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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: September 19, 2011 @ 2:47 pm

    Do journalists understand what’s happening to newspapers?

    Hugh Linehan

    I’ve long been an admirer of Declan Lynch, whose mordant observations on life, death, sport, telly, drink and the whole damn thing are an excellent excuse to keep buying the Sunday Independent.

    However, his column yesterday depressed me, because it revealed again how even the smartest, wittiest, no-bullshit journalists are failing to get to grips with the challenges which now face newspapers.

    The column takes a strong position (nothing wrong with that) on paying for content, arguing that newspapers need to agree among themselves that they will cease publishing their content free online:

    The newspaper industry agonises endlessly about the challenges of the internet, and flagellates itself for failing to develop a “business model” for the online age. But then there has never been a business model, and there will never be a business model, which is based on giving it away for free.

    Which would all be very true, if it were not completely false. In fact, free newspapers have been the single largest growth sector in the business over the past 10 years. And, more broadly, lots of thriving media businesses are based on ‘giving it away for free’. When Declan sings the praises of Newstalk’s sport programmes, he’s describing a product which is ‘free’.

    That’s not to say that we shouldn’t charge if we can and where we can. When it comes to the whole paywall/free debate, this writer is an agnostic. The challenge facing those of us in the traditional media is to find new ways to sustain credible journalism against a backdrop of declining revenues – whatever it takes. If charging for content forms part of a successful strategy, then I’m all in favour. But the jury is still out on that. And focussing on paywalls to the exclusion of other issues (such as, for example, the fact that the biggest problem facing newspapers isn’t declining circulation; it’s declining ad revenues) doesn’t particularly help.

    It may well be true that the decision which newspapers, including this one, made in the mid-1990s to put all our content online for free was the Great Original Sin which has led to all our travails since. Certainly, if we’d known then what we know now, we would have done things differently. But here we are.  And, looking at the music industry, which took a diametrically opposed position on copyright, free online distribution, etc, one could argue that it might not have made much difference anyway.

    For the music industry, the newspaper industry and (coming soon) the TV and movie industry, the same disruptive technology is having the same effects. To confront that challenge, we need to be smart and flexible and quick. And not be spouting nonsense like this:

    Compared to Wikipedia, for example, the lowliest provincial paper in the most remote part of the English-speaking world is virtually a work of art, composed by magnificent writers and laid out by geniuses who are not just profoundly devoted to The Truth, they are decent, law-abiding, and they actually write under their own names.

    Sigh… Wikipedia, for all its faults, is a magnificent, admirable, fascinating resource. Sure, you shouldn’t use it to cure your cancer, but to fail to recognise its extraordinary value is to be sadly out of touch with the real, actual modern world.

    From there on, Declan’s column descends into familiar territory:  if it wasn’t linking to proper journalism, Twitter would just be about what people had for their breakfast. And bloggers are ‘just self-regarding bores without the writing talent or the commitment to the task that would get them a proper job in a newspaper’.

    This is the sort of ill-informed rent-a-rant guff one expects from the Sunday Indo, but not from Declan Lynch.

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    Declan should really take himself along to the Irish Film Institute this weekend. Andrew Rossi’s fly-on-the-wall documentary Page One: Inside the New York Times is showing there from Friday. Not only does it lay out the real issues faced by newspapers with admirable clarity: it also, in media correspondent David Carr, has a real journalist who does the legwork and understands what’s going on.

    • Kynos says:

      I paid for access to this on-line newspaper, one of the best in the world imo, for years when was living in PRChina and you had the paywall. I’d be happy to pay again for it, if thus it meant the survival of the IT, which imo is very much the steward of Christendom round these parts now that most all of our institutions have proven to hold nothing but dead men’s bones corruption and putrefaction. Ideally by direct debit or standing order. And not much more than say twenty smacks a month cheers. But go ahead on that basis.

    • Kynos says:

      Not saying that’s all it’s worth btw. Just that’s all I can afford. At the present time. IF we ever learn to stop betraying this country to cowardice inhumanity and rapine in every possible vector and dimension maybe we’ll get outta the shite again and you can charge more then. Be happy to pay whatever if could afford it like I say cheers.

    • Paul Murphy says:

      Sorry to break up a squabble. Respectfully, you’ve both missed the point.

      Traditional Irish print journalism has singularly failed to grasp the opportunities offered by the internet.

      The Irish Times’ transition to the online world can be summed-up in three words: cut and paste; a website with an old newspaper plastered on top. It’s not working. It’s not an experience worth having.

      Where is the quality video content? where are the columnists’ podcasts? (they cost buttons to produce) Why aren’t news conferences streamed live?

      Forget the conventions of print. How many of your journalists/columnists walk out of the door with a camera or audio recorder? I suspect they might have done ‘the course’ but looking at this site they appear to be shackled to conventions and traditions which haven’t really changed since Gutenberg.

      I would happily sit through advertising, even subscribe to a paywall, to get high quality bespoke online content from the some of best journalists in Ireland. Suspect I am not alone. Please sort it out.

    • Andrew says:

      Declan Lynch has always struck me as a younger John Waters. I do not mean that as a compliment.

    • DXII says:

      Maybe Lynch doesn’t appreciate how much of the – “work of art, composed by magnificent writers and laid out by geniuses who are not just profoundly devoted to The Truth, they are decent, law-abiding, and they actually write under their own names.” – is actually replete with material (and photos) lifted, unattributed, from Wiki?

      There are numerous bloggers (in the Irish sites alone) who might not get a job with Tony O’Reilly (political issues) but who as far better writers than Lynch. Does Lynch think that even if he were Shakespeare he’d get a job in the MSM if was an unapologetic (Irish) Republican?

      You get to work for The Man only if you don’t hurt his existential beliefs – or the interests of his pocket.

      Maybe, Hugh, time to stop buying the Sindo – as most thinking folk have done years ago?

    • Kynos says:

      I did a bit of looking around Mr Linehan and here’s a few thoughts. Globally, 61% of consumers use digital media (e.g. internet, WAP, smartphones, etc.); 54% use tv; 32% use newspapers; 36% use radio; 14% use magazines to get their daily dose of what’s happening (source: Digital Life study 2010). However, in the developing/emerging world digital access is where it’s at. In fact, in most countries that lack an established telecoms infrastructure mobile devices are the first and often only choice for accessing news. Half the population of China is accessing the internet via their mobiles (globally, 31% of digital media users use their mobiles. In N. America 45%, Europe 35%; MENA 32%; Latin America 25%; India 6% using mobile internet). There are 4 key factors behind this explosion of internet usage. The growth of sites like Twitter and Facebook, that allow users to freely express their feelings online. Unlimited data plans. Intuitive handsets. And improving user interfaces. In the Middle East North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa, it’s becoming clear that users prefer their mobile to the PC or the tablet (the latter only really featuring in USA and CN; EU and Far Asia) for multiple uses, digital music, calendars; navigation; file transfer (including bluetooth); games; video calls; instant messaging; downloading content; downloading applications and social networking. Social networking in particular has risen from 15% in 2009 (of all consumers using digital media) to 25% in 2010 in the developed world and from 10% to 16% in the emerging world. In both regions PCs are still prefered for email; banking; editing video and images (although in MENA mobile devices are edging PCs out in this regard); ebook reading; internet browsing; document editing and online shopping. The mobile phone is way ahead in terms of both current ownership and liklihood of purchase in the immediate future in the developing world generally. Indonesia and China are especially remarkable in terms of mobile usage and development of content for mobiles; fuelled by the likes of Huawei introducing cheap smartphones. Another difference between the developing world’s use of mobiles to access content vis-a-vis the developed world is the mode of transport dominating in both. In China Indonesia and similar public transport is the choice (or only method available to) of the majority, so morning and evening commutes are the time when everyone accesses online content; versus the US and EU where driving oneself is preferred and so content accessing is occuring before and after the rush-hour. In the developing world more crowded living conditions giving rise to an increased need for small form factor devices to aid privacy.
      It would seem to me the future of the Irish Times is indeed digital. MOreover it would seem to me that you could be doing a multi-lingual, multi-platform version. Anyway hope this is of some help and thanks to Mobile Life and Digital Life for the stats.

    • Paul says:

      Hugh,

      When Rupert Murdoch was toying with the idea of introducing/reintroducing pay-for-content to some of NewsCorp’s flagship papers – this is two or three years ago – I recall your comments on The Last Word radio show. You’re gist was, as I remember it, that the newspaper world should sit up and pay attention. In the same interview Terry Prone lambasted new journalism, or whatever they call it. You were both wrong, in my book.

      Having seen Brian Dobson’s interview of Geraldine Kennedy late last night I suggest this business model for Irish newspapers: journalism that doesn’t kowtow to anything except good journalism.

    • Hugh Linehan says:

      Paul,
      I may have said we should pay attention. I definitely didn’t say we should copy.

    • Paul says:

      Hugh,

      I didn’t write you did…

      But what about it, eh? A revolution in Irish journalism: culling of personal opinion columns to waste away Sunday mornings, insightful investigative series’ (well done The Examiner), complete unfaltering disconnection from political and business interests, reinstatment of local papers to their former glory and the bare bones of all the issues, all the time, every time; journalism to drag Ireland by her bra straps into 21st century; copy that people would be willing to pay for online.

      Asking too much?

    • Kevin Barrington says:

      Agree with you there that that was pretty poor from Declan Lynch…it almost degenerated into soundling like Ian O Doherty. (And that’s a serious insult)

      I think the Irish Times, however, could do something to combat the threat posed by social media by adopting a little attitude,.
      Instead hiring more games/apps reviewers, the paper could make more of the assets it already has.
      Take a look at Colm Keena for example.

      During the presidential election, he was one of if not the first on the Dana citizenship issue and he was all over Gallagher’s bizarre, byzantine business model.
      But as usual it was presented in the IT’s pulled punch prose. And that’s presuming it wasn’t buried in the business section in the first place.
      So someone with tenacity deconstructs the D’Olier St “raised eyebrow” – and tweets, blogs, broadsheets, jocks the story.
      Sure it may go beyond the boundaries of acceptable journalism but equally sure is the fact that very few would know the story emanated with the Times.

      Why doesn’t the IT get to own the implications of its own work? Perhaps because it does not tease out and dramatise the implications in the first place.

      Cherishing the journalistic equivalent of 19th century genteman’s mores is certainly not going to cut it today. Oh so subtle hints about cads and bounders get drowned out in a sea of pepper spray memes.

      An irritating thing is that quite a number of the actors needed to the provide attitude are there working in the paper already.

      But it’s muted investigation or ring fenced outre.

      The very fact that Fintan O Toole did not get the editor’s job would lead one to depair that anyone recognises this.

      Cheers

      Kevin.


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