Una Mullally

Society, life and culture on the edge

The Year of the Comment, and where do we go from here?

When John Cage came up with the line, “I have nothing to say and I’m saying it,” it was a commentary about minimalism. Repeated in his book ‘Silence’, Cage believed that emptiness could often speak just as loudly as that …

Thu, Jan 3, 2013, 17:47


When John Cage came up with the line, “I have nothing to say and I’m saying it,” it was a commentary about minimalism. Repeated in his book ‘Silence’, Cage believed that emptiness could often speak just as loudly as that which was full. Taken at its most basic, it could be about the space between sounds, the Bleeding Gums Murphy school of thought that one should “listen to the notes they’re not playing”, something that everyone from Gerhard Richter to Jamie xx has responded to. But what was a sort of a wry prophecy by Cage, has come true in a different sense. Only instead of space being filled with silence, it’s filled with noise.

If 2012 could be summed up as one thing for the media, it was The Year of the Comment. Most traditional news outlets are at sea in the digital world. Many are making progress creating interesting and valuable online experiences for their audience. But there’s creating content, and then there’s taking online commentary and dressing it up as content.

In news pages, sidebars are littered with tweets replacing copy. On news articles online, the race for interaction, as transparent and inclusive as that may be, frequently descends into useless sniping. Most of the information I consume is online. Not a day passes by when a super-interesting article or opinion piece, or hilarious tweet or unbelievable video adds some value to the information I’ve set out to digest that day. Sometimes, a thread on a blog post or article will throw up some interesting arguments. But it’s the relentless march of the cult of comment that gets me down. Everyone has to have an opinion and feels entitled to express it no matter how uninformed it is. And yes, I get the irony of this being a comment piece on a blog.

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I remember Kathy Sheridan speaking at a panel I organised for a series of journalism talks I run called Dancing About Architecture. Sheridan said that really in order to write properly, to get to the story and truly understand what was going on, you needed to look into the whites of people’s eyes. This means getting up from a desk, walking away from your computer and going outside to meet and talk to people. For many modern journalists, that activity is not a common one. Information has been replaced with comment. And filling space – the nothing to say but saying it anyway exercise of the media – has been dramatically influenced by the cult of comment.

Rolling news outlets such as Sky News are also under a lot of pressure to fill time. This is met with repetition, which is prone to speculation and blowing things out of proportion. I remember watching their coverage of Hurricane Sandy and not knowing whether to believe the situation was as bad as they were saying. It’s only when I was talking to a friend who lives in New York and heard it from the horse’s mouth that I felt as though I had a grasp on the situation. Rolling news outlets have eroded my trust by taking stories and sprinting off with them, leaving me wondering whether something crazy is really happening, or whether they’re making it out to be crazy just to fill out their broadcasting space. And all the while on news stations, comments run along the bottom of the screen.

So, what’s the easiest way to fill space these days? It’s to get other people to fill it for you. Gleam reactions from Twitter, treat trending topics as news stories, YouTube hits as an event worth talking about, memes as content, online spats as real conflicts, trolling as actual debate and comment, comment, comment. Forget what’s going on – what are people saying about it?

This cult of comment is something I’ve spoken to a lot of people about. And it’s something I’m also guilty of contributing to. I have a blog, on which I comment and react. I go on radio shows and television programmes and offer a point of view based on research and knowledge. I sometimes comment on newspaper articles online, but as I’m sure many other people find, submitting oneself to a comment thread is a frustrating experience with very little reward. For the same reasons I find myself increasingly switching off television programmes and radio programmes that embrace this cult of comment, be that a phone-in show or a panel programme structured around a polarised debate during which plenty of opinion is offered. Plenty of arguments happen, but nobody actually learns anything, and everyone goes home angry, their original convictions embedded further by the sport that has been played out of a pointless opinion match. And finally, I tweet a lot. Perhaps this engagement makes my argument defunct, or perhaps it enhances my observations.

One of the people I’ve spoken to this about is a friend of mine, Ronan Fitzgerald, who sparked my interest when he typed some thoughts in – you’ve guessed it – a comment thread over on Jim Carroll’s blog a while ago. Fitzgerald is the homepage editor of VirginMedia.com. I emailed him before Christmas asking the question, ‘What impact do you think the cult of opinion, the idea that everyone is entitled to have and broadcast their thoughts on something, has on debate in the media and online?’ His answer was interesting, so here it is in full:

I’m going to mainly talk about online comments, as that’s where my experience is, and because I think the TV/radio “text us what you think” approach is so clearly flawed. (Primarily because there’s generally no “debate”, just a long sermon of unchallenged one liners from deepest darkest anywhere.)

I think that it’s theoretically good that people can comment on an article and I think the poorly-argued article or the article written with factual inaccuracies deserves a bit of a ribbing below the line. But obviously, everyone’s idea of a poorly-argued article is different, and there are opposing opinions and people willing to express them on almost any topic.

There’s also an total saturation of comment and opinion online. If you’re at a computer, think of how many opinions or comments with blank boxes are in your tabs right now, adding on the requisite 30-odd if you have Facebook open or 300-odd if Twitter.

Expressing ourselves online is clearly a massively popular hobby. And so papers are just joining in.

But should we look to a paper for opinions about the most subjective areas like music, arts, social situations etc? Nobody is “qualified” to have an opinion and it’s this that both causes the rage in the comments (why him and not me?) and also highlights the lack of value of raw subjective pieces.

And of course papers publish things to rile readers or as comment-bait. “Getting people talking” may be of monetary value to websites, but it’s not a holy grail for good writing. (Maybe “getting people doing” would be since it’s clearly very easy to “get people talking” nowadays. There’s a big blank comment box begging them to use it.)

So the point I’m getting to is that the papers’ strength is in factual matters. You can’t easily argue with well-researched and factual reports of real events. You can’t simply argue with someone who has genuinely told a story about people in the world, who has been to a place, or met a person. What is the value of someone giving us their opinion on a highly subjective topic, or reacting to an “event” that happened on a blog, or on Twitter, as so many critics and journalists seem to do now?

Maybe not every article needs attached comments, but more than this, maybe there should be less articles which are simply a longer comment themselves? What is the worth of an opinion, today or any day? The irony is, to a paper’s finances, probably more than fact. But ideologically there’s not really a major reason why someone should be paid to express 1000-word opinions in today’s environment. Hence some of the rage?

Opinion is everywhere, as Fitzgerald points out. I’m giving you my opinion right now. There’s so much opinion, that we can now bookmark the outlets of whose opinions we want to read and block the opinions of those we don’t. We can unlike ideas and add our two cents to circular arguments on threads. We can read this post and comment on it. Discussion has become such a vital part of online interaction that old media feels as though it needs to grab a chunk of it, no matter how irrelevant most of those discussions are. For as long as the media has existed, it has been a gatekeeper. The internet flung those gates wide open, leaving traditional media grasping for the keys to the locks, and eventually, defeated, just inviting everyone to the party with little quality control.

Twitter is not a person, yet old media often treats it that way. ‘What does Twitter have to say about what happened?’ outlets ask, as if the reporter is Dorothy sent off to ask the Wizard of Oz. This allocation of importance to chatter is the fundamental flaw in how old media treats new. There is a widely held belief that old media is snobbish towards new, yet it is not snobbery but insecurity. ‘What does Twitter think?’ feels like a question posed to seek approval. Old media fronts like it doesn’t, but it places new media on a pedestal, giving it an outlet beyond its own, taking what is said online and placing it in the news pages, reading it out on a radio show, or running it on a ticker. Much of what Twitter has to say is, of course, totally redundant. It’s as redundant as a vox pop on Grafton Street from punters about the economy, or interviews with anonymous neighbours after a murder has occurred nearby. The Grafton Street shoppers offer their biased, brilliant or uninformed opinions, and the neighbours say “this sort of thing never happens around here”, even though it clearly just has.

Old media has become so obsessed with what the internet is talking about that useless information is promoted. Recently, the Irish Daily Mail gave over its editorial to a splash of Twitter comments. Last night, on the Six One News, there was a lengthy report about a man who swam in a pothole and uploaded a video to YouTube. None of this information is important. Quality reporting has been contaminated by scattered irrelevant commentary. ‘Let’s hear about the fiscal cliff from some schoolchildren in St Mary’s,’ Brian Dobson might say, instead of swiveling his chair in the direction of the business, economics or finance correspondent. All outlets would have been able to coexist and feed off each other, if the financial pressures brought by free news elsewhere didn’t mean that traditional media scrambled to be internety in order to keep up. In some cases they have. You can call me biased, but I think The Irish Times is doing a hell of a job keeping up, and beyond that, leading in Ireland. But mostly, across print, television and radio, traditional media hasn’t kept up at all.

Of course the cult of ‘experts’ preceded the cult of comment. And ‘experts’ have their own bias too. Frequently the ‘experts’ that end up on news programmes are not the ones who really know the subject best, but the ones who are available, reliable, entertaining, presentable and in the jargon of radio production ‘a good talker’. The same goes for freelance journalists. It’s not necessarily the best writers who get the gigs, but the ones who get their copy in on time, can file at the drop of a hat, and don’t screw up.

Because there is so much decent information available to us now, and because people don’t have to wait to hear what a newspaper has to say on the matter and they can gleam the details and opinions from endless other sources, I believe that as many people are becoming frustrated by the cult of comment as there are those who are unconsciously engaging with it. Because self-publishing and online platforms in terms of social media give everyone an outlet, anyone can offer an opinion about anything, regardless of their vested interests, racism, genius, idiocy, smartness, fairness, foolishness, and so on. Of course, often, it’s not the most valid or most informed opinion that we hear, it’s the one that is the loudest. Everyone now employs a wider filtering process in order to determine what information to listen to, but a lot of the time, it’s the louder stuff that gets through, not the smartest stuff. The Sunday Independent had the jump on everyone when it came to comment. For years, much of the newspaper has had an increasing amount of randomers offering their opinions instead of actual news stories. I’m not a fan, but the thing keeps selling.

It doesn’t take a content-analysis prodigy to realise that the amount of content now dedicated to opinion and reaction in newspapers in terms of a ratio to reporting is expanding. Meat and two veg reporting: ‘a bus crashed and a number of people were injured’ is defunct considering these stories initially migrated to rolling television news, then to online news sources and eventually to social media. Nobody is going to read the same report about the bus crash in the Evening Herald when they’ve read it on a free sheet on the DART that morning. Nobody is going to read a report on the same incident on Independent.ie when they’ve already seen it on TheJournal. Nobody is going to read about a bus crash in the newspaper the day after it happened when it was on one of their friends’ Facebook status updates a few minutes after the actual event occurred. Legacy media by and large acts like an obsessive ex when it comes to new media sources. If a traditional outlet doesn’t have the expertise to enhance their content online, the old guard questions the legitimacy of these new sources, attempts to discredit them, and when that doesn’t work, becomes increasingly neurotic and disparaging of its legitimacy to even exist. It’s embarrassing. The Internet sniggers at the back of the class while befuddled Professor News tries to make a case for his existence. It doesn’t matter if the professor once knew more than those laughing, because those laughing know more now.

Of course old media is being squeezed. Someone like me; a 29-year-old journalist who trained in a journalism school for four years, got a (paid!) internship at a Sunday newspaper followed by a one-year contract as a junior reporter, which then turned into a staff job until the newspaper folded, will probably never get a staff job again, even with ten years of experience. I graduated seven years ago, imagine how those who graduated 20 years ago feel. Those traditional routes have completely fragmented with many now closed off, and, of course, many more opening up, if you get what’s going on. Newspapers won’t exist in their current form when we’re ringing in the New Year in a decade’s time, which means plenty of people who exist in those traditional roles will also be defunct, as cruel as that sounds. As a print journalist, I find this kind of sad, in the same way that I find anything that I like disappearing sad; a much-loved band splitting up, trees being chopped down to make way for motorways, or indigenous industry being farmed out to cheaper markets. But as someone who also makes the internet my job, I find it annoying that old media seems to be just as interested in the bargain basement of digital content (reporting on pothole swimming) as it is in luxury items (the online outposts of The Guardian, The Irish Times, The New York Times, etc.) Naturally, as things have changed, new types of journalism gigs have opened up. New Irish outlets such as The Journal, which by and large relies on the traditional skills of journalism, and Storyful which has created a new model of a journalism agency in the digital age, will all create new jobs. Even RTE is currently advertising for something called ‘multimedia journalists’.

The problem for the craft of journalism itself, and indeed, for you, the reader or ‘content ingester’ or whatever you want to call yourself, is whether the traditional skills that make journalism what it is will be eroded by things like being amazing at collating data, or being a super fast churner-overer, or having a fantastic eye for seeing whether a YouTube video from a gun fight in Syria is real or fake, or speaking Mandarin. All of those skills are becoming more and more necessary – perhaps even vital – yet on their own they don’t do an incredible amount for the reader or viewer. If you can’t write for shit, your content won’t be enjoyably ingested. If you don’t have a nose for a story, then the reader won’t really see the importance of spreadsheets of data. If you haven’t spent years building up sources, then your stories will be offshoots of ones someone else has dug up. If you don’t have a depth of knowledge to distill what your content actually means then its just undistilled content. Someone else has a glass of whiskey, and all you’ve got is a barrel of malt.

So while all of these new skills are necessary, they are not stand alone talents, and need to be coupled with the traditional ones. Unfortunately for those who only have the traditional ones left, they will be phased out. This is sad, of course, but fault doesn’t just lie with old media being slow to adapt, it lies with the readers. I often said that if the same amount of people who commiserated over the Sunday Tribune closing actually bought the paper, then it wouldn’t have gone to the wall.

It’s also worth pointing out that much of the reliance of old media on content and commentary that originates online happens because it’s easy. Part of this is laziness, something that’s evident every day from journalists basically asking Twitter to do their job for them, throwing out questions to which they’ll print the answers. But more than that, it’s due to the pressure old media is under, being under-staffed and lacking in resources. Why spend an afternoon trawling the shops for the best sales bargains when you can just ask about them in a tweet and wait for the responses to flood in?

One of the reasons that no one in journalism really knows what the future holds, aside from savvy few carving out a slice of the future for themselves, is because we’re in a period of transition. We are in Media Limbo, and no one really knows if we’re about to ascend to the heavens or fall to hell. But what has happened is that in this limbo, while newspapers are desperate for readers, the comment has become king. In the same way that a desperate blog will bait for hits, the comment is the quickest way to get attention. An awful lot of content these days is the journalistic equivalent of streaking across a football pitch. I suppose it’s not that surprising given that cantankerous columnists are the original trolls.

In some ways, because anyone can publish their opinion right now, there is a more hallowed space out there for good journalism, for great investigations, photography untinged by Instagram filters, and radio documentaries that aren’t just another podcast. Unfortunately, all of these higher value journalistic endeavors also cost more money than someone sitting at their desk and typing ‘this is what I think’. So the unique space that professional outlets do actually offer  - such as investigative journalism for example – is utilised less because of commercial pressures, commercial pressures cause by people getting their news for free. And so the circle continues, of outlets publishing cheap opinion that can be read anywhere while simultaneously eroding their unique selling point.

So, where do we go from here? I’m not sure. Personally I would like if old media outlets could somehow complete a neat trick of being relevant in the age of digital media yet also holding on to the values that made them last this long. Sometimes I really question the logic of outlets becoming more like the internet, with snappier stories, more opinion, and more random commentary from punters. Surely old media outlets should do what they are good at and what most blogs, Twitter streams and Facebook statuses can’t. The internet is already doing its job, so newspapers, television news and radio programmes should just do theirs. But would people really value extensive investigative journalism, longform pieces and in-depth analysis? Does the old media industry actually need to shrink in order to excel? If old media does in fact become more niche, would this mean better journalism? Like Billy Beane at the Oakland As, ignoring the prevailing winds of baseball traditions and instead playing his own game of stats, should old media stop trying to ape the new and just do what it knows how to and do it well? Can an outlet adapt to the digital age without watering itself down in relentless comment? Just because everybody is joining the cult, should we all jump in headfirst? Is there a better way for many newspapers to engage with the internet without skimming off the top? And likewise, is there a better way for the internet to ‘do’ news than skimming off the top of old media?

What do you think? Answers in the comment section. Ha.