Posts Tagged ‘Hugh Linehan’

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.

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.’ “

I would suggest not much.
Two things here – few news outlets in the UK are convinced that the BBC has overnight started taking seriously its distorting effect on broader media. It is the BBC making a smart gambit (for a change). The Tories are almost certain to form the next UK government and they will be gunning for the BBC, as this morning’s Telegraph points out.
Peter Kirwan sums up the approach well in the Press Gazette, but the gist is that the Beeb has offered up a sacrificial limb or three. The loud response from its fans, especially those of BBC 6 Music, should raise doubts as to whether any of these ‘cuts’ will see the light of day.
Secondly, RTE’s hybrid funding model muddies the water somewhat for the purposes of any comparison with the BBC. It is very difficult to argue against a supposedly public-service broadcaster engaging in commercial sidelines, such as RTE.ie/news, when the status quo is that more of the public service activities are paid for by advertising than by the licence fee.
As for Adrian Weckler’s post, which Hugh references, it definitely raises some interesting questions, but his statement that “it is RTE’s commercial spin-offs, more than any other entity, that are behind the demise of newspapers’ potential survival” ignores years of underinvestment and lack of imaginative management by newspapers in Ireland and worldwide, ignores the decamping of classified advertising to free sites such as craigslist and gumtree — nothing to do with RTE or BBC —  and rather hyperbolically overstates the importance of RTE in the Irish media ecosystem. If free online news sites were that threatening to commercial media interests in Ireland, it would make it profitable for somebody to fill the gap even if RTE vacated it. A similar situation exists in the UK – the Guardian has committed itself to staying outside a paywall because it does not want to “close off journalistic options”, despite how many other outfits follow Rupert Murdoch’s lead.
The second problem I have with Adrian’s argument is that he suggests that RTE.ie is an entirely separate commercial body, but doesn’t clarify where its profits go. If someone on the Authority is pocketing them, that’s one thing. If they reduce the burden on the licence fee payer of paying for RTE’s actual public service commitments, what’s the problem? The RTE Guide has long existed as an entity separate to RTE’s core public service duties yet never seemed to attract this much attention.
As an aside, Adrian’s post also raises the point that RTE’s website news staff are paid less than those who work in the TV and radio newsrooms. If memory serves, a similar split long existed between employees of ireland.com and those Irish Times journalists who worked in D’Olier Street. It has certainly been an unfortunate fact of life on this side of the channel. Can Adrian confirm that no Thomas Crosbie Media holding enforces such a sliding salary scale for its web-only employees?
There is certainly an interesting public service argument to be had here, but it will be much more beneficial to the diversity and future of Irish media if the vested interests Hugh refers to — purely profit-driven companies, such as Adrian’s employer, and effectively charitable enterprises, such as the Irish Times Trust — put their cards on the table.
I completely agree with Hugh that RTE has failed to engage publicly about the best way to maintain a vigorous and diverse media into the 21st century and would love to see them experiment more along the lines of BBC, with iPlayer and Project Canvas. But for Irish media in general to  “move out of its habitual defensive crouch on these issues” the Times, TCH, the Independent and the rest are going to have to meet RTE a little closer to halfway.