The Irish Times of 22nd February 2007 took 17 pages to get to the Editorials and Letters. Beyond this high tide mark the paper of record breaks down into what may be described as special interest ghettos- Business, Sport, Law Reports, Listing and Classifieds.
By way of contrast the Property Supplement which accompanied the same day’s paper was 38 breathless pages of advertorials, ads, advertising features, feature adverts and press releases from and for the benefit of property developers.
It is an undiscussed presumption that supplements won’t be held to the same journalistic standards as those first 17 pages, where the soul of the paper resides. But, in theory at least, there must come a point where the bromides and plaudits of the property pages become what you’ve mostly paid €1.60 to be exposed to and the other 17 pages become the afterthought.
The difference between the Property Supplement and the other PR reprint, ad-bait supplements (Business, Health, Motors) from the rest of the Irish Times’ week is the price we have paid in examinations forgone of the impact of property development on our society.
The Irish Times, with its trust ownership status, was the best placed to show what it would mean to allow the building of commuter belt estates and other forms of urban spread for the lives of the people who live there, their families and neighbourhoods. Frank McDonald has struggled to do exactly that, and it would be churlish to ignore his work but the scale of the impact of these choices demanded more than a lone voice. The Irish Times could have started a full debate, with a range of voices and opinions as well as research based reporting on what this kind of builder-led development would mean for us all.
Instead it chose to set McDonald’s articles amongst a cacophony of articles such as ‘Mixed village developments with wide appeal’, ‘Delgany fit-outs should turn heads’ and reports of ‘Homes with a park view’ [in Finglas].
None of these articles are marked as advertising features. All are complete with the Estate agent’s guide price presented as gospel . These prices have tended to be unreliable, as the journalists must know- any gospel they appeared in should definitely qualify as one of the apocrypha.
Other papers show naked property price boosterism. (See the Sunday Independent’s characteristically hysterical and schizophrenic demands of the government to deliver stamp duty cuts, but also do something to stop the market cooling which talk of cuts produces). But the Irish Times Trust exists to further the interests of its readers. It is right that we expect a higher standard from its paper. With bitter regret I have to say that when it comes to property development, it has failed us.
Kathy Foley of the Sunday Times recently said that our Paper Round analysis was frustrating. One of the reasons she gave was that she felt that we had unrealistically high standards. I’m not blind to the huge income stream the Irish Times, and other papers, draw in from their property pages. I know that they would argue that I get the benefit of that money in paying for the 17 pages of newspaper I mentioned at the start.
But I don’t accept that argument. I don’t have any problem with newspapers taking ads- as long as there is no possibility of those ads misleading the reader into thinking that they’re seeing journalism. That’s why advertising features are labeled as such, and why I don’t object to them at all.
But the Irish Times has a Property Editor not a commercial editor in charge of the Thursday supplement. And that means they have a duty to their readers to reach for an ideal journalism, even if they never achieve it. It would be a bit of a waste of everyone’s time if readers only demanded that their papers be slightly less mediocre, because to do anything else was difficult. It is difficult to make things better- no argument about that from me. But so is everything worthwhile. And from the point of view of the reader of a paper, excuses for reprinting press releases or taking the word of vested interests at face value are as irrelevant as hearing from Tesco about how difficult it is to keep mince fresh through a hugely complex supply chain if your meat is rotten.
For the reader, the result is the same- they’ve bought something that stinks. They’ll be slower to trust it again next time.