2325_laura palotie

Local Journalism – Global Responsibility

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Thursday, 23.10.2008  Blog, not_translated


Having graduated from a U.S-based journalism program just ten months ago, I’ve spent much of my early career contemplating the future of this dramatically shifting field. Journalism has always required its participants to place current events in an analytical context and turn out articulate copy at a moment’s notice, but the emergence of the web as a primary source for news presents an added challenge: to attract readers, journalistic outlets have to deliver true stories speedily, interactively, and for free. In short, we have to compete for the attention of our largest readership yet.

Despite the fact that advertising dollars are the most important source of revenue for newspapers and magazines, most journalists don’t like to think of their product as a form of PR. We aim to be the shapers of true history, after all, free thinkers who keep corporations on their toes and give a voice to the underrepresented. But as online news outlets build audiences that far surpass their print editions (the online readership of Helsingin Sanomat, for example, exceeds their largest-ever circulation by over 100,000), their role in shaping a city’s or a nation’s public image also grows in importance. Finnish journalists now have the opportunity to draft our nation’s story as it happens—not just for domestic audiences, but to news readers around the world.

We Finns share a collective modesty about our place of origin: If a foreign news outlet mentions Finland or an international star pays us a visit, we vocalize our pride in a manner that, ever-so slightly, is tinted with disbelief. “Michael Jackson Visits Lapland!” I remember reading in the late ‘90s, in a local tabloid that was accompanied by a blurry photograph of a dark figure standing in a snowy landscape (whether it indeed was Mr. Jackson was impossible to tell).

Finland’s international visibility has increased over the past decade and our cultural confidence grown as a result, but we still tend to feel ill at ease with the concept of marketing ourselves; while Americans appear to be born with a knack for sales, Finns often equate self-promotion with insincerity.

When it comes to web journalism, however, honesty is a publication’s most marketable commodity, and our national no-nonsense mentality can, in fact, help define our journalistic culture to readers abroad. While The New York Times advertises a news story on the web as ‘updated’ every time a headline is tweaked, Helsingin Sanomat editors rightly require an article to undergo a significant change before indicating an update to a story. “It would be deceptive from the newsroom’s part to do otherwise,” editor-in-chief Reetta Meriläinen told me during a conversation this summer.

Meriläinen also said that in web-based news competition, Helsingin Sanomat prefers accuracy over speed. “Fast and accurate can sometimes be contradictory terms, she said.” “If you put all your energy towards publishing news fast, you may not be able to double-check the facts.”

In prioritizing the truth, Helsingin Sanomat demonstrates a fundamental journalistic (and Finnish) value that’s sometimes lost amidst constantly updating news feeds. It would thus be wise for the largest newspaper in Finland to focus its online content on extensively reported pieces, including careful analysis of the day’s events. So far, the newspaper’s online edition, HS.fi, does just the opposite, emphasizing straight news over lengthier pieces of journalism. To showcase the best in Finnish journalism, however, the newspaper might want to consider broadening its web content beyond spot news—especially in its English edition that has the potential of attracting readers abroad.

Until about a year ago, the Helsingin Sanomat International Edition was the only notable news outlet in Finland to provide news in English. The site offers an assortment of the day’s most important headlines, but is thin on news analysis in a manner similar to HS.fi, and much lighter on overall content. Its first English-only competitor, Helsinki Times, launched in 2007; its daily updated web edition provides a more up-to date alternative to a weekly Helsinki Times print version. The Times’ site includes more investigative journalism and opinion pieces than the Helsingin Sanomat International Edition, but still gets fewer readers, perhaps because of its young age (the Times gets about 1,000 visitors daily, while the International Edition attracts 25,000 visitors a week).

As one can imagine, immigrant feedback towards Helsinki Times has been overwhelmingly positive. “Every week I receive an email or two from people who just came to know about us,” said publisher Alexis Kouros, who himself immigrated to Finland in 1990. “And usually the wording is something like ‘finally, I’ve been waiting for years to have a source of what’s happening in Finland.” Readers outside of Finland may take a longer time to catch on to Helsinki Times, but in its instinct to provide in-depth online articles, the publication is on its way to success.

“What we really need to do is digest and analyze the Finnish community and way of thinking, and give you an extract of that in English” Kouros said.

When the horrific events of Kauhajoki unfolded in September, I first heard about the shootings from my friends in the U.S who had checked the day’s headlines on CNN.com. Many international news sites that covered the story, including CNN and Reuters, cited Finnish outlets like YLE and Helsingin Sanomat in their reporting. Meanwhile, coverage from Helsinki Times dominated topical Google newsfeeds.

The events may have directly impacted only a small community, but its cultural and emotional implications have been much farther-reaching. Thanks to the global availability of web journalism, news reported in Finland can now be part of an ongoing and multifaceted global timeline. Now it’s up to Finnish journalists to make their best work available to the widest possible audience.

Laura Palotie is an EVA Junior Fellow 2008. She works as an Intern at Inc.com in New York.