Will Charlie Hebdo lead the way to media’s still misty, co-owned future?

 

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– postgutenberg[at]gmail.com

[ Late addition: support for an impression of growing disenchantment with hierarchy as a form of organisation came from a surprising source, yesterday. Never mind if it only amounts to a single ‘data point’ — in a short essay by a pilot-turned-architect reflecting on the Germanwings plane intentionally crashed in the Alps earlier this week. See footnote. ]

If ever arguing about a proposal seemed superfluous – because a kindergartener could convince the child on the next play stool of its merits – that would be true of the insistence, by staff members who survived the massacre at Charlie Hebdo, that they deserve ownership stakes in the agent provocateur newspaper, as they risk their lives by carrying on after the bloodbath. An item in The Wall Street Journal last week said:

Some staff members live under round-the-clock police protection, with armored policemen wielding automatic weapons stationed in front of their homes.

Making a paper’s workers co-owners is going only halfway towards what post-Gutenberg sees as a necessary bow to the egalitarian spirit of net-centred life – rejecting hierarchies in favour of structures that value every contribution to the welfare of the enterprise.

Including readers and commenters as co-owners would be even better — certainly do more for economic stability and growth — if enough thought and care were put into adapting the rules and culture of organisations to make sure that efficiency was preserved.

But at Charlie Hebdo, even politically radical major shareholders have, so far, declined to let staffers share the tidal wave of cash flowing into the paper’s coffers – nearly £22 million, since the jihadist attacks on 7 January.

That is, … as far as we can tell. Updates on the dispute are hard to come by because the most famous names in journalism tilting left have been ignoring it altogether. Nothing in The New York Times or Guardian whatsoever, so far, unless we have been typing the wrong terms into search boxes. All the big brand-name papers on the political right have run reports, including three of Rupert Murdoch’s stars — The Times in the U.K., The Wall Street Journal in the U.S., and in his homeland, The Australian — as well as the Daily Mail and The Telegraph.

We are guessing that behind their straightforward news stories on the subject, right-wing editors are sniggering discreetly about idealistic leftie journalists at the French satirical weekly quarrelling about filthy lucre — while co-ownership is an awkward subject for their counterparts on the left, who know that it makes perfect sense, but cannot bring themselves to make any significant move towards it.

The Telegraph report last week said, in part:

Eleven staff members have called for all employees to become equal shareholders in the magazine, setting them up for a battle with the current management.

Charlie Hebdo is currently 40 percent owned by the parents of Charb, the former director of the magazine who was killed in the January 7 attacks, 40 percent by cartoonist Riss, who is recovering in hospital from shoulder wounds and 20 percent by joint manager Eric Portheault.

But one of the Charlie Hebdo journalists, Laurent Leger, stunned the editorial conference on Wednesday by announcing the creation of a group to open talks on an equal division of the magazine’s capital.

[…]

…[H]e said in [a] letter that a more equal division of the funds would allow more “transparency”.

“The wider the control, the more decisions will be taken collectively and that’s better for everyone,” … **

There was an echo of Leger’s words in a post on the website of Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab — ‘In media companies, the editorial staff shouldn’t be kept in the dark about finances’ — by Celeste Lecompte, a senior manager at Gigaom, an online American publisher specialising in blogging about technology, which abruptly went out of business earlier this month:

Our industry is undergoing incredible changes, and finding a way to thrive amid the new economic and technology context is critical …. Managers with direct budget responsibility tend to focus on meeting goals and targets in the short term. But when other employees have access to this information, they can contribute to the conversation in different ways, supporting and critiquing strategic efforts.**

If a co-owned Charlie Hebdo emerges from horror of eleven staff members murdered in plain sight, that will be at the top of the class of unlikely geneses – just right for now, with T. S. Eliot’s cruellest month getting ready to breed, from land seemingly beyond resurrection, its improbable lilacs …

Something else in that category, and in the realm of publishing — only a long time ago, in 16th-century Venice, is the life of a co-inventor of italic type. At post-Gutenberg, we find the typeface useful, but would list, at the top of reasons why we have never much liked it, that it is irritatingly spidery and insubstantial and dainty-bordering-on-effete. So. Who collaborated, dear reader, with Aldus Manutius – an early printer, in the Gutenberg hall of fame — in the creation of italics? The answer, a small feast of the bizarre — in a review of an exhibition devoted to Aldus in the NY Times last month — is that he was …

… the type cutter Francesco Griffo, a shadowy fellow who broke with Aldus acrimoniously and then slugged a man to death with an iron bar before reputedly meeting his own demise at the end of a hangman’s rope. Italics, which were intended to mimic the humanist handwriting of the day, first appeared in a modest five words in a 1500 edition of the letters of St. Catherine …

Yes, … italics.

** After we posted this entry, we read an essay by Andrew McGee in The New York Times that — incidentally — made the same point as Laurent Leger and Celeste Lecompte in another sphere – airline safety:

In the 1960s and ’70s, several crashes were judged primarily a result of pilot error, some stemming from the hierarchical relationship between the captain and the co-pilot. Co-pilots were often afraid to challenge the captain’s decisions, and the results could be disastrous. In training, they played us a cockpit voice recording of a co-pilot timidly telling the captain they were running out of fuel; he didn’t mention it again before the engines flamed out.

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