Lois Kapila of the Dublin InQuirer: A Return to ‘old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting’

The Dublin InQuirer has raised some eyebrows since going live a few months ago. It has quite an interesting perspective including articles on the role of finance capital in the city and good critical coverage on the goings on in the city council. Coverage of the work of housing activists has been included and the site broke  the shocking story of homeless families being forced to use the side entrance of hotels. The web based publication comes out every Wednesday and as well as the what we would expect from a  local news site such a city desk, arts and cuisine articles and a what’s on section what really caught our eye is the  ‘unreal estate‘ planning and property section which as the name implies has a far  more critical outlook compared to the ubiquitous estate agent  driven property porn found  in  mainstream journalism. The site also includes interesting ‘long reads’, such as  one on the life and work of cat catchers in the city.  Columnists include Frank McDonald previously of the Irish Times, the aforementioned Andy Story who covers economics and Roe McDermott an advice columnist. The site practices what founder Lois Kapila describes as a more traditional approach to journalism and writing compared to the PR driven churnalism that has increasingly become the norm. We sent Lois some questions to find out a little more about Dublin’s latest media product who discusses issues such as funding models, journalistic style and practice and mainstream media plagiarism.

Lois Kapila

Lois Kapila

Congratulations on the new news site, the first question is why did you decide to set about establishing it?

Thanks! I set it up because I thought there was a gap in the market for in-depth city coverage, and that there were many stories that weren’t being told. Also, I was working as a struggling freelance journalist in Dublin before this, and I couldn’t find many places that would run the kind of stories that I wanted to write – in-depth local journalism.

I grew up in the UK and there, at least, local journalism seems to be looked upon as second-class journalism. It isn’t really respected as much as the nationals. In 2009, I interned really briefly over a summer for an alt weekly publication in the US called Washington City Paper, and what they were doing there really blew me away. That changed my idea of what local journalism could be.

As well as all that, I wanted to create opportunities for young reporters to go out and about and do what some might consider more old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting, rather than maybe rewriting press releases or sitting at their desks reporting on tweets. I hope that we’re going to be a good training ground for journalists who can then go on to grander places that can pay them more.

 logoHow long have you been up and running? Are you finding your feet?

We’ve been up and running since June this year and I think we are finding our feet. It’s taking us a bit of time to get to know our beats, and to become known on them — simple things such as being recognised as press at city council meetings.

The mindset that a reporter needs for a weekly publication, rather than a daily, or hourly, is different. You need to think a bit more about where the debate is headed, find stories that aren’t going to have been published elsewhere by the time you go to press, and justify having that bit more time to report. So that’s a learning curve too.

I feel like we’ve got the basics in place now, and there are different longer-term projects that we need to start working on, particularly using data, to make the most of being an online publication. We’re not exactly where we want to be yet, but I think we’ll get there.

Question three is of particular interest to media activists is how did you go about establishing it? And as much as you feel comfortable telling us do you have a particular funding model? We notice for example you offer editorial services and a shop, is this intention to leave you a little less dependent on advertising?

At the moment, it’s funded with some start-up funding that I have been extremely privileged – and am slightly nervous –  to have got from family. I did apply for, and continue to apply for, different grants but haven’t managed to bag one yet.

I obviously did a lot of talking to people and reading about different models for local media before we got set up, and I thought that we would find it really tough to survive if we were completely dependent on advertising. So we are trying to work on numerous revenue streams in addition to advertising, as you noticed: editorial services, an online shop, our membership scheme.

As a local publication, focused on the kind of journalism that we are, we’re never going to get as much traffic as a national with rolling breaking news and celebrity tidbits might. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I think it’s safe to work on that assumption.

So we’re working to build up a smaller core of loyal readers who spend more time on the website, and like what we do, and give what they can when they can. It’s healthy to have that focus on readers, I think, and in the future, I want to build up our membership scheme, so that those who donate to us do get more than a tote bag; I’d love to be able to give them discounts at different places in the city, and to run more events for them.

The danger of having all these streams, of course, is spreading ourselves too thin. We are a small team and so finding time to manage them all, and keep them moving, is tricky.

In the future, I’d love Dublin Inquirer to become a newspaper part-owned by its readers. I envisage some kind of equity crowd-funding model, where in exchange for a contribution, the readers become part-owners.

DublinInQ The site seems to have a particular interest in planning and housing, and it has to be said has a far more critical attitude towards it compared to what we are accustomed to, for example your ‘unreal estate’ section, is this area of particular interest to you, and why?

I think it’s of interest to us, because it’s something that our readers want to know about and we all struggle with issues like rising rents and substandard accommodation. If you live in the city, you can’t help but take an interest in the built environment.

As for taking a more critical attitude, to me that just seems the default approach that we should have to it. It’s also more interesting, I think, than property porn.

I genuinely don’t understand how you can have such blatant property porn, thinly disguised adverts, on the front page of the Irish Times website, for example. Sometimes, right up there at the top of the page. How can a national newspaper of record think that the potential sale of one multi-million-euro home somewhere in the country is deserving of that kind of exposure?

When I first moved to Ireland, the second apartment I lived in with my husband had mould all over and broken windows. The ceiling fell down and the landlord had complete control over the heat and left it off for the winter. And it’s really difficult to function and stay healthy when you’re living in those conditions. But if nowhere else will take you because there’s a shortage and you don’t have references and you’re broke, what are you going to do?

So, I do feel passionate about housing. Also, we are a city paper, and we aim to focus on local government. And housing and planning are some of the areas where the council does actually have influence. So that, too, means it’s a natural reporting area for us.

We have also noticed what seems to be wider range of opinion on your site compared to the mainstream, especially around property, is this a policy?

I’m glad you think that we have a wide range of opinion on the site! I guess it’s a policy to be open to submissions and have a wide range of informed voices. I don’t understand why any publication or editor would make themselves difficult to reach.

I would like us to have more diversity, though, in terms of ethnic minority contributors, for example. I think the media in Ireland does not reflect the diversity out on the streets. I know that immigration is newer here than in the UK, for example, and for some immigrants, language will be a problem, but I think we have to try harder to open up opportunities for people from new communities to get a break in journalism.

For those who worry that somebody from somewhere else can’t possibly understand what’s going on here, I would point out that our planning and transport reporter is from the US and his stories are smart and spot on.

Are you going to be engaging in investigative journalism on the site?

I would love to be able to do more investigative journalism on the site.

To me, investigative journalism is just great reporting that takes more time. At the moment, we’re a small team and so that’s a struggle. But I think we’ll get better at juggling longer projects with weekly pieces and that’s definitely something that we’ll be working on.

In any case, I think we should approach all stories with the mindset that you might associate with investigative journalism, and ask, “What do I want to know?” rather than, “What will people tell me right now?”

How would you describe yourself editorially?

I think that our mission, for want of a better word, is simple: to tell people stories that help them to understand what’s going on in the city, and present them in a way that’s enjoyable to read. And some of those will be the more medicinal, we-think-you-should-know-this stories, and some will be the softer, we-think-you’d-smile-at-this stories.

I don’t really give any thought to where we might fall in terms of “on the left” or “on the right”. To me, that’s irrelevant. We’re independent. When we’re reporting stories, our focus is simply to figure out what’s going on and tell our readers.

Our voice is more informal and, at times, some might say less measured than some publications. But I think there’s a danger with some publications that they confuse having a neutral voice with “unbiased” journalism and sometimes hide behind that style. It’s the reporting process, and being transparent about where information came from, that determines whether a piece is accurate and honest or not.

Are there any sites, papers or models from outside Ireland you admire or would like to emulate.

There are so many sites and papers that I read and admire and would love to be even a shade as good as, particularly in the US. I love the alt weeklies such as Washington City Paper  with their long-form narrative style and grit. I love regional publications like This Land Press which seems to be succeeding at building a sense of community around the publication, has a quality print quarterly, and is great-looking. And I love Tampa Bay Times, where even the simplest story is done with such care, such as this one about sports fans  or this one about an astronomer.  I also love Texas Monthly.  In India, Caravan  has incredible political profiles.

Do you intend to stay Dublin focused in the future, or do you have plans to publish national focused stories?

We’re definitely staying Dublin-focused. It’s a better use of our resources to keep our coverage tight and get to know the city as well as we can, rather than spreading ourselves too thin. I think this is where the gap is too. I’m not saying that there aren’t other Dublin-focused news publications, but I don’t think any of them are doing quite what we are.

I hope that some of our stories will get picked up by nationals. Actually, a few already have, such as our story about the rules that homeless families in emergency accommodation have to abide by. RTE and The Mirror picked up on the issue, as did The Journal.

While RTE credited us, and The Mirror re-reported the story themselves, it was a bit frustrating to see The Journal pick up the story and use our reporter’s photos of the list of rules as source material and illustrations, and not give us even an “H/T”.

But it’s still great to see issues that we follow and think are important spread to a wider audience. And I think that even though we’re small, we can hopefully play a bit of a role at times in setting the agenda.

In the West…

In the West there was panic when the migrants multiplied on the highways. Men of property were terrified for their property. Men who had never been hungry saw the eyes of the hungry. Men who had never wanted anything very much saw the flare of want in the eyes of the migrants. And the men of the towns and of the soft suburban country gathered to defend themselves; and they reassured themselves that they were good and the invaders bad, as a man must do before he fights. They said, These goddamned Okies are dirty and ignorant. They’re degenerate, sexual maniacs. These goddamned Okies are thieves. They’ll steal anything. They’ve got no sense of property rights.

And the latter was true, for how can a man without property know the ache of ownership? And the defending people said, They bring disease, they’re filthy. We can’t have them in the schools. They’re strangers. How’d you like to have your sister go out with one of ’em?

The local people whipped themselves into a mold of cruelty. Then they formed units, squads, and armed them- armed them with clubs, with gas, with guns. We own the country. We can’t let these Okies get out of hand. And the men who were armed did not own the land, but they thought they did. And the clerks who drilled at night owned nothing, and the little storekeepers possessed only a drawerful of debts. But even a debt is something, even a job is something. The clerk thought, I get fifteen dollars a week. S’pose a goddamn Okie would work for twelve? And the little store- keeper thought, How could I compete with a debtless man?

John Steinbeck: The Grapes of Wrath

Base, Superstructure and the Irish Property Crash: Henry Silke

The “Great Western Crisis” starting in 2008 has reinvigorated much debate on capitalist crises and causation, Marxist scholars have long debated crisis theory falling into a number of major theoretical positions, at a crude level they can be divided into three (sometimes overlapping) major positions: that is the theories of financialisation, overproduction/underconsumption, and the tendency of the rate of profit to decline. This paper discusses the role of communications and the media in capitalist crises drawing from the literature of both crisis theory and communications theory to investigate the relationship. The paper discusses the role of communications and the media on two levels, firstly on a functionalist level, that is how communication tools and channels play a role in the dissemination of information and secondly on an ideological level of how media can play a role in normalising market and class relations including support for elite political policies. The paper returns to the concept of base and superstructure noting a strong dialectical relationship between economic base and media and communications superstructure that can be found in trends of media concentration, media crisis and media work practices. The paper also discusses the dialectical relationship between media, markets and the wider economy….

…As discussed in Marxist literature, the broader economic base including the relations of production have a dialectical relationship with the various superstructures of society (including the state and the media). The tripartite relationships between the state, the media sphere and powerful economic interests may act to reinforce class relations and economic trends including periods of economic crisis. This is at least partially because the media—through ownership, institutional practice, alongside content, agenda setting, and overarching ideologies—tends to act to defend or at least defer critique of the economic and political system it is based on…

…The paper looks at the Irish economic crisis to explore these issues by briefly investigating the Irish Times and Irish Independent (two key political and economic papers in the Irish Republic) treatment of three key points in the downturn: The Irish property market on the run up to the 2007 general election (on the cusp of the crash); the blanket bank guarantee of 2008, where the state effectively guaranteed the debts of the entire Irish banking system in its totality, and finally the introduction of the National Asset Management Agency, a state sponsored bad bank aimed at cleaning up the (then) private banking industry…

…While media effects is a contentious issue amongst academic researchers, the empirical findings informing this paper point to the conclusion that that overall blanket positive coverage of the property market, the downplaying of the oncoming crisis and more fundamental deep seated ideology of housing being first and foremost a commodity has had some effect. In May 2007, the lack of critical analysis of either the residential or commercial property markets even on the cusp of a major crash meant that the newspapers at best failed in their normative watchdog role and left society and state ill prepared to deal with the outcomes. At worst, the papers could be considered to have been the ideological mouthpiece of the property industries, that is as uncritical “in-house” journals that privileged and pushed policies beneficial to the narrow economic interests of property developers, financiers, speculators, landlords and estate agents. The papers even if they were unaware of their obvious bias towards industry actors seem to have been so blinded by neo-liberal ideological assumptions that the concept of market “self-regulation” was above question.

The newspapers dependence on sourcing from the property industries coupled with a close economic relationship to the industry poses obvious questions around impartiality and independence, questions that neither newspaper group have sufficiently answered since the crash. Overall it is very likely that the coverage of housing in 2007 contributed to the housing bubble itself, the newspapers highly ideological defence of the market at a time of both heightened awareness and a critical juncture in the political cycle may have acted to reassure buyers and speculators, moreover the newspapers concentration of attention on stamp duty reform rather than key structural issues underlined assumptions of “market self-regulation” and that all would return to “normal” post political “interference” on the market; again acting to reassure market actors that the “normality” of bubble economics would continue. Moreover the newspapers framing and promotion of stamp duty reform in 2007 helped push the policy to the top of the agenda and see its eventual realisation. Stamp duty of course proved to be a red herring as the policy of abolition was enacted and did not prevent the crash. The view that the print media elongated the property bubble is supported by Julien Mercille’s (2013) research which also found a hugely favourable view of the property market before 2008 that he maintained sustained the rise in house prices…

…It could be argued that now with the onset of a severe housing crisis alongside the “tsunami of homelessness” (RTE News 2014) we are reaping the fruits of a non-critical media sphere. The coverage of housing throughout the crisis seems to have remained wedded to the market with the assumption that only private developers and private markets can supply housing leading therefore to discussion of how to best remove “market barriers” for the benefit of the aforementioned actors (much like 2007); the basic questions around how satisfactory housing policies may be achieved have rarely been discussed outside these parameters. Likewise, the newspapers treatment and framing of other political policies such as the blanket guarantee and NAMA most likely had some affect. There were some exceptions to this, in particular in some opinion pieces. However, the key trends and frames point to a “captured press”, that is, a press in service of a narrow class based interest. The Irish crisis with the fundamentally important role of the print media therefore acts as an exemplary case study of the base-superstructure relationship between the mass media and the market economy. The Irish experience concurs with much critical theory on the role of mass media in capitalist society in terms of economics, power and politics and seems to verify the long suspected role of the media as a structurally important part of the modern capitalist state rather than an objective “watchdog” holding truth to power…

…The links between super-structure and base are of long standing interest in Marxism; that is the dialectical and reflexive relationships between the economic base, economic actors, class relations and the superstructure of the state and various aspects of civil society. Two key elements of the superstructure are institutional political processes and institutional media processes. There are many other elements of the superstructure such as education, religion and various state and cultural organisations, however media and politics are two important elements of the superstructure coming from both state and civil society (Gramsci 1971/2003), and it would seem two of the more overtly political elements in the structures of power, and most importantly they represent two elements where cracks of agency may just exist.

Likewise in the wider base both media and communications play an indispensable role in the commodity circuit. This paper proposes a move towards a Marxist crisis theory of communications that would attempt to link the various aspects of the base-superstructure relationship in a holistic fashion. It is important to state that the relationship between ideological, institutional and material factors should not be considered as artificially separate spheres but rather as overlapping parts of a totality, which act to influence each other, moreover, all of which are “born into” particular historical and social structures. We make our own history but not in the circumstances of our own choosing. Likewise, while we have agency over our ideas they cannot be separated from pre-existing ideological structures. The base-superstructure concept is a tool, therefore, that allows us to attempt to deconstruct various elements of society at work and investigate their influences over other elements. The base or material factor generally is key as it is upon the material structures of society and economy that the political and ideological structures rest; however as discussed above there are periods when the superstructural elements can be more influential and this subjective element liberates us from an overly deterministic outlook and allows at least some political agency.

The full paper is available here

Announcing Portia, the Open Source Visual Web Scraper!

critical media review:

This looks like a very interesting tool:

Originally posted on The Scrapinghub Blog:

We’re proud to announce the developer release of Portia, our new open source visual scraping tool based on Scrapy. Check out this video:

As you can see, Portia allows you to visually configure what’s crawled and extracted in a very natural way. It provides immediate feedback, making the process of creating web scrapers quicker and easier than ever before!

Portia is available to developers on github. We plan to offer a hosted version on Scrapinghub soon, which will be compatible with Autoscraping and fully integrated with our platform.

Please send us your feedback!

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So What’s Wrong with One Man Owning all the Media Anyway?

Today’s Irish Examiner, Irish Daily Mail and Irish Times front pages all ran with the ongoing story of Denis O’Brien’s unprecedented attempts to gag the media from reporting Dail speeches; normally covered under Dail Privilege. While the press has been gagged from reporting the words of Catherine Murphy TD, the story has exploded both nationally and internationally and acted to expose, in the clearest fashion, the dangers of media concentration and oligarchical ownership. Whilst various journalists, editors and broadcasters working in the O’Brien empire have claimed that O’Brien does not interfere in editorial matters, it is now beyond credulity that the man who has successfully gagged RTE, The Irish Times and has threatened Broadsheet.ie with legal action does not interfere in the papers and radio stations that he owns and controls.

Today’s O’Brien owned Irish Independent is a clear example of this; whether O’Brien directly interferes or his editors are well enough house trained for him not to need to has little relevance, today’s Indo speaks for itself.

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The front page, unlike the Times, Examiner and Mail is not concerned with the constitutional crisis involving Dail privilege and press freedom. Rather, the Indo returns to its old favourite of attacking public sector workers for the possibility of getting a 2% pay ‘increase’. The front page article  does not use the expression ‘pay restoration’  framing this as a pay increase rather than a extremely modest restoration from cuts of at minimum 14%. The paper doesn’t seem to hold the same concern towards the monies the state lost on the Siteserve deal, the very story O’Brien lawyers are busy gagging. To get to the story of the week we have to wait until we get to page 22 where we are met with a short news report and no editorial comment. The Saturday weekly political supplement contains nothing on what is probably the most important media story since Section 31. It is also worth remembering that O’Brien’s company Siteserve (at the centre of this scandal) has received contracts from Irish Water, It is also worth remembering that O’Brien’s media empire has led the way in support for the charges as well as demonisation of the movement opposing the; a conflict of interest worthy of an editorial or two one might think?

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What Catherine Murphy TD Said In The Dail About Denis O’Brien

Originally posted on The Broken Elbow:

The Irish people are being denied the right to know about serious allegations being leveled at prominent Irish businessman and billionaire, Denis O’Brien by virtue of a High Court injunction forbidding RTE from broadcasting a programme about his controversial purchase of the infrastructure and utility support company, Siteserv.

In particular the programme is believed to have investigated his dealings with the liquidator of Siteserv, Kieran Wallace and the CEO of the Irish Banking Resolution Corporation, Mike Aynsley.

Denis O'Brien Denis O’Brien

Mr O’Brien’s road to a business fortune began when, according to the Moriarty Tribunal, he almost certainly greased the palm of Government Minister of Communications, Michael Lowry in 1995 to secure a lucrative mobile phone contract on behalf of Esat Digiphone, a consortium he headed.

Similar allegations that he was shown favoritism over his purchase of Siteserv were aired in Dail Eireann yesterday by the Independent TD for Kildare, Catherine Murphy…

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A note on the difference between left and right in Ireland

critical media review:

Cunning Hired Knaves on how political orientation is represented by Irish news organisations:

Originally posted on Cunning Hired Knaves:

“How do they manage to make the bad guys look good?”
“Dead easy: the bad guys write the script”

A recent interview with journalist Gene Kerrigan, conducted by David Manning of MediaBite, was titled ‘Ireland’s invisible, but omnipresent, right-wing’. In it, Kerrigan noted how mainstream Irish politicians were seldom referred to as right-wing in the media, even when their policy approach was the same as the likes of Angela Merkel, and how the outlook of political correspondents was the same as that of mainstream parties, but they are seldom referred to as right-wing journalists.

Kerrigan’s claim about the description of politicians can be verified by a simple test.

A Nexis search of Irish news sources for “Clare Daly” in the past year returns 495 results. 22 of these, or 4.4% contain the adjective “left-wing”.

A Nexis search of Irish news sources for “Joe Higgins” in the past year returns 400…

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