Tag Archives: newspapers

Mindful journalism – Bhutanese style

[This review was first published in Media International Australia, May 2016; 159 (1) as ‘Book Review: The Dragon’s Voice: How Modern Media Found Bhutan’]


Few of us would pass up the chance to spend a year working in the Kingdom of Bhutan – mythologized in media coverage as a Shangri-La nestled in the Himalayas with its own Gross National Happiness Index.

Australian journalist and academic Bunty Avieson seized that opportunity and travelled (with her partner and young daughter) to work on a fledgling private newspaper in that tiny nation soon after its Fourth King had licensed it as part of a modernisation initiative.

The Dragon’s Voice – How Modern Media Found Bhutan (available here) is Avieson’s memoir of that experience. It is an entertaining work of popular non-fiction reflecting the author’s writing acumen and sense of narrative as a former editor of Woman’s Day and editorial director of New Idea. Yet it also has a depth of scholarship drawing upon Avieson’s more recent work as an academic researcher and journalism educator.

The Dragon’s Voice: How Modern Media Found Bhutan

Author: Bunty Avieson

University of Queensland Press, 2015, 240pp

ISBN: 978 0 7022 5357 7

DragonsVoiceCoverThe people of Bhutan are predominantly Buddhist and this navigation of opposites in life’s course is what Buddhists call the ‘Middle Path’. There are numerous examples throughout the book of Avieson and her Bhutanese newspaper colleagues endeavouring to find such a middle way between extremes.

Avieson takes up the challenge of portraying the deeper layers of a country whose image is over-simplified by its international media framing as a quaint oddity whose citizens are happily trapped in a bygone era on top of the world.

She does not shy away from important issues of censorship (including self-censorship), crime, poverty, natural disasters, domestic violence and the toll of the rapid pace of modernization.

Several threads run through the work, but one of the most important is the paradox centred upon the birth of a newspaper in Bhutan; coinciding with the death of printed newspapers in much of the developed world.

It is a particularly Buddhist and Bhutanese approach to journalism adopted by the Observer’s leadership team – mindful journalism in action. (See the reviewer’s own work on mindful journalism here.)

Avieson explains the newspaper’s owners Tenzin Wangdi and Phuntsho Wangmo asked some of the nation’s wisest and most ethical intellectuals to help develop guiding principles for the newspaper.

The resulting mission statement began with a Buddhist assertion “that all things exist in interdependence is an age-old wisdom”, before vowing to “uphold and strengthen the values and principles that bind this small but great kingdom together”. It continued: “We are a voice with a conscience, and our efforts are aimed at enriching people’s lives through unbiased content intended to inform, educate and entertain.”

Avieson proceeds to chronicle the successes gained and the challenges faced by the newspaper’s journalists and other staff as they set about redefining reporting about Bhutanese people in a Bhutanese style. She details the very practical problems of distribution to remote regions and the inexperience of staff, along with bizarre news topics including one about a town where men believe their wives have crooked vaginas and another about a ghost that lives in a rock.

The newspaper relied largely on government advertising, creating a fear of retaliation over critical stories, a situation not unique to Bhutan. Buddhist principles even influenced the types of advertisements the owners will carry. For example, the Observer would not run ads for cars because “it would be unkind to make villagers desire something they can’t afford”.

Occasionally the reader gets an insight into the profound influence Avieson had on the newspaper in her short time there – drawing upon her many years of experience as a magazine editor with layout, design, photography commissioning and selection and in the production of themed editions and special magazines.

While her modest approach is in keeping with the Buddhist theme, the reader is left wondering how involved Avieson became in the day to day journalism of the operation.

Successful memoirs need to do much more than document a passage of the author’s life. Avieson has achieved this in The Dragon’s Voice. It is purportedly about a year in Bhutan but in the telling it prompts important questions about the media, society and life.

We are left pondering how we would do journalism differently if we had the chance to reinvent it, and then it dawns upon us that that is exactly what journalists in the developed world are trying to do right now. There is much they can learn from Avieson’s account of her time with the Bhutan Observer.


** Listen to author Bunty Avieson’s interview about the book with ABC Radio National Media Report host Richard Aedy here.


Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

© Mark Pearson 2016

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To have and to hold? Newspapers (just) surviving 12 years after this …


I just found this piece I wrote for the Otago Daily Times in New Zealand for its 140th anniversary issue almost 12 years ago.

My brief was to gaze into my crystal ball and foretell the future for newspapers. Futurology is always fraught, but on reflection I think I called it reasonably well at the time. What do you think?

(Of course, it’s quite a different outlook now!)


‘To have and to hold: newspapers on way back’, Otago Daily Times, December 11, 2001, p. 39

By Mark Pearson

Five years ago the Internet seemed to have scripted the death of newspapers.

Here was a hypertextual, instant, multi-level, multimedia technology with the potential to spawn new communities, reinvigorate old ones, and to fulfill the roles of all preceding media in a single interactive device.

Predictions of the death of newspapers were so common during the dot.com boom they had become almost trite.

Converts to the Web thumbed their noses at newspaper executives and compared them with the bosses of the stagecoach industry at the turn of the last century: while the future of horses as a species was assured, their function as the primary form of transport was destined for extinction.

Writer and academic Neil Postman even ventured to question the future of journalism in the modern era.

“What is the problem to which the profession of journalism is the solution?” he asked.

Postman argued that in the nineteenth century, journalism answered the problem of scarce information, but by the end of the last millennium the problem had become a glut of information.

“The problem is how to decide what is significant, relevant information, how to get rid of unwanted information,” he said.

When applied to newspapers, others suggested the problem was exacerbated by competition from other media, the loss of the notion of “community” in modern society, and the increasing pressures upon the average consumer’s time.

Add to this the fact that media consumers in Western democratic nations had experienced more than 20 years of relative peace and prosperity (in other words, little of large-scale importance to read about) and it seemed there were few remaining reasons why anyone would want to buy a newspaper.

One scholar, the US historian C. John Sommerville, pointed to another inherent problem in the news media: it is the business of products like newspapers to make the front page every day look like their contents are important and relevant, even though nothing earth-shattering might have actually happened in the preceding 24 hours.

Sommerville argues that over time this has dulled audiences to the contents of news products, leaving them with a lack of trust in the relative importance of the day’s headlines.

In his book How the News Makes Us Dumb, Sommerville says the news makes citizens “dumb” by dissecting reality, leaving the public with no idea of what to make of our times.

Nevertheless, two important events in the recent past have changed much of that and have allowed newspapers the opportunity to recapture the attention and loyalty of ordinary citizens.

One was the dot.com crash, the other the events of September 11, 2001.

The collapse of the financial markets’ confidence in Internet companies sent investors and consumers back to safer, reliable and tangible media commodities. And the newspaper was as safe and reliable and tangible a medium as one could find.

Despite generally declining circulations and dwindling titles since the 1950s, newspapers had continued to hold, if not improve, their share of the advertising dollar in an increasingly competitive media market. And all along the way they were recognized as wielding tremendous influence over important decision-makers in society, and for setting the agenda for competing media outlets.

The dot.com crash restored advertisers’ confidence in the safety of a quarter page advertisement in the morning daily over the ethereal promise of a million hits on some start-up backyard enterprise’s web site.

Like a good old-fashioned bride or groom, the newspaper was something “to have and to hold”, and it was somewhat comforting for advertisers to know their quarter page ad in the Daily Planet was going to land on a finite, countable number of front lawns in its shrink-wrap cover before breakfast the next morning.

The terrorism attack on America on September 11 and its aftermath also found newspapers back in their element as a chronicle and interpreter of world-shattering news within hours of its occurrence.

Certainly, there had been a shift in the role of newspapers as a medium since their heyday reporting the Second World War in the 1940s.

Then, with radio as their only competitor, they were bringing the actual news of distant events to their readers.

On September 12, 2001, they still delivered that news, but they offered much more: graphic colour photographic coverage and pages of background information and analysis that other media could not match.

As I stumbled down my driveway to pick up my local newspaper on that historic morning, having just seen the news report on the television, I was amazed that my local newspaper had been able to produce several pages of coverage of an event that had not even happened when I went to bed the night before.

The sheer thought of producing a printed product of considerable sophistication within that timeline reminded me of why the newspaper, something most of us take for granted, once earned the nickname “The Daily Miracle”.

Newspapers the world over relished the opportunity to cover such an important happening and interpret it for their readers.

And readers appreciated it, with newspaper titles throughout the world returning record circulations since that event as readers sought out tangible details on the attacks and the ensuing war and looked to newspapers for reliable expert comment and analysis.

This important news puts newspapers in their element, and its scarcity over the past half century has combined with other factors to erode the daily reading habit.

Newspaper executives hope their extra investment in the terrorism coverage will win back many of those lost readers.

We have yet to see whether that strategy is successful, but either way it would be a brave soothsayer who would predict the imminent death of newspapers.

We live in hope that events like those of September 11 will not recur and that the world will soon return to relative peace.

Even if that scenario comes to pass, newspapers will not die in the short to medium term.

Their circulations might decline gradually, and the number of newspaper titles might continue to diminish.

But those that survive will continue to play an important role in democratic societies and their influence among decision-makers and power brokers will continue to exceed their actual circulations.

© Mark Pearson 2001 and 2013

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My top five media law topics for country newspaper editors


Address to the annual conference of the Queensland Country Press Association at Palm Meadows Radisson, Gold Coast, October 15, 2011.

Big city newspaper editors might perceive their provincial peers as ‘oh so last century’, but their country cousins have the basic ingredients to outlast most other print media in the Web 2.0 era.

The 21st century publishing environment is all about niche markets with a strong sense of community – real and virtual. And country newspapers already have that in spades.

But the Internet and social media present legal traps a 1980s provincial newspaper journalist could never have imagined.

These are my top five.

  1. You’re liable wherever you’re downloaded. It’s old news now that Australia’s High Court was the first to decide that you could be sued wherever your material is downloaded in the 2002 case of Dow Jones v. Gutnick. But the message has still not gotten through to many editors and journalists who continue to think locally when their defamation and contempt is actually sailing through the ether to litigants and prosecutors in other jurisdictions. It moots for small country newspapers keeping their news in their print edition – at least you can contain your circulation to just one or two jurisdictions that way and your parent company won’t be sued or charged somewhere else over your online oversight. That goes for contempt, defamation, breach of suppression orders and other reporting restrictions in other states and territories. (It might also add value to your print edition if readers know they can read all that saucy material about over-the-border happenings in your small local newspaper.)
  2. Your website keeps you liable – take it down and boost the value of your print archives. There are, of course, all sorts of reasons why you want a Web or social media presence for your printed provincial newspaper. But you might think twice about leaving your news publicly available for too long after publication. That’s because if you leave the material on your servers it might be considered ‘republished’ each time it is downloaded, as Kiwi lawyer Steven Price has advised. Australia’s limitation period for defamation law suits is one year – but the clock starts ticking again every time someone downloads the story so you finish up having permanent liability if you leave it searchable within your site. This new permanence of stored material also creates problems for digital archives – as lawyers Minter Ellison have pointed out. Be especially careful not to link current matters – particularly court stories – to previous coverage. The best approach is to take all steps to withdraw any dubious material as soon as possible. If others choose to forward or republish your defamatory material, it has hopefully become their problem rather than yours.
  3. In Australia, you’re liable for the comments of your ‘friends’ and correspondents. Some countries like the US offer publishers and bloggers complete immunity from the comments of others on their sites, and Internet Service Providers get some protection in most Western democracies. But you will normally be required to take offensive or illegal material down once it has been brought to your attention. That’s certainly the case in Australia. Earlier this year an Australian Federal Court found a health company was responsible for Facebook and Twitter comments by fans on its account in defiance of a court order that the company not make misleading claims about its allergy treatments. The court ruled that the company should have taken steps to remove the comments as soon as it had become aware of them, as Addisons Lawyers explained. For country newspaper editors, this is a good argument for treating your website forums just like your good old fashioned letters pages – and vetting comments very carefully for legal issues before you post them. Moderate before publishing. Facebook makes this harder, but at the very least you should be deleting risky comments the instant they are posted. Queensland Police learned that lesson earlier this year when there was a spate of prejudicial comments from citizens about suspects on their Facebook wall. And just last week the Queensland Supreme Court ordered Google to reveal the identity of those behind a website defaming a Gold Coast entrepreneur and motivational speaker.
  4. ‘Pssst … off the record … source confidentiality is dead’. Much has been made of Australia’s new federal shield laws allowing journalists and bloggers to protect their confidential sources. For a start, it only applies to Commonwealth and NSW cases, and even there the courts still have a discretion to force journalists to reveal their sources if there is a greater public interest in the question being answered. But really, who can hope for any real level of confidentiality or secrecy in their dealing with sources in the modern era? The new surveillance regime means both the journalist and the whistleblower are traceable via a combination of technologies – phone calls, emails, location tracking, social media tagging and check-ins, and CCTV cameras to name just a few. It doesn’t take much for an organization or a government agency to be able to put two and two together to work out who was in communication with a reporter at a certain point in time. Even Bernstein and Woodward would have a hard time keeping Deep Throat confidential in 2011 with the phones in their pockets betraying their movements and the security cameras in the public park recording their secret rendezvous. Your top investigative reporters for national and international media outlets may have techniques to navigate all this, but I’d suggest your average provincial reporter deal with their sources on a strictly ‘on the record’ basis.
  5. Your copyright … get over it! Intellectual property law can get seriously nasty and complex, so I certainly wouldn’t recommend country newspaper editors ramping up their plagiarism of the work of others or cut-and-pasting web-based material into your own stories. While there are generous defences available in fair dealing for the purposes of news, commentary and parody, you’d need an IP lawyer to tell you whether you are working within them. But in this rampant international free exchange of information you’re sending all the wrong messages when if you try litigation to pursue your own organisation’s copyright in your news material. US newspaper group the Denver Post has ended up with egg on its face after outsourcing its IP litigation to a so-called ‘copyright troll’ called Righthaven. Their pursuit of small players for thousands of dollars in damages has backfired and looks like costing them dearly in reimbursements, lawyers’ fees and bad PR. Unless you are part of a large group taking on the blatant commercial pirating of your IP by another major operator, I think you’d be best focusing your attention on building your print and online markets by being first with the local news that matters. If someone steals your material afterwards, send them a letter politely asking for acknowledgment. Better to be a caring and sharing corporate citizen in your town than the ogre that takes the locals to court.

© Mark Pearson 2011

Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer! My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

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