I don’t get misty-eyed over newsprint, says Graeme Smith

Chantal Braganza

Chantal_BraganzaGraeme Smith has a humble proposition: possibly, maybe, a way to save journalism from the online threat. While in reality, he insists, “I’m just a stupid reporter, I have no idea how to solve these problems of the industry,” the idea isn’t that complex: an online product that brings readers back for more.

“Let’s face it, I’m 29 years old,” said The Globe and Mail‘s Afghanistan reporter, “I’m hoping that I’m going to work as a journalist for another 40 years or so.”

Presumably, so was the group of journalism alumni and students gathered at the Ryerson Journalism Alumni Association’s (RJAA) annual general meeting to hear Smith speak about “Talking to the Taliban“, his original series that appeared in the Globe in March, 2008. Smith has spent years in southern Afghanistan, more than any other
Western journalist since NATO forces entered the region in 2006. While it was expected Smith would speak on the political situation in Afghanistan for the night, his talk began a little differently:

“I’ve realized I’m like a drug dealer who doesn’t get high on his own supply,” he said. “I don’t get misty-eyed over newsprint. I’m not one of those people who loves the texture of print in the morning as I’m eating my breakfast.”

Instead, he grabs his laptop and turns on the Wi-Fi for his news fix. And largely for the same reasons as everyone else: speed, convenience, ease of mobility and shareability. The stories Smith writes for the Globe are so widely posted on different online venues that he finds simply Googling his name to be faster and more reliable than the Globe archive when faced with slow internet in Kandahar.

“It’s not news to anyone the logic of the Internet, that information is free,” he told the crowd  But it means a whole lot for working journalists, whose jobs are dependent upon that information’s value, or the foreign correspondent whose presence in a war zone is a tremendous expense.

What’s a war correspondent to do? “You can’t turn back the clock,” said Smith. “You can’t make me pay for Christie Blatchford’s columns, it’s just not going to work.”

Since its launch though, “Talking to the Taliban” has. The feature series on insurgent fighters in the Kandahar district launched both in print and online offered a glimpse into the Taliban psyche through a multimedia approach of videotaped interviews, transcripts, commentary and reporting. Describing the series as a “multi-layered cake” of information, Smith noted that he was surprised at the positive response to the project, especially in light of an earlier Globe feature in 2006 based on a similar premise of talking with the Taliban. The front-page feature had garnered reactions from skeptical to the disapproving: some had problems believing Smith had talked to real Taliban. Others questioned his ethics for doing so.

“The more use that traditional news organizations can make of emerging technology, the better able they’re going to be able to serve their audiences,” said Ryerson Journalism School chair Paul Knox at the RJAA meeting. He sees Smith’s approach more as a  “reaffirmation of what we value in news presentation and a way to do it better.”

Knox, who worked with Smith while he was the Globe‘s foreign editor in 2005, says: “These technologies I think, they complement, they enhance, they don’t replace traditional newsgathering techniques. What is news, what is journalism and what is valuable information for the public and society hasn’t changed in hundreds of years.”

Knox is also quick to point out the ways in which “Talking to the Taliban” achieved this by looking for creative ways to cover the other side of an international story that is hard to get, and is, therefore, a side the public rarely sees. While a small sample of the Taliban at large, the volume of 42 fixer-conducted interviews was enough to show patterns and shed a less skeptical light on what the fighters believed about the war they were fighting.

“It’s like food products,” said Smith. “Just because the label says Globe and Mail and that it’s good for you, doesn’t mean people are going to eat it. They want the option of reading a detailed label with a list of ingredients.Where does this come from? Or better yet, they want to see a cooking show and watch you make it in front of them.” You can learn the recipes or even watch it online, but the experience of a cooking show is—like Smith’s series—unique to the show itself.

Smith says “Talking to the Taliban” has been used as a teaching tool, art inspiration and caught the attention of a slew of government organizations from Canadian Forces School of Military Intelligence to The Bureau of Intelligence Research at the US Department of State.

But unlike many of his print articles it hasn’t been directly lifted for use elsewhere online. The videos have been uploaded to YouTube, the text posted to different blogs—but always with a link to the project on the Globe‘s site. And often, he adds, with a comment along the lines of “this is part of it, but you have to go to the site to see it all.”

Chantal Braganza is editor of the Summer 2009 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.