the mid-1980s, once a story was published, there was no going back. Even if it was later used to wrap the proverbial fish – or line the cat’s litter tray – no corrections could be made to the original copy. 

Used to working online where copy can be updated, corrected or deleted, today’s young journalists will never know the sickening feeling that something not quite right has gone to press. I envy them being able to sleep easier, but I think I benefited from having the extra sense of obligation to get it right at the first go.

History of The Jerusalem Post

I have done a lot of wandering down journalistic memory lane lately. Having a job in print journalism these days is no small matter – and working at a paper celebrating its 90th anniversary is a doubly satisfying achievement.

The Jerusalem Post, or The Palestine Post as it was then known, was launched on December 2, 1932. It was ahead of its time: an English-language paper sending the word out from Zion, or the British mandate, at least. Legendary founding editor Gershon Agron, who would later become mayor Jerusalem, had vision, but it’s doubtful even if he could have imagined how the paper would grow from the initial 1,200 print copies to a thriving enterprise with an online reach of millions around the globe, thanks to the Jpost.com site. Those were the days when personal computers, let alone smartphones, were still the realm of science fiction.

 ‘INTERNATIONAL JERUSALEM POST’ editor Liat Collins rereads a 75th-anniversary edition interview with Meir Ronnen. In the background is hardworking social media manager Noemi Szarkacs, who made aliyah from Hungary. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM) ‘INTERNATIONAL JERUSALEM POST’ editor Liat Collins rereads a 75th-anniversary edition interview with Meir Ronnen. In the background is hardworking social media manager Noemi Szarkacs, who made aliyah from Hungary. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

The changing newsroom

All workplaces and jobs change over the years and the newsroom certainly hasn’t been immune. I have shared elsewhere my memories of some of the characters I met in The Jerusalem Post corridors when I first started working here in November 1988. The fact that the paper is celebrating its 90th anniversary is a literally newsworthy event. That I am starting my 35th year here (in what was meant to be a temporary place of employment) amazes me. More than half my life and more than a third of the paper’s existence are indelibly intertwined. And having been the editor of The International Jerusalem Post for two decades is an astonishing privilege, pleasure – and responsibility. Every deadline, a miracle.

Speed was always a prime concern. Missed deadlines with printing press staff waiting to start the press rolling are costly. “Sending the paper to bed on time” was a principle impressed on all journalists early on. Print deadlines remain strict, but the Internet never goes to sleep. It’s a news-hungry monster that needs to be fed around the clock. The advantage is that a website can provide up-to-date news globally, 24/7. The drawback is the difficulty of producing well-researched and well-crafted copy to feed it.

And beyond the traditional media, there are the social media. Here, too, the constant temptation is to be the first one to break the story – even before it’s been thoroughly checked. At the same time, Twitter and Facebook statements have to a large extent replaced press releases.  

Even before the advent of 24-hour news coverage, headlines in Israel could change drastically from one minute to the next. That’s why in the International edition, the focus has shifted from news reporting to in-depth analysis and providing context. I don’t feel the IJP is in competition with Jpost.com. We complement (and compliment) each other. I admire the dedication, hard work and passion of the Internet team. Ditto The Jerusalem Report, our glossy, biweekly sister publication, edited by my friend and colleague – and former Jerusalem Post editor-in-chief – Steve Linde.

Over the years, particularly with the rise of social media, the prestige of journalism has dropped (and so have the pay and benefits) but the job satisfaction still exists. With apologies to those reading this column online, for me nothing beats the thrill of having your name in print, in a physical form: a paper that people pick up and hold to read. Every week, I feel readers are letting me into their homes and lives.

The way the paper interacted with its readers has also changed over the years. Before today’s sponsored conferences, there were regular “Jerusalem Post Events” – popular fairs where the English-speaking crowd could meet up. Proceeds went to the Jerusalem Post’s well-run charity funds, providing help to children, new immigrants and the elderly. The Post’s own products, sporting the distinctive logo, were available from pens and mugs to bags – and gasmask kit covers during the First Gulf War. The Post also had its own books department – and I like to believe people still read books as well as papers.

The newspaper industry is an industry indeed. No paper can survive on goodwill alone, without the backing of financially sound practices. As a veteran journalist, it’s one of the hardest things to come to terms with. Gone are the days when a reporter – or team of reporters – could spend weeks and a generous budget investigating a story before putting pen to paper (or finger to keyboard.) 

The term “clickbait” is a personal turnoff. Yet I see that sadly this is partly the way the profession now works around the world, competing for readers’ online attention with “sexy” headlines (and in-your-face advertising.) Sex sells, but keeping the SEO (Search Engine Optimization) satisfied comes at a price. 

A major challenge is keeping news and views separate while allowing journalists to keep their own voice. One person’s West Bank, is my Judea and Samaria, for instance. There’s a struggle to remain independent, to serve as a witness rather than a mouthpiece, allowing readers to form their own opinions. 

For me, as editor of The International Jerusalem Post, which turned 63 in September, professional life is a balancing act. I’m aware that readers abroad are exposed to potentially lethal doses of negative coverage of Israel – the country I call home and love. Therefore, I try to include the positive stories – the technological, scientific, sporting, and cultural successes. Fortunately, there are many to cover. On the other hand, sweeping the bad news under the rug is dangerous. Eventually, it piles up and trips you up. I try to stick by the Post’s longtime motto: “Responsible journalism.”

Readers, of course, are not shy about letting us know how they feel. Before the Internet era, people would mail letters in stamped envelopes, a sign they cared enough to make an effort to get their views across. Then came the ease of emails, allowing readers to quickly respond without the bother of going to the mailbox. Today, many prefer to comment in talkbacks – instant gratification which suits the instant Internet medium. It lacks the personal touch, particularly when the majority remain anonymous, but this too is how the media world now works.

What comes next for The Post?

Having witnessed so many developments over the years, I dare not predict what the future holds even 10 years down the line, although I fervently hope The Jerusalem Post is around to celebrate its centennial.

Perhaps print will all but disappear – remaining only for those religious Jewish readers who don’t use electronic devices on Shabbat. Maybe it will become a luxury item, a status symbol similar to quality watches. 

Professionally, the challenges are immense and daunting. My journalism lecturer could not have conceived of writers being replaced by robots but nonetheless it’s already happening even in respected news companies. Using artificial intelligence, robots produce financial copy and sports coverage, for example. Programmed correctly, robots are competent at creating stories with relevant names and numbers, faces, facts and figures.

But anyone who has used Google Translate knows the hazards of relying solely on artificial intelligence and algorithms rather than human knowledge and experience. A robot might be able to present the facts, but it could never give the full picture. And no robot will be able to play with words as it works. Or have fun doing so. 

As for making and publishing mistakes, well it goes to show we’re only human. At least for now.

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