Archive for March, 2012

Apologies to Mark Twain* for bowdlerising his quote, but it has happened again – somebody has made something up on the internet, without a thought for fact-checking or journalistic integrity. What’s worse is they then used the unregulated media of Twitter and Facebook to spread these lies. Worse still, this latest fabrication sullies the name of that fair and balanced journalistic institution, Fox News. Laugh? I nearly tweeted.

Padraig Belton, in the Irish Independent, told us yesterday that the world is not always as it seems. To support this skeptical world-view, he cites the infamous “Brian Cowen hangover” interview and this picture that did the rounds last week:

Photoshopped screengrab of Fox News Toolooz

Fox News. It's bad, but not this bad

Belton says:

In both cases, social media and citizen-journalism – not long prior heralded engines of a new democratic dispensation – were manipulated in political hatchet jobs.

Political hatchet jobs? I can see how the Cowen interview may have been politically motivated, but what’s the political motivation for “Fox News is rubbish”? Even if you could answer that, who cares? It’s not meant to be journalism. It’s meant to be a joke.

To illustrate the dangers of photo manipulation, he could have used North Korea’s nine-foot soldier, or Iran’s cloning-tool wars.  But he wanted to illustrate the threat of Twitter, so chose a joke.

That joke took a report of a multiple murder and tried to get a laugh at the expense of a cable channel renowned for screaming hyperbole and screw-ups. For example, the original, undoctored image was taken from a Fox News broadcast in which they mistakenly used a picture of Tina Fey on Saturday Night Live to illustrate an item on Sarah Palin. Here’s the video (if you can trust it):

Belton then trots out a litany of other supposed deceptions, some of them nothing to do with Twitter or Facebook – such as the Sunday Times using an illustration of John ‘Soap’ MacTavish, a character from the Call of Duty game, in a graphic of a failed hostage raid – and some of them actually unearthed by social media themselves, such as ITV’s mistaken use of video game footage in a documentary about IRA links to Gaddafi:

Jokes aren’t journalism

It is Belton’s mixing and mashing of media and platforms – very 21st century for such an avowedly traditional journalist – as he takes in broadcasters, papers, Twitter, Facebook , Wikipedia, and Youtube, that makes his point so hard to pin down.

The Fox News image is a joke. The Guardian’s Cowen tape and ITV’s IRA documentary were inadvertent foul-ups. The 50-cent commenters of China and Wikipedia editors of Capitol Hill are engaged in politics less filthy than the past (remember ‘ratfucking‘?). The  RTE-bashing over the Sean Gallagher debate continues the Indo’s delusion that a false tweet lost him the presidential election rather than his floundering inability to decisively rebut its fabricated content on the night.

So what is Belton’s point? If it were simply “do not believe everything you read online”, well, duh. However, he concludes:

Quality journalism, employing social media like Dorian’s portrait to preserve the likeness of vitality, is too quick to abandon its fact-checking traditions.

That sounds depressingly like a newspaperman putting his own trade on a pedestal of probity (despite every print journalist you ever met knowing someone who has massaged a quote, fudged a statistic, or concealed one of their screw-ups). Belton is in good company – John Fleming had a go at Twitter a couple of weeks ago on Hugh Linehan’s Irish Times blog, John Waters has borne the internet curmudgeon’s cross for the Irish Daily Mail (they don’t put his columns online, funnily enough), and Eamon Delaney maintains, terrifyingly, that we should regulate what has become a “cacophony of noise, but at the lowest common denominator”. Conor Brady and Alan Crosbie have both supported calls for State support of the press, which would just bring regulation by another route.

Time for some whataboutery

Donald Segretti faked a letter to discredit one of Nixon’s political rivals. Newspapers followed it up, yet nobody denounced the postal service as a network used by liars. The Sunday Times agreed to print the “grotesquely … fake” Hitler diaries, yet the writing and serialisation of memoirs remains inexplicably legal. If a newsroom takes an anonymous call that contains libellous information, we do not blame the telephone network. If a lobby journalist misinterprets a hand-written note from one minister to another, we do not call for the regulation of paper and pencil.

If a journalist prints or broadcasts material from social media networks, or wikipedia, or a message board, or email, and never bothers to check whether it is true, it is not a failure of the internet, it is a failure by the journalist.  

Flesh-and-blood sources feed bullshit and PR bumf to journalists in person and on paper every day, but they have developed tools for sniffing it out. Newspapers should be extending the use of these tools online and developing new ones when they fail, rather than indulging in this incessant hand-wringing over media their correspondents barely understand and rarely use. Complaining about the climate isn’t going to change it.

“A man is never more truthful than when he acknowledges himself a liar”

– this one is really by Mark Twain. *The one in the headline is by his friend, Charles Dudley Warner. I knew that, but wrote it anyway.

The Irish Examiner's photo archive

JFK on Cork's Patrick St - buy it now

The Chicago Reader, a free alternative weekly, has put online its archive of long-form film reviews. It’s the latest in a line of print publications (such as Vogue and The New York Times) trying to figure out a way to add to the value or extend the reach of older content they own and have already paid for. Adam Tinworth lists an interesting couple of additional uses of archival material on his blog (M&S lingerie anyone?).

I’ve harped on about this before, using the example of the Irish Examiner’s archive of great Cork photos (that’s JFK on Cork’s Patrick Street, above).

But seeing a paper publish an archive of its film reviews brings the issue into sharper focus for me. Because print publications have been aggregating and publishing their non-news archive material on paper for years. In film, the obvious example is the annual Time Out film guide. But the Daily Telegraph has printed volumes of its renowned obituaries, a compilation of Yorkshire Evening Post cryptic crosswords accompanied me around the world and The Economist even publishes its in-house style guide. In hardback.

Newspapers are experienced at wringing extra revenue from their non-news content. Some of them are transferring that experience to their online operations – Vogue’s online archive costs $1,575 a year.

But many more are sitting around wringing their hands because “newsgathering is expensive” and no one wants to pay for “journalism”. It’s far from an original statement but it cannot be repeated often enough – readers never paid for journalism. They paid for the bundle – the crossword, the weather, the stock pages, the fashion pages, event listings, movie reviews. And newsgathering has always been the most expensive part of generating that bundle.

Parts of it are worthless a month after the event. Thanks to the internet, parts of it are worthless after minutes. But some  parts are worth something a year, a decade or even a century later. Isn’t it time papers figured out which is which and started devoting more attention to bits that can provide either readers’ cash or readers’ eyeballs for years?

Lisa Simpson: Cheer up, Dad. Did you know the Chinese use the same word for ‘crisis’ as they do for ‘opportunity’?
Homer: Yes. Crisitunity.

I can’t remember when Irish journalism last looked so interesting. I may be paying closer attention with a view to returning home from Britain but I also can’t help noticing many more people are finally talking about the future of news in Ireland.

In the apocryphal Chinese proverb, interesting times are double-edged, of course. It is the sinking of print circulation and advertising revenues that is behind this drive to find a model that works (and pays) for Irish journalism on mobiles, tablets and the web. And that will mean further job losses and remaining journalists being required to do more.

However, job losses and growing workloads have been the reality in Western newspapers for years. It is only over the past couple of months that I’ve seen a concerted drive by Irish journalists to figure out the future of their trade. Even more significant I think is the visibility of this conversation between papers and new media outfits and between journalists of all stripes and their readers.

Old media Vs …

Six weeks ago, Alan Crosbie, the chairman of Thomas Crosbie Media, which publishes the Irish Examiner and The Sunday Business Post,  gave a speech entitled “Media diversity and why it matters”. One line – “the threat to humanity posed by the tsunami of unverifiable data, opinion, libel and vulgar abuse in new media” – understandably overshadowed the wider point of the speech, which was a plea for newspapers to get a share of television licence fee funds. Despite that, the whole speech is worth your time. For example, Crosbie rightly points out that good journalism should be platform-independent:

“What’s important is the information itself, not what carries it.”

He also says information needs to be of good provenance. I couldn’t agree more, but where his argument falls down is in assuming that it is only newspapers that verify information and in missing possibly the greatest tool to help in verifying any piece of online information – the weblink. It is one of newspaper websites’ greatest failings that they have ignored linking out for so long.

Shane Hegarty, the Irish Times Arts Editor, knocks down Crosbie’s argument well here (although I found it odd he didn’t make reference to a commentary piece three days earlier by Conor Brady, the former Irish Times editor, which was largely in favour of the argument for a state subsidy).  As a counterpoint to Crosbie’s arguments, Hegarty cites the words of John Paton, who despite almost constantly berating newspaper executives is fast becoming their guru du jour.  Hegarty sums up Paton’s approach well in what should be a mission statement for publishers everywhere:

“It is about innovation rather than retrenchment; collaboration rather than the ‘Them vs Us’ attitude that is prevalent across the media spectrum and which coarsens much of the discussion.”

… New media

We need to bear in mind that the technology making these conversations so much more visible today is the same as that most often cited for the destruction of print’s business model – the web. Brady’s piece offers praise for some of Ireland’s emerging “new media”  producers:

There are, of course, some fine internet-based news media. For example, high standards, combining accuracy and urgency, are set by storyful.com, established by RTÉ’s former man in Washington, Mark Little. David Cochrane’s politics.ie is a valuable and intelligent forum for discussion of important public issues. thejournal.ie is an excellent public notice board.

I can’t help thinking the praise is a little faint, and I think I know why. Brady, in trying to offer examples of publications that meet his notion of broadsheet quality, looks at these as standalone offerings – not as parts of a network. The three sites he named are among the most prolific users of Twitter and Facebook to share their stories, to solicit story ideas, and to spread their (my apologies) brand. All three have a fraction of the staff and overheads of a newspaper and the first two have a bigger reach on Twitter and Facebook than any Irish broadsheet but the Irish Times. As my admittedly beermaths graph below shows, thejournal.ie beats all Irish newspapers hands down.

A graph of irish news sites' twitter and facebook followers

Facebook 'likes' and Twitter followers for selected Irish news sites as of Mar 16, 2012

The other side of that coin, of course, is that if their standards ever fall below what’s expected by readers, they will hear about it early and often through the same channels. While individual journalists are active on social media, Irish papers as institutions  have a long way to go to reach that level of interaction with their readerships.

No Irish newspaper is going to be Ireland’s New York Times or Wall Street Journal.  But they work in a small market that has a mix of newspapers in terms of size, disposition and demographics. Ireland also has a growing network of (sorry) “new media” businesses.

Hasn’t the stage already been set for Irish papers to experiment online? Doesn’t it make sense that instead of chasing drive-by viewers of single articles that more intense relationships are built with more devoted readers? As Bernie Goldbach pointed out in a post on Friday, isn’t it about time we got Ireland’s local newspapers engaged online? Thomas Crosbie Media and the Independent group both own local papers in addition to their nationals – why aren’t they trying to build a news and advertising ecosystem focused on (and assisted by) readers and advertisers in those communities, and let the knowledge gained in the process have a knock-on benefit to their flagship papers?

Facing the future

I’m not naive enough to think that Irish journalism will figure out a solution to  declining newspaper circulations and falling ad revenues at its first attempt, but it has begun to admit the problem and address it openly.

I was cheered and saddened by a Roy Greenslade post last week quoting Hugh Linehan, the online editor of the Irish Times:

“… let me be really frank and lay my cards on the table: I think print will die.”

There is nothing new in “print will die”. It echoes a 2010 statement by Arthur Sulzberger on the New York Times:

“… we will stop printing the New York Times sometime in the future, date TBD.”

I would miss the notion of a print edition of the Irish Times, but I buy it once a week and nostalgia won’t pay their bills. I do, however, find it heartening that the environment has finally changed enough to allow open contemplation of a world where it no longer exists on paper. It’s also worth pointing out that the seminar where Linehan voiced his opinions on the future of print was also attended by representatives of the Irish Examiner, journal.ie and storyful.

Critics will no doubt point out that talking about journalism won’t save it, but from where do they expect the ideas that will? Acknowledging openly that print is screwed and engaging with your “competition” shows a much healthier side to the Irish journalism debate. As long as nobody gets too carried away – a final word of “I’m not the Messiah” warning from John Paton, as reported in the New York Times:

According to Mr. Paton, his new employees at MediaNews were hoping to discern the silver bullet that would enable them not only to survive, but prosper. Instead, he worked his way through a detailed presentation about outsourcing most operations other than sales and editorial, focusing on the cost side that might include further layoffs, stressing digital sales over print sales with incentives, and using relationships with the community to provide some of the content in their newspapers.

“When I finished, they looked crestfallen,” he said, adding that they seemed to be asking, ‘No secret sauce? No magic program to make us go from print to digital? Anyone can do what you’re talking about.’ “

Declan Lynch has form when it comes to spouting nonsense about online journalism. While his column has clearly shown he knows next to nothing about the web (Twitter is little more than “a bunch of people talking about what they had for breakfast”), as a long-time columnist for the Sunday Independent, shouldn’t he know a bit more about the history and economics of newspaper publishing?

Just as newspaper chief executives longingly hark back to a golden age of growing circulations, advertisers jamming the switchboards and profit margins rarely seen outside drug dealing, Lynch hangs his piece on a golden age of quixotic but brilliant editors such as the Observer’s David Astor, who hired disgraced butlers and former lion tamers (he doesn’t mention that he also hired George Orwell and kept the Observer running by using his family fortune).

Lynch “senses echoes” of Aenghus Fanning, the late Sunday Independent editor, in Robert McCrum’s description of Astor. It seems odd that Lynch misses the echoes in Astor eventually selling the Observer to an oil magnate for £1, given that is how much Alexander Lebedev paid Independent News & Media for the Sunday Independent’s sister titles in London.

Lynch has little time for “the noise” of an industry “bamboozling themselves” with “gibberish” as it faces the “challenges of the online age” and suggests the industry just start talking about it. Yet his piece makes no mention of the fairly digestible problems facing newspapers – falling circulation, falling advertising revenues, the impact of 24-hour TV news and the impact of the internet.

Instead, his latest solution (last time it was paywalls) is more comment, less news. In case you think I am oversimplifying:

“Given that most people don’t get their news from the paper any more, the one outstanding service that any paper can provide, is a view — a commentary, a perspective on what has happened.”

First off, it’s a long time since most people got their news from a paper – “most people” get their news from television.

Brushing aside the lack of research on his part, has Lynch been online? The notion that newspapers can hold up commentary as some sort of USP (that’s unique selling proposition, in case you’re bamboozled) is ludicrous. For comment, it is already a very crowded marketplace – Huffington Post, Slate, Salon.com, The Spectator, the New Statesman, the Atlantic, the Economist, to name but a few, not to mention every other newspaper, magazine and an ever-present army of bloggers who will comment on anything. For free.

Lynch also has a pop at those meanies who told him you needed to be a provincial reporter covering boring court cases for years to earn your spurs as a proper journalist. Despite offering evidence for neither, he says:

“So they were wrong about that, and they weren’t right either about the old chestnut that ‘comment is free, but facts are sacred’.

The ‘comment is free’ bit, as any reader of The Guardian or watcher of their bizarre TV ads knows, is from an essay by another legendary editor, CP Scott. Had Lynch read it, he would have come across this bit:

“There are people who think you can run a newspaper about as easily as you can poke a fire, and that knowledge, training, and aptitude are superfluous endowments. There have even been experiments on this assumption, and they have not met with success.”

I am confused as to why Lynch thinks that a newspaper could be saved by having a class of professional commenters kept safely behind a paywall, but not by an open-market class of reporters and editors who have served their time learning a trade. And therein lies the rub. Filling a paper with comment is far cheaper than filling it with news. Filling it with free comment is cheaper still and there is plenty of it about. Lynch should be careful what he wishes for.

I am a sucker for these things. CJR asks New York Times media columnist David Carr to go through his bag.