Paper Round – First Impressions

The phrase “Fourth Estate??? is most commonly attributed to Edmund Burke, a result of Thomas Carlyle’s assertion in Heroes and Hero Worship that ‘Burke said that there were three estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than them all.‘ Actually, there is no evidence that Burke ever said this, and the phrase has since been attributed to many others. What is not in dispute if that the phrase refers to the special position of the press in a free country. Holding power accountable, unearthing truth in the name of the people, the press are assumed to hold a privileged place in society. The other three estates were clergy, nobility and the commons – the press kept a watchful eye on them all. Hence when a journalist refuses to name sources before a court, though he is clearly guilty of contempt, he cites his public interest role, and is often widely praised for his refusal.

This is very noble and high-minded, and it bears almost no relation to what I read over the weekend as part of Paper Round. On Saturday, I read several newspapers cover to cover, and I can count on one hand the number of stories that were not fed directly to the journalist by a PR person, in whose obvious interest it was to see the story appear in print. I saw on the front page of a reputable national newspaper an advertisement only half-heartedly disguised as story. I saw, on the same front page, a headline which implied the exact opposite of what was later revealed in the story to have been the truth.

On Sunday, I was a little more cheered. One particular newspaper was composed predominantly of actual journalism, albeit that most of those stories were somewhat lightweight. Another paper, though woefully reliant on second-hand news and PR material, took the gold star by running several excellent stories based on actual investigative reporting, on topics that could be said to be of vital public interest. The heroes and villains will be named in due course, once I’ve ploughed through the heap of newsprint by my desk, scrawled with incredulous exclamation and question marks, and such tags as “info-tainment???, “hot babes??? and “lifestyles of the rich and famous???. In the meantime, a few conclusions;

World news, in the internet era, is a waste of newsprint. We no longer need to wait for the Washington Correspondent to tell us about the US Mid-term elections, because we’ve already read the New York Times and Washington Post online, and perhaps viewed the election results coverage on any one of an array of television sources. Give us some analysis, or an angle we haven’t yet seen, or else don’t bother.

Most of what appears in a given issue of a newspaper is not news. It could just as easily have appeared a week earlier or a week later, had those providing the material (the PR people) chosen to make the story happen then instead.

Sunday newspapers have all week to generate content, and usually have a decent harvest of stories generated by the old-fashioned method of journalism. The daily papers print almost nothing that has not fallen (or rather been carefully placed) into their laps. They are, I firmly believe, a disgrace.

Ireland’s print press appears to act only as a message board, relaying to readers the contents of press releases from various interests, public and private, and treating stories only as ballast for the advertising which is its real raison d’etre. If that is now the role of newspapers, well and good, but I won’t be paying any money for them. If their role is to act as a corrective to the powers at large in the nation; to tell the reader things he should know, but might not otherwise learn; to be, in fact, a Fourth Estate, then they are nothing short of a travesty.


  • Garreth says:

    Well said. So many Sunday supplements are designed to catch the lucrative advertising. Magazines like Phoenix and Magill also carry ‘features’ that are written around the boxed advertising. ‘Culture’ supplements produced by the posh Sundays often fail to differentiate between Art and Lifestyle, and the reviews of books, CDs and films are just boosting box office and shop sales.Interview/profiles with novel writers are just so much flimflam. I no longer bless myself when I read the word Culture. But I can use all the waste paper to light coal fires during winter.

  • Niall says:

    This article makes the presumption that papers shouldn’t print world news because everybody can get this online anyway. Apart from the fact that not everybody has the time or inclination to scour the internet to be kept up to date on latest developments in the US election or whatever but would prefer to watch the 9 o clock news or get the paper in the morning, the fact is that if everybody was so clued up on the internet there would be no need for papers to exist anywhere but the online world. This applies to national news just as much as world news.

    As for journalists getting a lot of stuff from PR people, it is true that there is more reliance on this nowadays because the resources for investigative journalism aren’t there and saturation media coverage has effected a move towards ‘up to the minute’ coverage, with the emphasis on some ‘new, exclusive’ detail, but when have journalists not been reliant on someone. In the good ol’ days there wasn’t a formal PR structure but news stories were leaked by people who had an interest in getting their version of events across. This has always been the case.

    As for the claim that most of what’s in the Irish papers isn’t news because it could just as easily have been ‘leaked’ to the press by a PR person a week earlier or later than published, if something is of public importance surely it doesn’t stop becoming ‘news’ the minute the clock strikes midnight the day it happened.

    I find the idea that the Sunday Papers have better ‘news’ coverage than the dailies laughable. They carry almost nothing but opinion.

    Standards in Irish journalism need to improve, that’s for sure, but that includes the ‘Blogoshere’ as well. A good start would be to move on from the obsession it has with the mainstream media and cover ‘reality’ as it happens or cover alternative events/views. Or do most bloggers just want to end up working in the mainstream media anyway?

  • Fergal Crehan says:

    Point taken regarding World News, but I disagree that papers would automatically be obsolete if everyone was informed of news via the net, hence this: “Give us some analysis, or an angle we haven’t yet seen”. Only if papers prove incapable of this will they be rendered pointless by online media.

    Regarding PR, you seem to be in two minds:

    “As for journalists getting a lot of stuff from PR people, it is true that there is more reliance on this nowadays”

    And later:

    “This has always been the case”

    Well, which is it? Actually, I don’t care which it is, either way these stories are an insult to your readers.

    “if something is of public importance surely it doesn’t stop becoming ‘news’ the minute the clock strikes midnight the day it happened”

    Most of the PR Stories aren’t news by any reasonable estimation, and this is even more true of those stories which are non time specific. Please tell me how the examiner’s front page ad (on Saturday) for a security firm, or how the Tribune’s page 3 ad for the PS3 was news.

    “I find the idea that the Sunday Papers have better ‘news’ coverage than the dailies laughable. They carry almost nothing but opinion.”

    Amusing that this statement is in itself pure and unsubstantiated opinion. I spent a weekend reading and categorising the content of the papers. This is called research. You may have heard some of the old timers in the newsroom talk about it in nostalgic tones. I’ll be posting a more detailed account of what I found over the next few days. Find it as laughable as you like, but its based on firmer ground than your own assertion.

    “Standards in Irish journalism need to improve, that’s for sure, but that includes the ‘Blogoshere’ as well.”

    No, it doesn’t. Or at least, it doesn’t include this particular blogger. I am an amateur, and thats the way I want it to stay. I don’t get paid for blogging, and I don’t claim to be performing any kind of public function. And even if I did, it would have little bearing on whether my criticisms of journalists were true or not.

  • Niall says:

    “Regarding PR, you seem to be in two minds:

    “As for journalists getting a lot of stuff from PR people, it is true that there is more reliance on this nowadays???

    And later:

    “This has always been the case???

    Well, which is it?”

    I’m in the one mind – if you’d cared to include the sentence in the middle of these two excerpts you’d find that I was making the point that journalists have always gotten stories from somewhere and that the motives were often self-serving — perhaps now it’s just more explicit with a more formal approach.

    I don’t see what is particularly amusing about the fact that I broached an opinion on the content of Sunday papers. Are all opinions to be derided because they are opinions? I didn’t say it was necessarily a bad thing that there is a lot of opinion in Sunday newspapers, just that to my eyeballs the news section of most Sunday papers stops at about page 6 or 7 and the rest is given over to columnists, features and analysis. Does your research count sport as news or opinion, I wonder?

    It’s noticeable that you count yourself outside the realms of scrutiny in your last paragraph. ‘Nuff said there, I think.

  • Fergal Crehan says:

    “I was making the point that journalists have always gotten stories from somewhere and that the motives were often self-serving — perhaps now it’s just more explicit with a more formal approach”

    Not so. You explicitly state that “it is true that there is more reliance on this nowadays”. Then you say that it was always this way, but is now just more explicit. So there’s either an increased reliance on PR or there isn’t. Anyway, as I’ve said above, thats not really the point – maybe it’s both, an increase and also a more explicit PR system. Either way, too much crap is appearing in the papers.

    Sunday newspapers have more opinion than dailies, but they have more journalism too (though I’ll grant that the Sindo has barely any news at all). This is partly because there are simply more pages, and partly because there’s less reliance on re-prints, wire stories and press releases.

    I don’t deride opinions for being opinions, I deride them for not being based on any thing except a gut reaction, especially when they are in direct opposition to what I have observed with my own eyes.

    Sport is partly news and partly opinion, though the two tend not to be mixed within the one article.

    Finally, I don’t exempt myself from scrutiny (that’s what you’re undertaking right now, isn’t it?), I merely point out that saying that bloggers have to improve is not relevant to the issue of whether professional journalists are doing their jobs properly. Saying “at least we’re better than bloggers” is not a defence, even if true.

  • Simon McGarr says:

    Leaving who said what aside (please, for all our sakes) I was interested in Niall’s suggestion that “saturation media coverage” means that novelty is more important than content or meaning in a news story.

    Newspapers are a slow medium. They only happen once a day (or week) and then they don’t update until the next edition.

    If they try to compete on the basis of novelty with faster media, they can’t succeed. Happily, I don’t want that from my newspapers. I want meaning, context and the unearthing of previously unknown stories of public import.

  • Niall says:

    Well, I’m not going to get into pedantics about how my original statement about PR has been interpreted. “This has always been the case” perhaps didn’t accurately reflect the point I was trying to make: news has always come from self-serving sources. The difference now is that there is a professional industry to facilitate this. And yes, I do think there is too much reliance on it, which is caused by dwindling budgets for longer-term investigative journalism and a ‘now, now, now’ culture where ‘breaking news’ has become de rigeur thanks to the likes of Sky. Instant gratification, if you like.

    I look forward to seeing the publication of your research into the content of newspapers but my opinion wasn’t based on a gut reaction. Believe it or not, I read the occasional Sunday newspaper.

    I never said “at least we’re better than bloggers” is a valid excuse for journalists. I in fact said standards in journalism need to improve, but that that logic applies to the blogosphere as well. If you publish something whether you get paid for it or not you should have your standards questioned. Hiding behind the excuse that you’re an amateur is not on.

  • chekov says:

    “that logic applies to the blogosphere as well. If you publish something whether you get paid for it or not you should have your standards questioned. Hiding behind the excuse that you’re an amateur is not on.”

    In fairness, you’ve probably chosen a bad place to lecture people about the need to improve standards.

    The residents are, after all, in the middle of a fairly large and ambitious project of empirical research, throughout which they are responding to criticism in public. It’s hard to think of a better demonstration of how to raise standards in practice. Rather than them hiding behind any excuses, they are demonstrating the fact that it is possible for amateurs to far surpass the standards of research that are employed within the media industry.

    It’s also pretty unrealistic to demand high standards of the blogosphere at large. Most blogs are just people’s online scribble-pads or diaries and they have no pretensions to be authoritative commentators about anything. Only a tiny proportion of bloggers make any attempt to speak to a broad audience and their audience figures broadly reflect their standards.

  • Niall says:

    If bloggers can surpass the press in generating news, research standards and insightful comment (and I think some blogs do surpass mainstream media in quality of analysis) why don’t they submit their stories or story ideas to the press. Newspapers cry out for interesting news stories and angles. That’s why many of them have hotlines and welcome submissions, and why they have letters pages for right of reply. It is one of the few professions that relies almost completely on interaction with and contribution from the public. The fact is that newspapers are still far more widely read than blogs and have the capacity to set agendas, which ultimately, so far, blogs on their own do not. As for bloggers not wanting to become professionals, it’s possible to be occasional contributors in a part-time freelance capacity.

    The idea that its an either/or situation in relation to blogging and the press is ultimately unhelpful to all concerned.

    With the current close-minded attitudes of bloggers, the blogosphere will become another vehicle for that age-old Irish tradition of begrudgery – a cyber army of ‘hurlers on the ditch’.

  • Simon McGarr says:


    Thanks for your responses. They add a lot of value to the conversation. But I have to say, I think you’re fighting with shadows in some places here.

    I don’t say that blogs are better than newspapers. I don’t say that newspapers should be more like blogs. I don’t say that newspapers should, as a policy, publish bloggers. I don’t say anything about blogs, in fact.

    I solely and passionately just want newspapers to be better at being newspapers. I want journalists to be better journalists. I love reading the newspaper. I’ve done it all my life. But its so unrewarding now that I’ve gone from being a daily reader (and buyer) to just buying the Irish Times on a Friday and then getting one Sunday paper.

    That’s why I’m doing this. I don’t care about blogs in this context- they’re a red herring. I’m just using the only forum I have to express my dissatisfaction as a reader.

  • celtictigger says:

    Niall, my practical experience as a PRO for an international organisation who has submitted opinion or new angles on stories to Irish media is that if it isn’t from an existing source, they don’t respond.

    I submitted a piece on Electoral Register data quality that I’d co-authored with an advisor on Electoral data quality to the Carter Foundation in the US.

    Total number of Irish newspapers who responded – 0.

    The article addressed the problems with the Government’s current approach to cleaning the register (which will not lead to a clean regsiter for the next election) and looked at some of the possible root causes for the massive overinflation of our electoral register and the issues with the voter registration process that would need to be addressed to PREVENT future problems.

    Let me repeat.. NO Irish paper responded in any way to the submission.

    The Blogosphere (tuppenceworth in particular) however responded very well to posts that I put up on my personal blog and on a few other sites based on the content of the article and related content. End result was that one of the opposition parties accepted a more detailed analysis of the situation that I had prepared which was then forwarded to the Minister.

    Blogs 1 – Traditional Media – 0

    I think that the approach that is being taken to look at and categorise the content of the newspapers is good. It has a relatively sound basis and the approach is as scientific as you can get.

    By acutally measuring and ‘speaking with data’, the true quality of our newspapers can be determined. If this prompts editors to be a bit more open minded about submissions they get in, or a bit more inquisitive about potential new sources of opinion or angles on stories then this is a good thing for print media.

    By the way.. the association I represent has an opinion piece on medicial errors that we put together as a response to a report in the US. We’ve rewritten it for the Irish situation and have a panel of experts in Medical information quality and information quality in general ready to field questions from any Irish print newspaper that wants to get a new angle on the 1000 people a week who are injured or killed in Irish hospitals needlessly (details here )

  • […] Fergal made reference to the ideal of the Fourth Estate, as a guardian of the rights of the general public. Unfortunatly, it has strayed far from this vital role to become the mouthpiece of those who can afford to supply it with words. […]

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