Irish journalism is living in interesting times
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.
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.
“… 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.’ “