Committing acts of journalism
Lessons to be learned for the trade from the Anglo tapes and coverage of Sean Parker’s wedding
It was an interesting week for students of the journalism game. You can probably say that, though, about most weeks in these quarters, as there seems to be endless examples of how we got to where we are and what the hell we’re going to do – or not do – about it.
On the one hand, you had the Anglo tapes, the Irish Indepedent’s scoop involving recordings of a bunch of Anglo Irish Bank rogues singing, dancing and acting the gom. On the other hand, you had Sean Parker’s lengthy screed about press coverage of his wedding as he called shenanigans on current media methods and modes. And there are some fascinating details about how the media now operates to be extrapolated between these very different swings and roundabouts.
Leaving aside the question for now of how they actually ended up in Talbot Street in the first place, the Anglo tapes are a scoop in the old-fashioned sense. The content of these recordings immediately grabbed public attention and caused widespread anger, as the sound of a bunch of bankers sending their fellow Irish citizens down the swanny and having a good laugh about it at the same time raised blood pressure up and down the country. We knew that those bankers were at the heart of the mess which started to unwind back in 2008 and here was conclusive proof of how they were carrying on at the time. Heaven only knows what’s to be found on tapes from other banks and government departments – and heaven only knows if we’ll get to hear them.
Everything you heard or felt or thought last week about the Anglo Irish Bank and its antics flowed from those tapes and how the Indo presented them. Every day, there were new soundbites, knock-em-dead quotes and revelations. As Sunday Times’ editor Frank Fitzgibbon pointed out, the daily drip feed was reminiscent of how the Daily Telegraph handled their story on MPs’ expenses and there was nothing competitors could do but sit back and admire their handiwork through gritted teeth. Competitors also couldn’t ignore the story and this led to more pieces, more coverage, more analysis and, hopefully, more digging.
The amount of work which went into the story was also noteworthy. Speaking on the Marian Finucane Show yesterday, Indo political editor Fionnan Sheahan spoke about the lengthy due diligence which went into making sure the tapes were up to scratch. It wasn’t a case of the tapes landing on a desk on a Friday morning and making the front page on the Monday. It was old-fashioned spade-work, the sort of thing which journalism and especially newspapers aren’t supposed to be investing in anymore.
After all, if you’re to believe Sean Parker, media has gone to the dogs. The man who has played significant roles in Facebook and Napster took to his computer to write about his recent wedding and especially negative coverage of same. What he experienced, he said, was “a media backlash of epic proportions, a firestorm of press attacking our wedding with the most vitriolic language we’d ever seen in print. At the same time, a mob of Internet trolls, eco-zealots, and other angry folk from every corner of the Internet unleashed a fury of vulgar insults, flooding our email and Facebook pages…this was the sort of angry invective normally reserved for genocidal dictators.”
While part of you wonders just how naive Parker is if he hasn’t experienced this kind of thing before now especially if he bothers to patrol the various media domains he has brought into the world, he does have a point when he fingers some of the media coverage. Acts of daily journalism, to quote Gus Haynes, are now reactive. A story happens and that’s the starting-gun for a plethora of coverage, ranging from opinion pieces, analysis and colour features to lists of 22 Weirdo Eco Weddings or 11 Things Sean Parker Left Out Of His 9,500 Word Rant. Within a few hours, every media organisation has reacted in one way or another to the story and given their spin or take on it. Woe betide any sensitive souls who find themselves in the firing line.
There has never been a time of so much media, but there also has never been a time of so much media covering the same stories in much the same way. It’s why so many people express annoyance, boredom and frustation at how the media operate and what is covered. The same stories, the same angles, the same snark and the same opinions don’t make for good reads. Either, note to the gallery, does the sight and sound of media organisations losing the rag at each other.
Which is why the Anglo tapes made such an impression. While everyone jumped in with their reports and analysis once the Anglo tapes were published, the initial heavy lifting was done by the Indo and they deserve all the credit for that. A week ago as the story hit the presses, no-one but the Indo knew what they had on their hands and were about to roll out all week. It will be interesting to see what effect the story had on the paper’s circulation, as this was a big ‘un and big stories usually, in the past anyway, helped the bottom line.
It will also be interesting to see if this will have any effect on how papers operate, if any cool, calm contemplation of the state of the media nation over the holiday season will lead to changes. While there has to be a caveat that big stories like the Anglo tapes only come along every so often, there’s no doubt that there are other stories like this out there waiting to be discovered in dark, dusty corners.
The sad fact, though, is that most papers and media organisations just can’t afford to and won’t invest anymore in the time, patience and resources needed to dig these stories out. Instead, it’s about the daily grind, getting the same news out as everyone else and making sure it gets to all those different platforms, from print to tablet, that media orgs now believe are so vital to their survival. Occasionally, stories will be broken before anyone else, but they’re rarely the big ones like Anglo, which more than pay back the investment in time and resources.
Rather than accepting that readers want something different, we seem hellbent on serving up the same diet, with some slight differentials in protein and roughage depending on the target audience. The fact that great stories that no-one else has still work their magic on readers like they’ve always done seems to have been forgotten in the rush to snark and add to the noise.