Asharq Al-Awsat speaks to Deputy Editor of The Observer Paul Webster.
Q) There is a lot of talk at present about the demise of newspapers. How is The Observer doing at the moment?
A) It is certainly true that newspapers are facing a very difficult future. It’s clear that they are suffering as a result of the recession but in the longer term they are suffering as more and more people are getting their news from the internet, so people are buying newspapers in smaller quantities and there is a long-term crisis for newspapers. They don’t receive advertising revenues as advertisers won’t buy adverts in papers so much if their readers are disappearing. This is a very long term issue; in the short term, I think that good newspapers, such as those that are willing to adapt are going to survive. People still need newspapers, people still enjoy reading newspapers, so those newspapers that are properly financed and supported will survive for the short to medium term, I am sure.
Q) Do you think that there is a threat to journalism and the future of newspapers from the electronic media?
A) Yes I think there is a threat from electronic media, particularly from younger people who are used to turning to the internet, to radio and television to get their news and so the habits of the older generation are changing, so yes I think there is a very strong threat as it is happening all around the world. It is very acute in America and its also happening here, and I’m sure its happening in other countries. The particular threat is advertisers who are finding other ways to advertise their products.
Q) Quality journalism costs money. How can it be financed? How important is this to newspapers such as The Observer?
A) It is crucial for newspapers such as The Observer, that’s why I think that it is vital to make newspapers successful again as it is clear that internet websites cannot afford the quality journalism that makes newspapers great, to do investigative reporting, to keep foreign correspondence, to do all of the things that make great newspapers work. So you have two alternatives; one is to find very rich people who own newspapers and the other is to find ways to make newspapers economically successful. The problem with rich people who own newspapers is that although they can sell the newspapers as quickly as they can buy them, you will find that they often want to interfere in the way you cover the news. It is not a good model.
Q) How important is the Middle East to your coverage? Do you think there is a danger that readers tire of hearing about the Arab-Israeli conflict, Iraq and so on?
A) I think that the Middle East is very important to our readers and it is our experience that they don’t get bored of reading about politics in the Middle East. They realize that the Middle East is crucial for so many reasons. It is crucial for world stability, it is crucial for economic reasons, it is crucial because of the consequences of the conflict in the Middle East, in Iraq, between Palestine and Israel, it is crucial because the consequences are felt by us for all sorts of reasons. I’ve been working for newspapers that cover the Middle East for 25 or 30 years, and my experience is that people remain passionately interested in the region; they want to read more, they want correspondence to be based there, they follow the politics of the Middle Eastern countries very closely, we have soldiers who are involved in the Middle East. It is very important to us.
Q) How important is it to have specialists covering these areas? Can newspapers continue to afford specialists or will reporters become these people who process information rather than receive it?
A) Well I think that’s a very good question. It is very important to have specialists; there is no substitute for people who have experience and knowledge of the countries they are writing about and better still if they can live and work in those countries. There are now fewer countries who can keep a correspondent in Iraq for instance, but it is very important that they do and that they don’t just send in general reporters every now and again. It is vital that we have people who are aware of the Middle East conflict, who are able to travel regularly to Israel, Palestine, the West Bank, Gaza and its neighboring states and who speak the language and read the newspapers and know the politicians, and from all sides of the conflict. This is absolutely vital. For newspapers like The Guardian [it is important] that it maintains their bureaus in these places because without them it will be a disaster as you can understand the subtleties and complexities of these conflicts.
Q) What do recent events in Iran tell us about modern media and the way it works?
A) I think it’s too early to say. I think it’s quite clear that the use of the internet and devices like Twitter are very important in shaping events, but we don’t know just how important. It is very difficult for us to know how much of the information that reaches us via these means is accurate or not, so there is still a vital need for proper journalists to be there when they can be there and to process this information, otherwise it is a potential source for huge amounts of disinformation and bad information. I think it’s clear that using mobile phones, using Twitter, Facebook, the internet etc. has been very important for people in Iran taking part in these events and for the wider world, especially since it has become very difficult for journalists to operate in Iran – but there is a limit. They will never be a proper substitute for proper coverage, proper journalism in these countries – in Iran certainly.
Q) Can you describe to us a typical day? Can you tell us about the process of a developing story, planning, meeting, assigning, etc?
A) The Observer is a Sunday newspaper, so I’ll tell you about The Guardian as I used to work there. There are a series of daily regular meetings that start around 9am and the final meeting is probably around 5 or 5.30pm. This is when all of the different department heads meet together, for example in the morning they will talk about yesterday’s paper, was it good, was it bad, did they miss any stories – then they begin to talk about the agenda for the next day’s newspaper. It is compulsory for certain key executives to attend, such as the heads of departments and those who have to make the decisions. Then there is probably a meeting around 12pm and another at 4pm and another at 6pm where they will decide what is going to be the lead story, what’s going to be on page three. At this time they are also deciding what stories to put on the internet and which stories to hang onto and put in the paper, so it’s become a much more complex process. Each meeting would last for a maximum of 20 minutes, but the longest meeting will be the first that is held in the morning to which all the members of staff are invited, and that can go on for half an hour or even 40 minutes. People will then talk about politics and give their views on subjects as well as talking about the newspaper.
Very often the idea for a story, the stories that come from very good correspondents such as Jason Burke, will come from the correspondent. The correspondent will call us in the morning and tell us that they have a very good idea and that they think it is important that we look at whatever it is, whether it is in France or the Middle East or wherever. We will then have a conversation about the story – whether we think it is a good idea, if there is space for it – and if we think it is something to focus on we will say go ahead and do it, and we will then find them a photographer. The correspondent will call us later during the course of the day and tell us what progress he has made, we will then have an idea about how long the piece should be, one thousand or two thousand words – we will start to plan where it should go in the paper, whether it will need maps or whatever – the correspondent will then send us his story later on in the afternoon around 5pm or 6pm – if we think it’s good we will sometimes send it back if there is something missing or needs to change – there is a constant process of dialogue between us and the correspondents.
Q) What qualifications should a journalist have to work for a newspaper nowadays?
A) They don’t have to be a media man, and some of the best journalists today come from different backgrounds. They should obviously have some training in things like the law and shorthand and have journalistic skills, but it would be wrong to say that only those people can make good journalists because there are people who have done other things before but have become wonderful journalists. I think it is becoming true now you may have people who are specialists in a particular field or who have great linguistic skills that make great journalists. For instance, there are not that many journalists working in Great Britain today that speak Arabic and that’s bad and there should be more and so these things are all important. No newspaper should close its mind to any set of skills as all sorts of people make very good journalists. They have to be determined, they have to be brave, they have to be imaginative, they have to have a real desire to find the truth.
Q) Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
A) Well I’m 54 and I’ve worked for The Guardian and then The Observer for 25 years now. I’ve been foreign editor, home editor and I am now deputy editor for The Observer. I’ve never been a reporter, I was a production journalist, so I used to design the pages and produce. I’ve never worked abroad as a correspondent; I’ve always been the production journalist. I have a degree in politics.
Q) What is the best story that the Observer has covered?
A) We wrote a tragic story about a ship carrying people who wanted to migrate. The ship sank in the Mediterranean and we sent reporters who wanted to find out what happened to these people, and we found out who these people were, how dangerous the boat was, who the captain was, how badly they had been treated etc. so it was a brilliant piece of investigation. It was real first class investigative reporting.