Text of the address by Kevin O’Sullivan, Editor – Irish Times, to graduating students of journalism at DIT May 28th 2013

The case for ‘good journalism’:

Journalism is under pressure in a great many parts of the world…consumption patterns and a changing business model suggest a continued deterioration particularly for newspapers, and public service broadcasters, even the very good ones, in their ability to generation content of substance in the face of mushrooming digital content and an increasingly fragmented marketplace.

There is much talk of decline in ‘quality journalism’, some academics refer to ‘healthy journalism’ and what it should entail. Either should be readily identifiable from a broad variety of sources in a democratic society, and when it comes to The Irish Times. Related to that in my view has to be the provision of ‘wisdom journalism’ – good context, explanation and analysis - in the face of a barrage of generic news, much of which is of questionable value. 

Firstly, to stand back from that, and park my interest by way of The Irish Times, healthy journalism from a combination of publications, newspapers, web platforms and broadcast channels is critical to a robust, functioning and accountable democratic process. The essence of that role has been highlighted by others but can be summarised as:

 · Providing a rigorous account of people who are in power and people who wish to be in power, in government, corporate and non-profit sectors.

· Serving the information needs of all people and regarding this as a legitimate role.

This is a stark yet a really big role:

-          Having a plausible method to separate truth from lies, or at least to prevent liars from being unaccountable and to prevent leading nations into catastrophes – particularly wars, economic crises and communal discord.

-          Producing a wide variety of informed opinions on the most important issues of our times – not only transitory concerns of the moment, but also challenges looming on the horizon. These issues cannot be determined primarily by what people in power are talking about.

Journalism must provide the nation’s warning system, so problems can be anticipated, studied, debated and addressed before they grow to crisis proportions. (Christians et al., 2009)

The Case for well-funded journalism and newsrooms:

Despite all the upheaval and a truly awful recession, I’m optimistic that a new business model is beginning to emerge. Some might say I’m naïve. Other ‘digital propagandists’ – some of who don’t apply the same standards of sourcing and verification as most newspapers – continue to accuse us of being a legacy media business stuck in the past, saying we are in denial and blinded by the scale and pace of change. I would vehemently deny that viewpoint from the perspective of many native Irish newspapers, but particularly The Irish Times.

The critical requirement is the ability to continue to do meaningful journalism while that new model beds down. It’s about having sufficient critical mass across print and digital to stay in the game.  Accordingly, all funding options for journalism have to be looked at and new thinking and new structures put in place to ensure ‘healthy journalism’ is properly resourced – in other words, moving beyond traditional sources of revenue. 

As Conor Brady put it yesterday at the launch of the annual report of the Press Council and Press Ombudsman, there could be a role for philanthropic support for serious project journalism. I agree, if it’s done in a transparent way.

Over the past year, for example, the Mary Raftery Journalism Fund, honouring her memory, in conjunction with the One Foundation, has disbursed funds to more than 20 journalists and programme makers to cover specific issues in relation to disability, racism and immigration – two Irish Times projects have been funded from this source.

Brady noted the result has been that some really serious issues are being covered, in print, on air, the web and in combination of all of these, that might not been covered otherwise. There are many draws on the world’s philanthropic funds but I agree with him that there is a possibility here that could be and should be further explored.

It may be time to take a fresh look, almost in an experimental way, at sponsored content, he suggested. It’s been there de facto for many years. The EU has long supported coverage of its institutions. The Houses of the Oireachtas effectively sponsor the broadcast coverage of their proceedings. Some non governmental aid agencies have long operated a policy of subvention for journalists to cover their activities in the developing world. 

There are dangers and pitfalls, of course. There would have to be strict safeguards and guidelines. But some newspapers abroad, including for example, The Guardian, have begun cautiously to edge into this area, Brady pointed out.

For my part, it may also be possible, if the political will exists, to bring some money back into traditional news media from the huge, internet-based organisations that make fortunes out of their content. We already have telling examples of how this might be done in other countries. Other options such as a broadband charge to support news media of a certain calibre, in the sense of serving the public interest in print and online, are worth considering.

The Irish Times – irishtimes.com balancing act:

It is a time of remarkable upheaval fuelled by technology…exacerbated by recession. For The Irish Times – irishtimes.com, the scale of the digital battle is close to being all-consuming. As noted by the FT editor Lionel Barber last year, we are "fighting for time and attention with a range of often interconnected media outlets, technology platforms and an ‘always on’ stream of information and gossip".

We believe there is a place for quality journalism, underpinned by a strong degree of trust, in that space.  We aim to distinguish ourselves from ‘the white noise’ with insight, context, explanation, clarity and a unique take on Ireland and on the world through Irish eyes. We are a media company for the “globally-minded Irish”.

It requires, in my view, being a genuine, original and responsive multimedia company while using the platform of an outstanding newspaper, reinforced by its strong news base and record of content generation.  Equally, it necessitates embracing innovation and the latest in content management technology.

Stuck in front of a screen for long hours every day has changed consumption habits, attention spans, and the ability to digest large chunks of grey type. So readability is an issue to be taken on board at every turn. And so we redesigned our newspaper last year with the help of leading designers PalmerWatson. Responding to that trend is not dumbing down, I hasten to add. It is about how you package and present information.

And it is not about becoming a ‘viewspaper’. Nor is it about becoming magazine-like…though we can learn from their elan and sharp design but to be relevant to modern discerning audiences, we have to be news-driven.

To borrow that phrase, there are some questions that cannot be answered by Google. There are certain stories that lend themselves to print, more than broadcasting or online. Often a big story in print becomes a huge story online. The death of Savita Halappanavar in a Galway Hospital last November is a case in point. The story appeared first in The Irish Times newspaper, within hours it had become a global story across digital and print.

That is why we are improving our newspaper and at the same time accelerating digital development while providing journalism to our readers and consumers in tune with their lifestyle.

Links to Third Level: if I could turn briefly to the issue of media literacy and the relationship between media and academe

The Irish Times believes media literacy is a vital tool for all young people who need to be able to map their way through a world dominated by media of every description. The idea of teaching media studies was debated at length in the past, and supported editorially by The Irish Times, but was abandoned on the grounds of a crowded curriculum. With the advent of the digital age, it is even more prescient.

That very short-sighted decision should be examined again and media literacy examined as something to be introduced to children from primary school level. Third level institutions can play a pivotal role in helping to put the necessary curricular structure and training programmes in place. Children should also be taught to develop their own media, voice their own opinions and gain a real understanding of the media around them by creating their own media. The Irish Times has traditionally been heavily involved with young people through various programmes – and still is in many respects – but it would be willing to be involved again with a scaling up of creative media literacy projects.

The relationship between The Irish Times and academic journalism schools has been a good one. In my view, that relationship and what has emerged from it has had a tremendous role in fostering “healthy journalism” – separate to the important role they play in promoting high standards in our frenetic multimedia world of the 21st century.

Many of our journalists are graduates of journalism schools. Some of our former journalists are now journalism academics and we have an impressive record of taking in journalism students on placement and internships. That relationship could be strengthened with both sides, academic institutions and media institutions, working together on research projects and in the generation of public interest journalism – to ensure journalism that matters is challenging the world at this critical time, especially in social, economic and environmental contexts.

However, one caveat we would enter is that at a time of huge change in the media industry, the proliferation of courses is hardly wise. We would favour greater co-operation between journalism and media schools and even a merging to create centres of research and teaching excellence. That said, the growing maturity and rapport in our relationship, can ensure that this issue is addressed to ensure a better approach and outcome that is mutually beneficial.

Kevin O’Sullivan, Editor The Irish Times

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