Do journalists understand what’s happening to newspapers?
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.
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.
New Candidatewatch platform launches today
It remains to be seen how much ’social’ or ‘online’ or ‘new media’ or ‘digital channels’ or whatever you’re having yourself will actually influence the outcome of General Election 2011. But there’s no doubt that the parties and individual candidates are paying a lot more attention to the tools offered by social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to communicate directly with voters. In the case of the larger parties, this often seems driven as much by a desire to be seen as down with the kids as by any real understanding of the potential (and the pitfalls) of new media.
In addition, a number of different online platforms are aiming to act as forums where voters can ask questions of candidates and track their answers over the course of the campaign. Some of these services appear to have been caught on the hop by the bringing forward of the election, and are struggling to get up and running in time to have an impact.
Today sees the launch of Candidatewatch, perhaps the most ambitious of these services. Originally set up in Germany, it has already operated during elections there and in Austria, Luxembourg and Ireland (the European Parliament elections in 2009). According to its founder, Gregor Hackmack, the objective is not just to facilitate communication over the course of the campaign, but to operate an ongoing service.
“We are planning to continue running the platform after the election,” says Hackmack. “This will enable voters to check whether the newly-elected TDs keep their campaign promises. Then, the questions of the electorate become yet more powerful.”
In Germany, since 2005, over 100.000 questions have been submitted by voters to more than 15,000 candidates and elected representatives. More than 80 per cent of these questions received a response. In 2010 the site, which is run by the non-profit ParliamentWatch. had 2.5 million users.
Check out Candidatewatch here and tell us what you think.
Want to give your opinions on the election on irishtimes.com?
It looks increasingly probable that the general election will be officially called next Tuesday, February 1st. Until then, you can read our ongoing coverage of the pre-campaign news here.
But with the start of the official campaign, we’ll be launching a full election microsite, where we’ll be trying out some new things – we hope to have more audiovisual content, more live coverage, more interactivity and more voices being heard.
Part of our plans involve offering a platform on irishtimes.com for anyone who wants to write a piece about any aspect of the election. Just send it to firstname.lastname@example.org and make sure it meets these simple criteria:
1) It’s 600 words or less
2) You’re willing to give your real name, which we can verify.
3) It doesn’t contain material which may be considered defamatory, which incites hatred or contains foul or abusive language, or is gratuitously offensive.
If you’re a blogger and would like us to republish one of your posts on irishtimes.com, we’d be happy to do so, attributing appropriately and linking back to your original content.
We plan to have the microsite up and running on February 2nd.
29 days and counting… #ge11 on irishtimes.com
So here we go. What could be one of the most transformative elections in the history of the State now seems certain (barring yet more pratfalls or misadventures) to take place on February 25th. You can follow The Irish Times’s election-related coverage here for the moment. When the campaign officially starts we’ll have more extensive coverage, analysis and debate right through until the last recount has taken place and the precise composition of the 31st Dail. If you have any suggestions/ideas about what we should be doing online, we’d be glad to hear them here. Or you can email us at email@example.com or get us on Twitter at @itelection.
I’ll be using this blog to keep an eye on media coverage, online and off, of the campaign, which in all but name has started already. And not too well for the Labour Party, to go by this contribution:
So what effect do Twitter referrals have on traffic to news sites? Next to none, apparently
It may seem strange or counter-intuitive to people like myself, who increasingly find themselves using Twitter as their preferred source of referrals and feeds for news content, reportage, opinion and analysis from media sites around the world, but new research from the European internet monitor AT Internet Institute shows that Twitter’s impact on news traffic in France is minuscule – only 0.1 per cent of referrals. Facebook is responsible for 1.3 per cent of traffic.
As PaidContent.org points out, these figures for Twitter are not dissimilar from those in the States, although Facebook has more referring power there.
It’s a well-known fact that journalists love Twitter for its speed, its brevity and its openness – it’s a gossip’s dream. But I wonder is it possible that their enthusiasm for the platform causes them to over estimate its importance in the media landscape?
Me and my shallow brain
My brain is turning to mush. My ability to concentrate on… oh, hang on a second. Gosh, look at that… now where was I? Yes, my brain is… Hey, look! A new email. What happens if I click on this? That was stupid. Right, so my brain is turning to… what’s that beeping noise?
Journalistic ethics, Twitter and the reporting of Gerry Ryan’s death
Last Friday afternoon, irishtimes.com had the biggest traffic spike we’ve experienced since our launch in 2008. Hundreds of thousands of people came to the site as news of the sad and untimely death of Gerry Ryan filtered out across the country.
By the time we published the story, at 3.20pm, it had already been the subject of wide discussion and speculation on social media networks and message boards for more than an hour. The Irish Times had received unofficial confirmation from authoritative sources that the story was true. We had our report written and ready to go. However, we did not publish until we received official confirmation from Gerry Ryan’s employer, RTE. In doing this, we were following the editorial guidelines we follow in relation to reporting the death of any individual, well-known or otherwise, in Ireland: official confirmation on the record from next of kin, employer or the emergency services is required before the name of the deceased person is published.
Since Friday afternoon, there’s been a heated online debate about the actions of some journalists on the day, including Una Mullally of the Sunday Tribune and Sunday Business Post technology editor Adrian Weckler, both of whom posted the story on Twitter well before it was officially confirmed. Between 2pm and 2.15pm, Weckler tweeted three times: ‘Gerry Ryan…? What?’, then ‘Another source in here claiming Gerry Ryan is dead’, then ‘Spreading like wildfire. Gaining credence. Still unconfirmed, though’. Weckler was cautioned online by broadcaster Matt Cooper and by Frank Fitzgibbon of the Sunday Times (‘Adrian, might be best if you wait until it’s confirmed, do you not think.? I believe he has a family’). RTE broadcaster Miriam O’Callaghan responded to Una Mullally’s tweeted query on the subject: ‘Tragically it is true. So terribly shocking and sad. Life is just too cruel sometimes. RIP’
When contacted by RTE, O’Callaghan deleted her comment, but it had already been widely republished (users can delete their own posts on Twitter, but have no control over them once they’ve been circulated by others). The Sunday Times put ‘Miriam’s tweet’ and the fallout from it on its front page, while Mullally wrote a lengthy article on the whole issue in the Sunday Tribune (strangely omitting her own involvement in the story, although she defends her position on that in her comment on Jim Carroll’s post here).
All of which might just look like an unseemly bout of media navel-gazing in the aftermath of a personal tragedy for Gerry Ryan’s family, friends and colleagues. But there are serious issues at stake here.
Journalists have daily access to information sources not available to the general public. With that access comes responsibility. Most media professionals know this and have it hardwired into the way they respond to such information – they discuss how best to proceed with their colleagues and editors. There is a chain of command which ensures things are done correctly and ethically. It doesn’t always work, mistakes can be made and standards may radically differ from one organisation to another, but recognisable decision-making systems are in place.
On Twitter, there’s no editor to make those calls. And, because of their immediacy and informality, social networks feel different from traditional media platforms, be they newspapers, broadcasters or websites. One minute you’re discussing the football match with your pal, the next you’re passing on the ‘scoop’ that a well-known person has died.
But for a professional journalist, the same ethical and legal responsibilities attach to publishing something on Facebook or Twitter as to printing it in a newspaper or saying it on a radio programme.
There’s been a lot of finger-pointing over this issue since Friday. As an editor, I have no particular desire to clamber onto high moral ground, but I do think mistakes were made and we all need to learn some lessons from them. Discussion of ethical issues in the media is often presented as some sort of Manichean battle between principle and profit, with the latter usually winning out. But really, it’s not like that. Yes, thousands of people came to irishtimes.com on Friday for this particular news, but they also went to other news sites, all of which had the same story up within minutes of each other. Short-term traffic gains made by running the story earlier would have been more than outweighed by the long-term damage created by a perception that we had behaved insensitively and inappropriately. Ethical and commercial considerations are not mutually exclusive. And there’s no particular commercial benefit to be extracted from posting on Twitter, either.
Newspapers and broadcasters risk devaluing their own reputations if their journalists are permitted to publish scattergun pieces of information they happen to pick up in the office. It’s not a question of censorship, but of editorial judgment and discipline. Maintaining those standards is a real challenge for all of us in journalism and it’s one we’re only really starting to consider properly.
There’s a lively discussion going on over at On the Record about this. You can read and comment on Una Mullally’s Sunday Tribune article here. And Adrian Weckler’s thoughts on the subject are here. There are a lot of interesting comments on all three pieces.
What does the BBC’s Strategy Review have to tell us about the licence fee in Ireland?
Maybe not a lot, but the news that the BBC is planning to cut back on its web activities, along with some of its other digital channels, signals a recognition that, in the UK, the public service broadcaster is taking seriously some of the points which are being made about the distorting effect it is having on the broader media environment. Its Strategy Review, published today, expressed the view ‘that BBC content could be more distinctive and ambitious in fulfilling its public service mission’, and ‘a concern that the BBC is not clear enough about where the boundaries are with the commercial sector,
On this side of the Irish Sea, as Adrian Weckler’s excellent post points out, the question of how RTE squares its publicly-funded service remit with its supposedly entirely commercial online activities is becoming more and more pressing. Like Adrian, I don’t believe that any newspaper has a God-given right to survive, but we do need to start talking seriously about whether public service broadcasters are really serving the public interest by using their licence-fee-funded muscle to establish a dominant position in the online news media.
In the UK, the BBC does not compete with its domestic rivals for advertising revenue, as RTE does in Ireland. But there’s still a vigorous debate there about the impact some of its new media activities are having – on regional newspapers, for example. There have also been attacks from the usual quarters (News International, Associated Newspapers etc) on the fundamental principles on which the British public service model is based.
As always, vested interests abound, and I have as many of them as the next man, but it’s depressing that in this country the national broadcaster has failed to engage publicly with the rest of us about the best way to maintain a vigorous and diverse media into the 21st century. There’s little sign here of the experiments in sharing footage which the Beeb has undertaken, and certainly no sign of the linking out to other sites which is now promised in the UK.
At last week’s Digital Media Awards (where modesty doesn’t prevent me from pointing out that irishtimes.com beat Morning Ireland and RTE News Now for the Best in Media award), Minister for Communications Eamon Ryan talked about the challenge of ensuring the survival of quality journalism in the future. It would be good to hear whether the Minister intends to follow up on those words with any actions, and whether RTE might move out of its habitual defensive crouch on these issues.
A tale of two public service broadcasters
I know it’s not always fair to make comparisons between RTE and the BBC – different scale, etc, etc – but the reaction on Twitter last night to those two public service broadcasters reflected my own feelings. Raspberries were generally blown in the direction of the Irish channel’s rehashed Tubridy Tonight, with a strangely muted Brendan O’Connor (how I longed for some of the sage analysis for which he is famed). The Twitterati are hard to please – who could reasonably argue with a bill of fare including both Twink AND Linda Martin?
Meanwhile, The Virtual Revolution on BBC2 had interviews with most of the people responsible for inventing the universe which you and I inhabit. OK, this history of the World Wide Web was a little gushy at times, and one might have wished for a bit more breadth and depth to the interviews, but the Beeb has made all the rough footage available online for people to do with as they please. Like this:
Increasingly, public service broadcasting on the other side of the Irish Sea means making all the data available online to the public who pay for it. What are the chances of that ever happening at RTE? If it does, I’ll pass on the Twink outtakes, though.
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