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  • Photojournalist Paul Conroy: “Marie was so powerful and she summed up the brutality of what was happening.”

    October 22, 2012 @ 9:14 am | by Laura Slattery

    Paul Conroy isn’t a fan of crawling through cramped tunnels. “Potholing should be banned,” the British photojournalist joked. When you have to bend double as Syrian rebels illegally smuggle you into a combat zone through an increasingly airless 3 km storm drain, it helps to have a dark sense of humour.

    The storm drain, 4 ft high, was the route he took with his colleague, the Sunday Times foreign correspondent Marie Colvin, last February on their way to Baba Amr, a district in the Syrian city of Homs. Conroy was concerned about his friend’s sense of direction – a decade before, in Sri Lanka, Colvin had lost an eye. “She had a tendency to veer left,” he explained. That could be awkward in a pitch black tunnel, when you’re not sure what’s going to be waiting for you on the other side.

    Conroy was badly wounded in Baba Amr, as was the French reporter Edith Bouvier, in a shellfire attack on the unofficial media building where they stayed. The attack killed Colvin and French photographer Rémi Ochlik. Conroy remembers the shells falling on one side, and then the other. He thought they had stopped and was reaching for his camera when a final shell landed. He reached down to find there was a big hole in his left leg, and shrapnel in his thigh. “I just felt like someone had hit me with a hammer.”

    He tied his wound with an Ethernet cable. “That’s when I went looking for Marie. I fell over her, in the rubble. I knew instantly that she was dead.”

    A fraught escape from Syria on the back of a motorbike – through the tunnel again – and multiple operations later, Conroy is now recovering. He owes his life to the Syrian field hospital that treated him – there was no anaesthetic, just the odd cigarette, and he hated being a burden on them.  “I didn’t get out for six days, which was a bit hairy, because they had our location and they were trying to bomb us,” Conroy recalled in a public interview at the Cleraun Media Conference on Saturday conducted by Irish Times photographer Brenda Fitzsimons.

    Journalists used to be seen as set apart from combatants – in the Balkans in the 1990s, he had been able to cross from one side to another, staying both independent and safe. It’s not like that anymore, which brings ethical challenges (the people who feed and house you become your friends) as well as immediate dangers. “Journalists are targets,” he told the conference, his crutch serving as visual evidence of this fact.

    The night before Colvin died, they had decided she should do live Skype reports for CNN and BBC World, in case this was her last opportunity. “Really that was the beginning of our end, the live transmissions, because Marie was so powerful and she summed up the brutality of what was happening,” says Conroy. “We must have irritated someone in Damascus.”

    After he returned home to Britain, he discovered there had been a $1 million bounty on his head, just for being in Syria. “I thought I was only worth £85 quid.”

    Some people seemed to blame Colvin for her own death, claiming she had become addicted to the adrenalin of war reporting. “They said, ‘why did you go somewhere so dangerous?’” But he doesn’t approve of the knee-jerk caution of editors since the events of February. “Let me put it this way, I don’t think it’s worth stopping what we’re doing in order to prevent a loss of a life.” In summary: “No one sets out to be killed.”

    Bearing witness to horrors that might otherwise remain undocumented is the whole point anyway. “If I see groups of photographers, I’ll essentially go the other way. Same with Marie, she hated bunches of reporters. That’s why we ended up in Baba Amr – 8,000 people trying to get out, two people trying to get in.” During the artillery barrage from dawn to dusk, they “experienced a tiny amount of what these people had been through for months on end”.

    Newspaper editors don’t always understand the logistical difficulties faced by foreign correspondents in conflict zones, Conroy noted. “Can you get a photograph of Gaddafi’s unmarked grave?” an editor had asked during an assignment in Libya. It’s the kind of question that answers itself. “But we did actually try, me and Marie,” he added. He used Google Earth to draw a line 50 km south of Misrata, where rebels had hinted to Colvin the burial site might be located. “We got a driver and a truck and we spent two days looking.” Eventually, the driver had enough of trying to find a dead dictator in a desert.

    In Libya, Conroy had been invited to photograph Colonel Gaddafi’s body in a freezer shortly after he had been killed, brutally, by rebels. “You could recognise the brand marks of the boots they kicked him with.”

    He doesn’t self-censor. “I’ll shoot anything, and the odd one or two make a newspaper. I’d say 90 per cent of what I shoot would never make a newspaper – they’re too graphic. We’re quite delicate little souls,” he said drily. But dead children are the reality of war: “I was once approached by a woman with a baby’s head saying ‘can you fix this?’ Those pictures didn’t make the papers.”

    The ones that do tend to be the bloodless “bang bang” pictures of rebels with guns. The photographs of mutilated bodies too macabre to print he keeps in his archive in the hope that they may become of use to future war commissions. Since returning from Syria, he’s been interviewed by the International Criminal Court and the British Foreign Office. “I had to come off morphine and be certified drug-free in case the testimony was challenged.”

    Conroy is back on pain medication and still needs physiotherapy on his leg. But he doesn’t quite believe he has seen his last conflict zone. “I don’t think I’m ready to start doing landscapes,” was how the ex-soldier put it. “I’m terrified of giving up in case I become a wedding photographer.”

  • Newsweek says goodbye to the printing presses. Who’s next to go digital-only?

    October 19, 2012 @ 9:44 am | by Laura Slattery


    No more Newsweek. Photograph: Reuters / Carlo Allegri.

    “As a former editor in chief of Psychology Today, I know how hard it can be to sell magazines,” begins a letter in the current edition of Newsweek. “But how do you get from a neurosurgeon’s report about his near-death experience to your cover headline?” A thumbnail opposite the letter shows the previous issue. It is emblazoned with the words “HEAVEN IS REAL”.

    Not even the discovery of an afterlife was enough to save Newsweek. The current affairs magazine, which had been due to celebrate its 80th anniversary next year, has announced that its December 31st edition will be the last time it rolls off the printing presses in the US.

    Editor in chief Tina Brown, who enjoys a near-Wintouresque celebrity status, put her spin on it (just as she did in July when she described suggestions the current affairs magazine was planning to ditch print as “scaremongering”). In a post titled A Turn of the Page for Newsweek, she yesterday admitted that the publication would “transition to an all-digital format” in early 2013. “We are transitioning Newsweek, not saying goodbye to it,” wrote Brown and chief executive Baba Shetty in the co-authored post, placed on the website of Newsweek’s online sister publication, the Daily Beast.

    “Exiting print is an extremely difficult moment for all of us who love the romance of print and the unique weekly camaraderie of those hectic hours before the close on Friday night,” they write. But jobs, as well as romance, will be lost. “Regrettably we anticipate staff reductions and the streamlining of our editorial and business operations both here in the US and internationally.”

    Newsweek will “expand its rapidly growing tablet and online presence”, as well as that new must-have for media companies – an events business. The all-digital publication will be called Newsweek Global and will be aimed at “a highly mobile, opinion-leading audience who want to learn about world events in a sophisticated context” – and pay to do so, with just “select content” available for free on the Daily Beast.

    Newsweek is already available to buy via the newsagent app Newsstand for €2.39 per issue or an annual subscription of €19.99, which is how I read that letter complaining about its stretch of a headline. Now I happen to think Brown was indulging in fair editorial licence there – if you can’t pander to the mumbo-jumbo coma-convert crowd every now and again, we might as well all give up and go home. But the problem is that the wow-heaven-exists cover story is part of a pattern: Newsweek‘s “BUY ME” desperation has been writ large in recent months.

    Sure, a lot of people seem to get a kick out of knocking the British-born Brown, the former editor of Vanity Fair and The New Yorker. So much success so young – everyone hates that. But it’s hard not to agree with those who believe that under her tenure the magazine has ceased to provide a “sophisticated context”. Instead, it seems to have adopted a policy of trolling – the act of deliberately provoking an angry reaction (plus clicks). Controversial moments during 2012 to fit into this category have included a cover image of Barack Obama with the strapline “the first gay President” and a sensationalist cover story titled “Muslim Rage”. It might be eye-catching, but not in a way that’s edifying.

    Newsweek’s decision to “embrace the all-digital future” follows a series of similar moves by US newspapers, led by the Christian Science Monitor in 2009. But those were inky, disposable and mostly classifieds-dependent newspapers. Newsweek is a shiny, glossy magazine – for leisure, not commuting; for big brand advertisers, not local businesses. It turns out such magazines are not insulated from the reader trends that have seen the percentage of US people who get their news from online sources rise to 39 per cent. Newsweek‘s print circulation has halved since 2006.

    It’s been a rocky week for print believers, all told. On Wednesday, the Daily Telegraph‘s media editor Katherine Rushton published a story online claiming the Guardian had plans to dump its print edition. Not true, tweeted Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger. “Plain wrong,” wrote its media blogger Roy Greenslade. But the Telegraph refused to backtrack, publishing the story including the company’s denial in its print edition on Thursday.

    I guess it all depends on your definition of “plans”. Crucially, the Telegraph didn’t hazard a guess as to when the Guardian might abandon print, which means the story has a good chance of proving right – eventually.

    It certainly wouldn’t be too shocking if it were to make like the London Independent and cease distribution in Ireland. I wouldn’t care. I no longer buy the Guardian in print, as I’ve signed up to its iPad edition. Why pay €13.99 a month when all that content is available on the web for free? It turns out I quite like the edited product in digital form, and the convenience of having downloaded editions available to read even if my device isn’t connected. The free trial, surprisingly, worked its magic. (I still miss the paper Indy though.)

    The other publication frequently mentioned in “online-only” dispatches is the Financial Times – one of the few news publications to have triumphed in the science of making money from its paywall. As a specialist affair, it has an advantage – its readers belong to a demographic that is affluent and iPad-friendly. But quite aside from the digital-only debate, this could well be a time of flux for the FT following the resignation of Marjorie Scardino as chief executive of parent company Pearson. She was on record as being an FT loyalist, where others in the Pearson hierarchy may favour a sale.

    Few media companies are blessed with enough scale and enough niche appeal to make a convincing go of it right now as an online-only entity – even if they weren’t still pulling in print advertising revenues too big to sacrifice just yet. But failure to figure out a viable digital model won’t preclude some companies from “transitioning” their print product. As with Newsweek, which was reportedly on track to lose $22 million this year, it may not be much of a choice. Printing eats money, as does distribution – Brown described such costs to Bloomberg as “incredibly archaic”. A struggling media company looking to rationalise its operations will inevitably look to the print side of its operation in any cloth-cutting exercise, on the basis that if it’s not part of the solution, then it must be part of the problem. That’s the thing about romance. It fades.

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