Apr 17

Below the Line

Everyday, in every newspaper, editors go through correspondence from readers and pick the best for publication.

Done well, a letters page gives a feel for public opinion, for which stories are striking a chord, and which arguments are winning.

Put another way, user generated content is nothing new.

Yet online, its has become almost an iron law to Never Read The Comments. The bottom half of the internet, in public discourse, is where all the mean bullies and trolls live. And nowhere is this opinion more popular than among old-school journalists.

So why don’t journalists apply the same logic to the internet that they do to their own pages?

No editor would ever print every single letter received. Before anyone heard of trolls, journalists were taught to avoid the Green Ink contributors.

Editors pick the best letters for publication. Why not the same for comments? Why are we content to moderate letters, so that they only need pass a minimum standard (not defamatory, no obscenity, whatever).

Why not treat comments as we treat letters to the editor, selecting only the best.

And sure, it restricts the conversation. But if you don’t make the cut, go set up your own website.

Image via MorgueFile.com

Image via MorgueFile.com

Apr 02

Sources: A glossary

In the interests of full disclosure, 200 Words is pleased to provide this guide to journalistic terms of art, to better assist readers in navigating media reports relying on information of uncertain origin.

  • Sources: Pretty much anyone I talk to.
  • Informed sources: Anyone who listened to that Morning Ireland interview I missed.
  • Reliable sources: She probably won’t get me sued.
  • Senior sources: Anyone older than me.
  • Industry sources: The PR guy from IBEC. Or ISME.
  • Multiple sources: The rumour five different people in the press pack told me.
  • A strategist: The guy who knocked on my door during the last election canvass
  • An experienced strategist: He’s also a tallyman.
  • An observer: The hack at the next desk.
  • An informed observer: The Jobbridge intern.
  • Public reaction: I got an earful from the taxi driver last night.
  • Sources close to the commissioner: Paul Reynolds.
  • An official spokesperson: Anyone from the press office. Guaranteed blandness. As an example, my favourite recent non-quote is: “We are engaged in a process which will take some time to review the options and that’s ongoing.” A quote for the ages there, you could plug it at the end of any story and it would be equally relevant.

clouds

Mar 13

The decline and fall

News papers are in trouble, and it isn’t hard to see why. The figures published today by Independent News and Media (INM) tell their own story.

The group puts a brave face on it, citing a 12% rise in online advertising revenue to €9.3m, and pointing to debt restructuring, but there’s a deeper problem.

Sales are falling, as they have done since a 2008 peak (see graph below), and while some newspaper folk cling to the hope that this is a recession effect, and will pass once Ireland turns enough corners, international experience suggests newspaper readership is, quite literally, dying off.

Readers are moving online, and online revenues, even with 12% growth, cannot compensate for declining circulation and print advertising streams.

Here’s the brutal statistic: print advertising fell by €9.5m in one year, more than total digitial revenue of €.9.3m.

This isn’t just a problem for INM. Ad sales and circulation figures look even worse for other daily titles.

There’s only one exception. The Irish Farmers Journal is not only seeing increased copy sales, they’ve even managed to convince readers to pay for their online product.

We surely live in interesting times.

IndoCirc

Mar 07

Freelance Forum is back

It’s Spring, and so the thoughts of freelance journalists old and new turn to the Freelance Forum.

What do you, mean you haven’t thought about it yet?FForum

The Forum is a one-day event, now held twice yearly, providing freelance journalists (and aspiring student journalists) with information to better do their jobs.

Brought to you by Dublin Freelance NUJ branch, it is a highly regarded event, and now in its… somethingth year. We can’t remember exactly.

So whether you’re and old school hack or student journalist, you owe it to yourself to check out Freelance Forum.

Mark the date in your calendar: Monday 7 April. Don’t forget to reserve your place early.

Come hear Commissioning editors Liam Collins (Sunday Independent), Aiden Corkery (Mail on Sunday) and Aine Toner (Woman’s Way) talk about pitching skills and what they’re looking for.

Hear Sue Leonard and Abigail Rieley on bookwriting and ghostwriting. Lenny Antonelli on breaking into broadcasting.

And as an additional treat Malachy Browne (Storyful) and Sinead van Kampen (PRSlides.com) on new media.

So what are you waiting for? Get over to the Dublin Freelance website and book your place now.

See you there.

Feb 09

From Panti to Garth

200+

I was contacted by a student a few days ago, asking for my reaction to the statement that the media was overwhelmingly dominated by a narrow middle class perspective. This was my initial reply, which also riffed on the PantiBliss debate.

I know some journalists who are predictably middle class. I know others who are right wing lunatics. And an equal number who are left wing lunatics. Mostly they’re people who want to tell stories. Any stories. Censorship/free speech isn’t always something they’ve thought about, but it is something they feel about instinctively.

Libel laws are something we think about, all the time. Having been on the receiving end of threats a few times (never successful, happily) I can assure you the chilling effect is literal. A shiver ran down my spine.

And there we get to the nub. Journalists aren’t really white middle-class men, even the white middle class men. But juries are. And to an extent, so are audiences increasingly, as kids defect to their second screens. And upper management cares about audience, so they won’t want to upset their audience. And they care about costs, so they won’t want to attract litigation.

Behind Vincent Browne or George Hook is a team of three to five people, probably still in their twenties, and the majority are probably women. For a show like Sean O’Rourke, the number is probably closer to thirty to forty people. And they want to push the envelope, they want to get the story, but they also know what the suits want, and they know there’s no point in telling a story to an empty room, so they have to take their audience with them too. And so conversely you often end up with an audience that’s usually far ahead of media (listen to the applause from a safe RTE light ents crowd when Rory O’Neill named Ionanists) because the suits put a brake on the caravan so that it only travels as fast as its slowest member.

And then, I thought about Garth Brooks. Anyone paying attention to ticket sales over the last couple of weeks will be in no doubt but that Garth Brooks is enormously popular in Ireland, yet almost without exception, every article, radio piece and media tweet I’ve seen on the topic has not only been amazed by this revelation, but dismissive of it. The Garth Brooks fan is reported like a strange foreign phenomenon, much as we’d report one of those stories about a new species of frog discovered in the Amazon basin.

And we wonder why people are switching off and seeking (and making) their own news online.

Jan 21

Careful what you wish for

It’s been a busy ten days since Rory O’Neill appeared on the Saturday Show.

John Waters took offence, as did several members of the Iona Institute, and the online community (of not the dead tree press) has followed each twist and turn in the story.

There’s even been some light entertainment, with the @ionawatch twitter account immediately followed by the @ionawatwatch account.

And yesterday, Una Mullally wrote about the “need for an independent homophobia watchdog to monitor the inevitable destructive rhetoric that will colour one side of the debate, without fear of legal repercussions.”

Iona’s various claims have been examined in depth before, of course. Here for example is a an article from FactsAreSacred, a website I help maintain.

So there’s no shortage of criticism and examination of the rhetoric.

So what kind of watchdog is Una Mullally calling for? Exemption from defamation laws for some criticism, because the law is used to chill dissenting opinions?

That’s a dangerous precedent, if only because it in turn might be abused.

Iona has a bully pulpit, provided to it in large part by mainstream media outlets like the Irish Times.

If FactsAreSacred can factcheck Iona “research” critically, so can the Irish Times.

Jan 15

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing

It started when an Richard Downes took to the internet looking for people to talk about TOR (The Onion Router), software which allows internet users to protect their identity.

Patrick O’Donovan decided to hop on the bandwagon. He issued a press release.

Then he tried to message Downes privately.

Others have already written about O’Donovan’s misguided quest for television exposure, but what bothers me is how journalists will have to cover the story.

Basically, journalists have two choices. They can report the story straight, or they can ignore it.

Most, I suspect, will choose to ignore it, though if RTE gives him airtime, everyone will have to cover it. And when they do, they will do so uncritically.

Because these are The Rules in journalism. Sometimes they’re written down somewhere, mostly they’re unwritten. Balance. Objectivity. Impartiality. Report what you see. But never editorialise. Never make a judgement.

If you’re Fox News, you merrily ignore The Rules, and post propaganda posing as news (and the same also happens closer to home).

But for the most part, we follow The Rules.

We’re journalists. We’re not Jon Stewart. And unfortunately for Ireland, we don’t have a Daily Show equivalent able to call bullshit.

Dec 31

The news in 2014

JANUARY: Following Murdoch takeover, Storyful announce new unit dedicated to verifying iPhone papshots of C-list celebrities.

FEBRUARY: MicroSoft finally figures out how to make money out of Nokia, announce relaunch of 6310i.

MARCH: Edward Snowden reveals NSA secretly unfollows your friends on twitter, sends ‘likes’ of John Waters to Facebook on your behalf.

APRIL: All national print and broadcast media put days of effort into April Fools’ hoaxes. Nobody laughs.

MAY: Fianna Fáil makes gains in Local elections. Micheál Martin insufferable all summer.

JUNE: Brown Thomas Grafton Street store launches its Christmas theme window

JULY: Horrific casualties in Silly Season summer school riots as MacGill launches sneak attack on Merriman.

AUGUST: Mass panic as country goes three days without rain.

SEPTEMBER: Stephen Donnelly and Lucinda Creighton announce new party. Peter Mathews walks out in disagreement over who has the best hair.

OCTOBER: TV3 executives apologise after Vincent Browne axe attack incident.

NOVEMBER: Flegs dispute settled after Obama threatens to make all parties listen to the poetry of Michael D Higgins.

DECEMBER: Marian Finucance praised for groundbreaking radio show in which she broadcasts two hours consisting entirely of coughing up phlegm.

CREATOR: gd-jpeg v1.0 (using IJG JPEG v80), default quality

Nov 27

Embargo

Yesterday, the garda press office issued an alert to journalists about an “incident” in Mountmellick, where a man had barricaded himself inside a house.

The brief notice asked journalists to respect a blackout in reporting the incident until it was resolved.

Sometimes, based on their assessment, garda authorities will ask journalists to cover an event, as a way of communicating directly with someone who may be listening to a radio. And sometimes, they ask for silence, to avoid inflaming a situation.

The situation was resolved in Mountmellick, and the stand-off was then reported by the press. There’s no way to tell if the embargo helped or not, but it was observed by every journalist.

A press embargo should be rare, and only invoked in the public interest. The situation above is a perfect illustration. But instead, it is abused more often than respected. Among the recent embargo requests I’ve received are numerous speeches by ministers and TDs, a litter bug survey, the Tidy Towns winner, announcements on prescription drug prices, smoking, road repairs, and a smattering of surveys.

What should be a rare restraint in the public interest has instead become a way for press oficers to manipulate news cycles.

Image via Morguefile.com

Image via Morguefile.com

Nov 22

Limited vision

There’s no shortage of symbols for the problems that beset Irish governance, from electronic voting machines to the continued attempts to strangle Freedom of Information.

Back when the Celtic Tiger was purring nicely, and the government was running out of ways to spend money (because fixing schools and hospitals would have made too much sense) we decided to convert our speed limit signs to metric.

It was a major undertaking, and if nothing else had the benefit of educating drivers about the speed limits on Irish roads.

After the change, there were a set of defaults in place: 120km/h on motorways, 100km/h on national roads, 80km/h on regional roads, 50km/h (and occasionally 30km/h) in towns and villages.

But what about a road where the default didn’t really match conditions? Some regional roads are dual carriageways where 100km/h is a safe speed. And some national and regional roads are dangerous long before you hit 80km/h.

Reviews were promised.

And then pretty much nothing happened.

Now the government is promising a proper review of all those small rural roads with 80km/h limits.

Well, sort of.

The government promises “rural slow signs“.

But the limits will be unchanged.

The appearance of change, made real.

Image © Faduda

Image © Faduda

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