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Mark Evans

Brilliant interview with Max Brooks by Empire magazine here. I haven’t seen World War Z yet because I haven’t read the book yet. Must rectify that before a member of the undead snacks on my cerebellum. Great insights into the writing process, shenanigans with Hollywood, politics with China and steadfastly refusing to do his work any disservice. A tip of the hat to Mr Brooks.
Choice quote…

I went looking for a zombie survival guide. Nobody had written it, they were all off ‘having a life’, and I didn’t have that problem so I thought, ‘You know what? I have two extraordinary gifts: I have an excessive compulsive disorder and unemployment. And I’m going fuse them into a book.’ So I sat down and wrote zombie survival guide.
Max Brooks

PS, Yes, his dad is Mel ‘Blazing Saddles’ Brooks. Which raises the question – was Mongo a bean-eating zombie?

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There’s a nice video piece on the BBC website on how they took that record-breaking panoramic shot from the top of the BT tower. I quite like the bit which says the top of the tower “only” moves 12 inches in 100mph winds.

The company behind the shot, 360Cities.net, has panoramas from around the world on its website including this moody shot of the river running through Cork city.

 

Awful puns aside, there are two photos this week that absolutely blew me away. The first is from the amazing Curiosity rover, beaming back high-res images from the surface of Mars. This week it took one at night:

Mars under a blacklight – like a 90s nightclub

It may not seem like much, but this is a picture taken in the absence of sunlight on a planet that is at least 34.6 million miles away. The idea is to see if anything fluoresces under ultraviolet light. That the camera is mounted on a nuclear-powered, laser-wielding robot car only adds to my awe at what Nasa and its engineers and contractors come up with.

The second photo is from a camera that spent a mere five minutes outside Earth’s atmosphere, strapped to a rocket.  Five minutes is not enough to take a usable picture of my incessantly blinking extended family, but it was apparently enough for scientists to snap a 165-frame flipbook of ultraviolet radiation that was  detailed enough to solve one of science’s weirder solar conundrums. Watch the video — that is the thing responsible for all life on this planet:

Once upon a time, people paid to have their businesses listed in the Golden Pages. Once upon a time, it was against the law to give somebody information about where to get a perfectly legal abortion in a foreign country. One day, I will have to tell my incredulous children these stories about things made irrelevant by the internet. Yesterday, I was given a third.

Once upon a time, newspapers used to sue people for sending them an audience.

Apparently, “there is a fight under way that will have an enormous bearing on the future of the news industry in Ireland”.

Gather ye round kids, and I will tell you of Y2K, SARS, Blur-vs-Oasis, Pippa Middleton’s bum and many other tales that were blown out of all proportion by Irish newspapers.

At the centre of the supposed row (really just a conference organised by the National Newspapers of Ireland) is a review into Irish copyright law and the doctrine of “fair use”. Leaders in at least two of the Irish newspapers, the Independent and the Examiner, maintain that search engines “steal” their content without paying a penny in return.

The Irish Independent yesterday wrote:

“Website giants are taking journalism at no cost and offering it for free — even though it is costing jobs and livelihoods in the trusted media sector.”

The Irish Examiner wrote:

“The scale of the piracy is astounding. In 2010, while every media company in the country shed jobs and cut costs to the bone, a single search engine operating in Ireland offered around 150,000 newspaper articles that cost publishers an estimated €46.5m to generate. Last year that site offered more than 350,000 articles at a cost equivalent to more than €110m. And all without paying one cent to those who created those articles.”

We know (because it was in The Irish Times) that the “website giant” and “single search engine” mentioned is Google, no stranger to such accusations — Rupert Murdoch once referred to them as a “piracy leader”. But at least he had the courage of his convictions and stopped the search engine from indexing The Times when it went behind a paywall (it has resumed listing since then. I wonder why?).

It is that point more than any other that shows up the ludicrous hypocrisy of newspapers complaining about search engines “stealing” their content.

Newspapers have thrown up the shop shutters, spread out their wares and asked Google to please tell people about them. Or, as the Examiner puts it, a “process … hardly different to what we more commonly describe as theft”.

So why don’t they just ask Google to stop? Every newspaper website contains a file called robots.txt which tells Google what it may or may not index. If the executives at the Indo and Examiner want Google to stop listing everything on their websites, they just have to push a button. Or at least ring the editor, tell him to ring the head of IT, and he will ask Jim, “on the website”, to push the button.

But, of course, they will not. If they shut Google out, their online advertising revenues, already small, will fall. This is not a moral argument, with newspapers telling search engines to do the right thing and pay their way. This is newspapers demanding a renegotiation, saying “please sir may I have some more”.

Irish newspapers are in trouble. Circulations are falling, ad revenues are falling, and digital revenues come nowhere near to making up the difference. And the managements of Irish newspapers do not know what to do.

If you question that, take another look at those numbers:

“Irish industry group the National Newspapers of Ireland (NNI), of which The Irish Times is a member, said Google had offered 150,000 newspaper articles in 2010 that had cost publishers around €46.5 million to produce. Last year, this increased to more than 350,000 articles that cost the industry €110 million to originate.”

At a time when publishing has never been more widespread, easier or cheaper, these guys think lax copyright is the problem, not that each article costs them an average €314 to produce?

Let us completely ignore the fact that newspapers regularly “copy and paste” material from other sources, both public domain and not-so-public domain, and pass it off as their own, original, copyrightable work. Let us not hold our breath when we ask: do they always pay freelance newspaper contributors to reprint their copyrighted work online?

€314 per article? I don’t know what shift rates are like in Ireland these days but I’m guessing they’re less than that and I’m guessing most papers expect more than a story per day.

If this were any other industry, it is journalists who would be asking the sensible questions:

  • Doesn’t Irish copyright law already make selling somebody else’s original work as your own illegal? (Yes, for a given value of original.)
  • Would this be difficult and costly to enforce? (Yes, incredibly so.)
  • Will it stop people reading “free” news online? (Of course not.)
  • Will print publications be subject to the same rules? Digests in The Week and The Economist both carry more text than a Google link. Will they have to pay?

Newspapers are not dying because people online can read their stories without paying them. Newspapers are dying because the property and recruitment booms ended, because classified ads moved online, because they were poorly managed (aimless regional expansion, propping up vanity titles in London, €50 million for myhome.ie, anyone?) and just because technology passed them by for almost 20 years.

You are not going to solve a 21st-century technological problem by strengthening a law introduced to regulate 18th-century printing presses.

The Examiner says “Newspapers do not want or expect special treatment”, but that is not how it looks. Earlier this year, Alan Crosbie, the chairman of Thomas Crosbie Media, which owns the Examiner, essentially pleaded for a portion of the TV licence fee that funds RTÉ.

John Lloyd, a contributing editor to the FT, said the speech was driven by “the passion of desperation”. Given the parlous state of TCH finances reported in The Phoenix last month, it is unlikely that desperation has gone anywhere.

Paywalls are often suggested as a cure for newspapers’ revenue woes. I’ve written here before about why I think they’re not, but the main reason is that there will always be other sources of news. Such as the BBC and, in Ireland, RTÉ. They are not going anywhere as news-gathering organisations, despite the wishful thinking of the NNI, and as long as they’re around, Google will have news content to link to.

Google will not pay you for the privilege of linking to your content. The notion is akin to Borris-in-Ossory demanding payment from anyone who gives directions to a motorist, because it cannot extract enough money from them when they arrive. Google will just stop indexing your websites and traffic will dry up.

It is hard to think of a more misguided, and pointless “row” to be having in the face of the difficulties Irish papers are enduring than over whether copyright is strong enough. In 20 years’ time my kids will be asking what it was.

“Boss, circulation’s down, ad revenues are down, the kids are all reading for free online. What do we do?”

“Somebody get me a Golden Pages. We need a copyright lawyer.”

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?

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

Almost all Irish newspapers posted largely predictable slides in their circulation figures yesterday, with sales of the Irish Times falling below the psychologically important 100,000 mark.

Interestingly, however, the Times also posted audited figures for some of its digital editions – 2,023 for its online e-paper and 1,687 for subs on what they call “other platforms, such as Kindle” – I assume that’s e-readers as its iPhone and Android apps are currently free.

Some beermat maths: The Kindle edition costs £14.99 (€17.65) a month, the epaper between €13.33 and about €50 a month depending on how you pay. So that comes to somewhere between about €56,000 and €133,000 a month. That leaves the Times some way to go to make up for the missing 6,393 sales (worth about £325,000 a month on cover price alone).

Although Liam Kavanagh, the MD, said he was happy with the print + apps + epaper total, by far the most interesting thing he said yesterday was again raising the prospect of a paywall,  “particularly in the context of business coverage and niche content”, at irishtimes.com. That may explain the heavy trailing for their revamped daily business supplement.

I do hope the Irish Times isn’t basing its plans on the success of the Financial Times and Wall Street Journal’s paywalls. I’ve written here before that I don’t think a general interest newspaper can compete with such specialist publications. Irish newspaper executives are almost certainly also looking at the relative success of the New York Times’s paywall (although plummeting advertising revenues take the gloss off that, too).

In the US, Gannett announced yesterday that it was going to put up a metered-use paywall at 80 titles. The company, which owns 200 titles in the UK, claims the US paywalls could increase revenues by $100 million. I’ll believe it when I see it. In London yesterday, News International announced a new “digital pack”, essentially doubling the online price of the Times of London and the Sunday Times. The Times claims 119,255 digital subscribers, but doesn’t break them down between web-only and print subscribers and doesn’t indicate what kind of reader turnover it suffers.

In short, the titles that use or plan to use paywalls are either so specialised, so over-optimistic or so secretive, it is very difficult to extract any meaningful indication of whether such a strategy would work in a market as small as Ireland’s. My suspicion is that it would not.

Publishers need to be made fully aware that paywalls are no panacea – at the Paywall Strategies conference in London yesterday, the Economist’s Audra Martin said it had doubled the content it produced over the past two years.

“Just putting print online was never going to be enough,” she said. “We had to up the amount and frequency we were publishing.”

Although the potential rewards are great – the Economist’s operating profits rose 6 per cent  in the first half of 2011 – how many publishers would commit to such a large increase in journalistic output while maintaining its quality?

Media_httpwwwmediabis_flghi

Before newsrooms develop video strategies or tablet solutions or think of revenue streams, they should tag, tag, tag, tag, tag

A fact. It seems like the simplest, most unshakeable thing in the world. But so few people seem to understand what it means. A fact is something we know to have taken place.

Something that somebody says happened is an allegation. It stays an allegation until some evidence or testimony is produced that confirms it. That is how the law works. That is a fact.

In the flurry of internet postings about Kate Fitzgerald’s sad last days, facts are sadly lacking. That is largely because in Kate’s last article for the Irish Times, facts were lacking. She wrote it under a pseudonym, one assumes, for a reason. She didn’t want to embarrass her employer or her friends, perhaps. She certainly didn’t name any of them. However, she made at least one serious allegation, that her employers acted “illegally”.

As long as her employer remained unknown, that allegation was not an issue. Her employer was The Communications Clinic, as every dog in the street now knows.

The minute that information became known, Kate’s allegation became legally actionable. By the time it was published, she was dead. Without Kate to testify that her allegation was true, the Irish Times could not put it to The Communications Clinic and they could not  hope to eventually face their accuser. In Ireland, the dead have no legal reputation to protect. Until a court finds otherwise, The Communications Clinic is entitled to its good name. Like it or not, that is the law. That is a fact.

The anger at this reality is palpable, but it is not immediately clear from where it all comes. Some of it is intemperate and misguided — commentators on broadsheet.ie and the Irish Times Facebook page have confused Kate’s story with the case of Karagh Fox, a woman who claimed she was bullied by the Communications Clinic. The case settled out of court.

Others accuse Peter Murtagh of “outing” Kate as the anonymous author, when it was her parents who contacted him. Many demand that Kevin O’Sullivan, the editor of the Irish Times, reinstate allegations for which he can provide no evidence. Craziest of all, others still suggest that Terry Prone runs some sort of Illuminati-like PR agency that controls, unchallenged, the Irish political and media landscape. The mob suggests that the Times, having given into unproven pressure from the supposedly unaccountable Prone, can redeem itself by giving in to pressure from utterly unaccountable Facebook members.

We are into the territory of people believing in conspiracy over cock-up and, frankly, it’s not credible. Nor, unfortunately, is it easily combatible. The web has, yet again, made somewhat an ass of the law.

Be in no doubt, the Irish Times has botched the handling of this from start to finish. Reading between the lines of Hugh Linehan’s post today suggests they are well aware of it. But it is possible to do the right thing, legally, ethically and journalistically and still be painted as the bad guy in the minds of the public.

“Explaining is losing” is bullshit. Some reasonable commentators are finally emerging and as Hugh pointed out there are most certainly lessons to be learned. A refresher course in when to use pseudonymous sources and a seminar in jigsaw identification, for starters.  But no amount of mob rule, no matter how emotive the issue, should sway the editor to reinstate an article he is not convinced is factual.

Anyone who wants to continue the vitriolic campaign against the Times, I suggest they go read this post from Colette Browne. It may remind you of the more important message at the centre of all this.

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Purely in the interests of disclosure, I worked for the Irish Times a decade or so ago, and with Hugh Linehan specifically. He’d be the first to tell you he had no influence on my opinions