Thursday, October 1, 2009

Friday, July 17, 2009

Legendary newsman Walter Cronkite died tonight aged 92. His number one rule 'establish trust with your audience' is very true today in the midst of the internet age. TIME Magazine has a touching obit on the man.

My memory of Cronkite was around 2000 at a CA convention in Orlando where he spoke of having a scoop on peace talks between Israel and Egypt. All his rivals were in the same airport heading to Israel and he was trying to get on a plane to Cairo. He managed to convince a plane load of die-hard pro journalists he was on the same flight as them.

It only dawned on the hapless reporters that he had something entirely different when they discovered he wasn't on the plane. Beautiful

That's my memory of Walter.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Media was always social, it just needed reminding

Why I believe the modern media can secure its future by embracing even more modern social media. Why I believe modern media has little to fear if it just gets out there and uses the stuff. Why I believe change is constant, change is good but fear paralyses

I’m a kind of excitable person who doesn’t find it easy to sit still, my mind moves faster than my body and I absolutely hated school and college. I have no love for offices either and prefer to be properly engaged, seeing things with my own eyes and touching the technology, and most importantly hearing the people speak. Because no matter what happens with technology, shiny new gadgets, social media and the next killer app, in general, it’s always going to be about the people. Relationships that feed my hunger for knowledge – and result in a story – are pure gold to me.

When you see the latest
Twitter, Facebook, or Tweetdeck application that you absolutely must have, fundamentally it’s people connecting, getting the news, the gossip, getting on a stage to impress their views. It’s all quite clear to me. It’s not about having the must-have app or device – well not for everyone – but it’s the exchange of knowledge and connecting with people. The ‘social’ in media. When you think about it, that was quintessentially the role of the newspaper for the last 200 years.

The newspaper industry is going through a monumental change, some have folded and others are going ‘online only’. There’s a view that the newspaper industry is dying. I don’t believe it is at all. In fact, the future of newspapers, their brands in particular, is in fact potentially glorious.

When I fell in love with journalism I had no patience for theory and wanted to get practicing. I had a romantic notion of busy newsrooms and passionate suits for truth. Once, on my first visit to a newspaper office, I politely asked my guide where all the reporters were. “They’re out getting stories”, he grumbled in a tone that suggested I should have known better. This was two years before
Veronica Guerin was shot and a world removed from journalism of today where people rarely seem to leave their offices.

After college, I wrote newspaper articles mostly for free for local newspapers. A kind news editor in a national newspaper always took my calls and pushed the odd little assignment my way; he never discouraged me.

Slowly, I built up enough work to have enough of a raison d’etre not to have to sign on at the local dole office. This was the early 1990s and at the time I didn’t have a computer. I would thumb lifts to nearby towns to attend a court case or an angry local community meeting.

Afterwards I would try to make sense of my scribbled notes, find a phone box and make a reverse-charge call to the newspaper where a middle-aged lady patiently typed up my dictated story. I would go home where I’d wait excitedly till the next morning and the paper appeared to see if my story was published. A local solicitor let me use his fax machine for free to file copy to magazines and I was aware of only one person in my town who had a modem which I judged it too complicated for me to use.

Today, I can write up a news story and send it to a sub-editor or as I do most mornings before 7am, input it directly into a content management system and by hitting a single button can broadcast it to the entire world.

The technologies of today are a pure marvel, and compared with my low-tech world of typewriters, faxes and reversed charges I can’t believe the sheer fire power the average teenager or adult has at their disposal. In mere seconds a person could send a video by
Qik to thousands of people from their mobile phone, upload it on YouTube and share across social networks. Your Second Life avatar could attend a college lecture in a virtual world. A flash mob could organise itself to take over a railway station, dance wildly and put a smile on everyone’s face, even if it was a marketing stunt for T-Mobile.

The average person today has more firepower in their mobile phone to broadcast to the world in seconds than a TV camera crew had a decade ago. It used to be a matter of luck and being in the right place and right time with a camera or a notebook. Now the eyes and ears are everywhere.

If I feel strongly enough about something I could blog about it. I could ‘tweet’ a question to hundreds of ‘followers’ on Twitter and may get an answer. I could communicate with hundreds of ‘friends’ on Facebook some joke or ironic view.

You could argue that the newspaper, which for two or three hundred years was the fulcrum of such activity, as indeed were TV companies and radio stations for the past 50 years, have met their match in a few short years.

Over the past couple of weeks I have been working on a cover story for
Marketing Age on the future of newspapers, which should be on shelves next week. During my conversations with people like Menno van Doorn, author of the brilliant book Me the Media as well as Damian Lawlor, head of Adwords at Google, I’ve come to realise that a consolidation of all the noise we hear is coming and that newspapers and magazines, and especially journalism, could thrive in this social media future.

Firstly, for reasons of firepower, all these tools and technologies will lead to a richer fabric, a more colourful world than ever for a treasure trove of stories. Oh, and in terms of fabric, a guy I was talking to this week suggested researchers are looking at putting LED technology into the fabric of clothes. Imagine teenagers walking around with videos playing on their T-shirts, or their Bebo front page emblazoned to say who they are.

But yes, there’s going to be a lot of noise. According to Menno’s book 2007 was a “memorable year” because more information was generated in that single year than in the entire history of writing since its inception in Mesopotamia over 5,000 years ago.

The ivory towers that journalists used to inhabit in the privileged role of being the sole disseminator of news are crumbling. Is this a bad thing? I don’t think so. On one hand this is how I make a living, on the other I see a wave of democratisation of media crashing everywhere. I see a wonderful world emerging. Because people are people, this path was inevitable. The technologies evolve, people like to connect and express themselves. Take your mind off the ‘next big thing’ and see it for what it is.

  • The more technologies we create that bring people together the more disruptive forces will assail media or media as it was. It’s inevitable, let’s just accept that.

    It’s a question of adapting and seeing things for what they are. Who knows? The service or solution that will outshine Facebook, Google, YouTube and MySpace all together is probably a germ of an idea in a 15 year-old’s bedroom as I write. Maybe that child is Irish, maybe he or she is Korean or Russian. And in 10 years time their idea will be surpassed by something else. Change is constant.

    But back to newspapers, I believe they do have a promising future. The problems they face today have less to do with the internet than the over-reliance on property advertising and the fact that a global recession is under way. The most damaging truth about today’s media is that under 30s have not developed a habit of buying papers on a daily basis and access their audio via or video on YouTube and Qik.

    If anything, the internet is possibly saving traditional media. News aggregators like Google News actually drive people to newspaper websites and with the addition of YouTube into the Google News engine it will drive people to broadcasts from services like NBC, BBC and RTE.

    A consolidation of all this noise is coming. Searches for news or content very soon will be skewed in the direction of quality content from specific sources. Brands and quality will separate the wheat from the chaff and magazines from Forbes to Newsweek and newspapers that embrace the social media future as a way of disseminating quality content will indeed thrive.

    The key is connecting the virtual with the physical:

    A marketing campaign that features components that results in people buying newspapers and magazines, unlocking prizes or clues by scanning their phone over a 3-D image and instantly have them interacting with the publisher’s website

    Tuning into a TV show that also features 3D imagery that only your phone can unlock for a puzzle, text back and win your prize

    Tweeting rather than texting answers to quizzes or giving views on TV and radio shows like Primetime and showing these views alongside the live broadcast

    Augmented reality where if you look through your phone’s camera screen for a sign or symbol in a TV show or in a newspaper report you are pointing your phone at you get additional information or link straight to supporting knowledge

    Local newspapers, in particular, could have a very vibrant future if they got with the latest tools. Menno
    described a very compelling idea to me whereby if I’m a visitor to a local town and am equipped with an Android phone, by pointing it at a local point of interest the telematics in the device could know where I’m standing, what direction I’m facing and algorithms in the device could interact with the local newspaper office to give me information on the monument as well as direct me to local services like restaurants, hotels and bars, providing an advertising value-add for businesses.

    The adage ‘never waste a good recession’ is as true for media houses as it is for anyone in business. Change is constant, change is good. But fear paralyses.


Thursday, April 23, 2009

A nation howls with rage

'If you're wealthy you can probably relax, but if you're poor you'll see you're cash go down .... when Lenihan comes around.'

Lenihan comes Around Soundtrack courtesy of the Emergency as heard on Newstalk 106. "Cashdog" vocal by Morgan C Jones. Puppeteer Conor Lambert. This shows the bark side of irish politics.' - Dog Owners Weekly

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Pre-fabricate this!

I heard with interest yesterday that our wonderful government is content to pay 48 million euros a year to rent these miserable prefab units for our young to go to class in.

This was in answer to a parliamentary question by Fine Gael.

The outrage seemed to be directed at the waste of money, it would be cheaper to buy these units than pay exorbitant rent every year.

Fair point.

But does no one realise the real scandal is the fact that we use these prefab units at all?

I remember these things well; rickety, smelly exaggerated huts if you ask me. Then again, I went to a school where an entire pre-fab section of the miserable ghetto was called the 'Bogside'. Says it all really.

What are needed are modern, bright, clean, energy efficient permanent buildings.

Prefabs are temporary structures. The problem is they've become a permanent part of the thinking of our inept decision makers.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Seriously, dare you call yourself ‘public servants’?

If I have to listen to another so-called public servant bemoan their 7.5pc pension levy and financial challenges because of the latest Budget, let me remind them of a few things:

• The majority of private sector people are not as well paid as their counterparts in the public sector who cost this country €20bn per annum
• Their lower paid private sector counterparts actually generate the tax revenues that fill the public purse
• The majority of private sector people have taken pay cuts of 10pc and many don’t have a pension to look forward to on retirement
• 60pc of women in the private sector don’t even have a pension
• most people in the private sector are existing on a week to week basis, they don't have the guarantee of jobs for life

I get it that not all public servants are well-paid. But neither are the majority of private sector workers who fear the spectre of redundancies and dole queues.

If 100,000 people with cushy jobs and even cushier pension arrangements want to strike and march and in the process help bring the economy to a grinding halt, they won’t get my sympathy. They’ get my venom.

Grow up for God’s sake.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Another Bloody Sunday

Two British soldiers were shot dead and four other people seriously injured during an attack on a British Army base in Antrim town last night.

Not only has the economy gone back to the 80s, so too have the terrorists.

We cannot allow this to be happening again. My thoughts and prayers are with the families of the young soldiers and the families of the injured. My thoughts are also with the communities of the North, whatever their faith. This video from the 80s is sadly apt:

Saturday, February 21, 2009

This year over 1,000 orphans in Belarus received a visit from an Irish charity

As our car makes it progress through a seemingly endless forest in the countryside of Belarus, snow hangs off the trees and I can’t help but reflect how the idyllic scene has been played out on Christmas cards that decorated Irish fireplaces for as far back as I can remember.

But for many of the 13,000 orphans spread across 57 orphanages in the country which was most affected by the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster (60pc of the fallout landed on Belarus), homely Christmas scenes are a memory or most often figments of their imagination.

That is except for the over 1,000 children who this year – and for nearly 10 years previous –received presents, a Christmas party and much needed improvements to their orphanage when Santa Claus and his helpers rolled into town with help from the people of Ireland.
It was while covering a story for a Sunday paper 10 years ago on the efforts of Irish aid groups in the Chernobyl area that International Orphanage Development Fund (IODP) founder Tom McEnaney sparked on the idea of bringing Santa to orphans in time for the Russian Christmas which falls on 7 January.

Since then and without fail groups of Irish volunteers have raised the money to buy the toys in answer to the children’s letters to Santa as well as identify and execute much needed improvements to their living conditions.
In this time many of the orphanages the group has worked for have received on average €300,000 each to pay for everything from new roofs, windows, beds, medical equipment as well as sports equipments and books to nourish growing minds.

This was my second trip with the group and while I found it hard to tear myself away from the warm living room hearth at Christmas I had to agree with fellow fundraiser Noleen Behan, a senior civil servant, it made sense once I was on my way. “It’s always hard but every year it gets better,” says Noleen.
The proof of this was my return to Osipovichi, an orphanage for 90 children with physical motor difficulties after one year. My first visit there was also my first time to ever visit an orphanage and on that occasion I felt numb as I surveyed cold rooms, inadequate windows, antiquated equipment and poor lighting.

The first thoughts to often run through your head when you visit an orphanage is of loved ones back home and how young relatives could ever survive in such a place. At the same time I witnessed and understood genuine love and commitment from the orphanage’s staff who were doing the best they could with limited resources.

A year later I was instantly struck by how warm and bright the orphanage was as happy smiling children welcomed us in. Since our visit a year ago the orphanage received 50 new beds, fluorescent lighting put in place throughout as well as ultrasound equipment to stimulate and develop the children’s muscles.

Santa on the day was Donal McNally, an architect from Dublin, who was an absolute natural and whose other mission was to sketch out plans for a new equestrian centre for the orphanage. Another key plan is to replace crumbling exercise baths installed in the 1930s with a modern swimming pool to help stimulate the orphans’ development.

I was pleased to run into two boys at Osipovichi that I met last year, Yuri and Dima, who regaled me with tales about their visits to America and their love of the cinema and Harry Potter, whose books grace the library there thanks to the IODP.

As we sat down to drink tea with the orphanage director, the resident doctor, a lady called Tatiana told us how she was about to resign last year because she didn’t have the medical supplies to help the children until the IODP bought them while on the trip last year. “All the staff were shocked by the improvements. We didn’t expect so much. We have found it to be emotional and inspirational,” she said in a trembling voice.

The next day, after a long trip across a snow-blasted landscape to visit Berezino, we met 21 of the orphanage’s 91 children. There we were dismayed to learn of the Belarus government’s plans to close as many orphanages as possible to make way for SOS villages and foster homes. Overall, this may be a good thing, but ultimately the foster homes will need to be better than the homes many of the children had left behind.

One of the key strategies of the IODP has been to make the orphanages as self-sufficient as possible and often farm equipment from tractors to piggeries have been acquired and put in place. But in Berezino’s case the piggery was shut down as the government intends to use the land to build houses.

The importance of farm equipment was underlined by Tom who on his return from an orphanage called Dubrovno in the north of Belarus revealed that it hadn’t received a subvention from the state for over six months. “They were able to grow potatoes and feed themselves and also generate a small profit from what they grew themselves,” he pointed out.

The next day we visited Rudensk, a home for children aged 8-20 years who have mental disabilities or have been sexually abused and who mostly hail from the Chernobyl region. It was my turn to don the red suit for over 105 of the 164 children present this year.
We received a warm welcome from the Rudensk orphanage’s director Valentin who told us the children there have come to expect the traditional visit from Irish Santa Clauses with toys and sweets for the children. This is important across all the orphanages, he said, because the Belarus state can’t afford to send the children presents every year.

Rudensk is a particularly special orphanage as many of its young athletes have competed successfully for gold and silver medals at the Special Olympics in Ireland and China.

“It’s hard to imagine what would have happened to this orphanage without the IODP and Tom. Everything we had was being destroyed through wear and tear,” Valentin said, pointing out that in recent years the orphanage received over €300,000 in fiscal aid from the IODP.

Aside from requests for vacuum cleaners and a lawnmower, Valentin said that what’s vitally important in time for the Spring is that the children receive new clothes and shoes. Rudensk works to equip the kids with vital work skills to handle everything from farming to working as mechanics. “We have been able to produce over 100 tons of vegetables this year,” he exclaimed proudly. “The main thing is to ensure the children can work when they graduate.”

Valentin, who has been at his post for over 21 years now, pointed to the sad fact that some of the children who attended Rudensk are now sending their own children to their orphanage.

One of the first things you realise about these orphanages is a large number of the children are defined as ‘social orphans’ insofar as they have been put in the orphanages for their own good to escape homes blighted by alcohol, drug and sexual abuse. Valentin’s revealing statistic is that out of over 10,000 children in orphanages in Belarus, only 1,500 don’t have parents.

“There is a law today that biological parents have to pay for their children’s upkeep at the orphanages but this is difficult to arrange. Many are alcoholics and it’s difficult to track them down,” he regrets.

As various groups of children with broad smiles trooped up to receive their presents from Santa and demonstrated their gratitude through songs and dances, Valentin’s words echoed in my head. But there is something mystical about the chime of a child’s laugh that keeps you in the present. However, it’s the future Valentin is concerned about.

They party atmosphere at Rudensk was sustained by Aileen Durkan, a former nurse and a businesswoman who lives in Dublin, who brought face paints to entertain the youngsters. Their laughter competed with Aileen’s as she expressed genuine amusement as kids with newly painted faces ran to wash the paint off just to be painted on again. Something tells me Aileen would still be there today painting their little faces if she could.

In many of the orphanages we visited children were absent because they were visiting families who welcomed them overseas, mainly in Ireland and Italy. “Most of the children visit Italy because Ireland doesn’t invite as many of them as Italy,” he said.

The warm glow and happy atmosphere at Rudensk was replaced by the more formal and militaristic environment the following day at Krivichi, a children’s prison, home to 24 boys all attired in some form of camouflage garb. Krivichi opened in September and can accommodate 68 children. It is specifically for children with health ailments who have been convicted by a court. The most common offence was theft.

Responding to barked out orders the boys trooped to and from their lunch. All semblance of military order disappeared as they smiled gratefully as I handed them their presents of MP3 players, with the one exception being a Flash memory card. Ordered ranks dissipated into chaos as they ran to play with additional gifts of chess sets, pets and PlayStations.

Tom and Donal just narrowly defeated the home teams at chess, but despite Irish honour being upheld Tom is adamant in his quest to see chess rooms installed in all 57 of Belarus’s orphanages. Something tells me he will succeed at this having already successfully installed playgrounds in all of the orphanages in recent years.

The sombre nature of Krivichi was brought crashing home with a visit to the ‘House of Culture’, an austere cooler cell in which an inmate is restrained for three days at a time. Unlike Steve McQueen who in the Great Escape had a baseball to bounce off the wall, the one accoutrement the present inmate, a 12 year-old, had was a bed with a one inch-thick mattress.

The IODP’s inspired decision for Krivichi is to invest not only in new windows for the orphanage but also an ice rink and equipment to encourage the boys to take up ice hockey, pretty much the national sport of Belarus since it is its president Alexander Lukashenko is an avid fan of ice hockey.

Our final visits were to two orphanages in Beshankovichi in north eastern Belarus, close to the region’s cultural capital of Vitebsk. The first was to a centre for children with Downs Syndrome which had 10 full-time children residing as well as 20 children who visited on a consulting basis.

Donal’s natural gift for playing the role of Santa was revived as he danced and careened around the floor to the tune of DJ Aligator’s ‘I Like To Move It, Move It’ which came from a dancing cow that was one of the children’s presents.

Ahead of the IODP’s visit many of the presents for the kids were bought in advance by platoons from a paintball team from Minsk interestingly called ‘Team Irish’ led by the IODP’s man on the ground in Belarus, Denis. The IODP makes a point of buying all of the toys and infrastructure locally as it helps the local economy.

Our final visit was to Beshankovichi Transition Orphanage, which Tom introduced to us by saying: “This place will break your heart. It is where children just taken from their homes are kept until a decision is made what to do with them.”

He explained the transition orphanage is mainly kids between three and 12 who have been taken from their parents and there’s a period where parents can reclaim their children before being sent on to an orphanage. “Usually orphanages are better places than the home they came from.” One child’s family, he said, took up floor boards to sell for alcohol.

Little boys in smart suits cautiously entered the room followed by little girls with solemn, composed faces. Once again the magic spell of Santa Claus – or Father Frost as he is known in Belarus – was evoked as uncertainty and solemnity was erased on faces that broke into the warmest, most grateful smiles I ever witnessed. Tom was right, this place did break my heart.

He pointed out on this trip that the one thing the Belarus people do is endure. It is a country that has been crisscrossed by many empires from the Tsar’s and the Napoleonic to the Nazi and the Soviet. It has also to contend with extremes from beautiful summers to petrifyingly cold winters and even colder economic realities.

But in the sacred dominion of childhood the one thing that must always endure is Santa Claus. And over 1,000 children can’t be wrong.

Friday, February 20, 2009

I love my country. I always will. But the so-called pillars that until now supposedly held it up never enthralled me. 

The church - we all know the betrayal there. The government - an ever-shifting tapestry of the underpowered, the undignified, the beholden,  the impotents - we all know that. . The judiciary - filth that follows the money flow. 

The fourth estate - has lost its voice and needs to regain it - but did it ever really have a voice and if it did, did it really use it?

The criminals … these days some carry more ammunition than the peacemakers. Others wear suits and hide behind the façade of financial institutions and collect nice bonuses for jobs badly done.

But the people … ah, now that’s where redemption lies. This nation is very good at enduring. We had a golden opportunity. We blew it with people carriers and trophy homes. Snakes and ladders, we’re back at the start.

But the people …. Ingenuity, compassion, creativity, warmth, necessity, stoicism, charity, energy, trust, ability,  ambition … the things that make us Irish … let’s go to war like salmon to the stream. A new world order will emerge. Decisions and actions now will decide how noble we truly are.

Our leaders of the future should be people of action. Not people who quote reports, policy documents and blueprints or are ordered around by overpaid civil servants or flanked by PR people. Stop appeasing, stop finessing, just do something.

Apologists and ditherers and yokels who sound ‘Stage Irish’ and have nothing to show for their years in office but stuttering and posturing on morning radio are doing nothing for families who need to put food on the table.

A change is coming, it’ll take a while but hopefully it’ll be a good change. Let’s never be short-changed again.