A pie in the face of Irish media

The relationship between the traditional print media and the online world of blogs and ‘citizen journalism' is often one of mutual hostility. On the one hand, journalists and publishers decry the lack of professionalism, credibility and objectivity of non-commercial online news sources. On the other, one of the most popular topics of the blogosphere is the failings and bias of mainstream media, or MSM as it's often abbreviated online. The internet has endless space in which these failings can be put under the microscope.


Over the weekend of 10 November, solicitor and blogger Simon McGarr organised a group of bloggers to analyse the editorial content of every Irish newspaper that was printed between Friday and Sunday. Rather than looking at political angles, the analysis focused on the sources of the stories. The idea was to try to measure how much of the content of each paper was produced by old-fashioned journalism and how much was “placed in a journalist's lap” by a PR agency, an anonymous security source or just copied from elsewhere.

Over the last two weeks, the results of this analysis have been posted to tuppenceworth.ie, a collective blog. Each paper is disected in minute detail, with comments explaining the categorisation of each article and pie-charts showing the breakdown of articles in each paper.

The reviewers published their thoughts as they went along and engaged in debates with critical readers – including some of the journalists whose work they were analysing.  Although an academic would probably quibble about the rigour of their categorisation schema, by publishing their methodology as they progressed they allow readers to assess their decisions themselves, making it a valuable piece of empirical research.

The reviewers started out with a jaundiced eye towards the media, but their opinions still managed to markedly deteriorate as they baked their pie charts. Original journalism made up no more than 23 per cent of the news sections of Irish papers. Meanwhile, 24 per cent of the Star Sunday was made up of “advertorial” – articles which simply served to advertise a product; 23 per cent of the articles in the Irish Independent were copied from international newswires; 25 per cent of articles in the Irish Examiner were directly sourced from press releases.

Bleak as the pie charts may look, the commentary paints an even worse picture. For example, one of the articles that contributed to the Sunday Independent's journalistic 18 per cent is annotated: “I've had to include this in the pie chart as journalism but the journalistic input has simply involved cobbling together elements from a couple of opinion pieces inside and a lifestyle feature by Barry Egan.”

The overall picture is not one of a vigilant fourth estate, vigorous in the public interest, but of increasingly advertising-driven products that are stitched together from secondary sources. This reflects the economic reality of newspaper publishing. In the face of declining circulation, newspapers have continually cut editorial costs and attempted to maximise their advertising revenue per issue.

The big problem is that these economic pressures are helping to drive their readership online.π