News Analysis

Saturday 23 August 2014

Calling Higgins gay my worst nightmare

When the final safety net is removed, it's not surprising writers fall in to the online trap, says David Monagan

David Monagan

Published 28/07/2013 | 05:00

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RESIGNED: Author and journalist David Monagan at his home in Military Hill, Cork

I AM the journalist who recently made a serious error in a blog for Forbes called a Letter from Ireland that, though pulled off the internet in minutes after about 300 actual views, went viral – to the horror of myself and Forbes. If there was such a thing as a "journalist's worst nightmare", this was it.

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In a rush to get a complex and heavily researched story out about something altogether different – in this case, Samantha Power, the Dublin-born American ambassador nominee to the UN – I, in a last-minute addition, pasted in two erroneous words – "acknowledged homosexual" – about the President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins, that pertained in fact not to him but his electoral rival for the job two years ago, David Norris.

It is likely that as a result I have caused pain to a person I hold in much respect. I voted for Higgins myself, because the world has seen few such literary and thoughtful political leaders since the passing of the former playwright president of Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel.

The mistake was a whopper, and the fault was mine. However, there is another important story here as well – which is rather about the cynical state that journalism is today being driven to by powers far beyond the control of journalists themselves.

Even those of us with decades of experience, and long-known for our precision and passion for the truth, are struggling to make an income by latching on to a world of online journalism where there is no traditional safety net.

You hit "post" and off your article flies. Generally, there are no senior editors to ask any questions about what we report, no junior sub editors to screen the article before it goes live, and certainly no fact checkers – at least not until the damage is already done. In fact, we even have to do the graphic design too, and payment requests drift off to India.

Most would never think that this devaluation of the core principles of journalism would be led by an institution with such an august name as Forbes, but that is the fact. Internationally, the Forbes name carries the near equivalent weight of the New York Times or Wall Street Journal as being a reliable conveyor of breaking news and insight to the world. But has it become the news media equivalent of Facebook?

The fact is that Forbes, as a corporate communication enterprise, is now consumed by a mathematical game of just generating "hits". Forbes' new business strategy is to bombard the internet with hundreds of news splashes every day from legions of journalists, who each of us for our own reasons sign on for reimbursement in the range of a couple of euros an hour. This is less pay than the typical asylum seeker in Ireland would expect for the most menial introductory job.

It is all about "hits". Forbes boasts that it gets 45 million of them a month, and, of course, the more hits, the more profit, based on the algorithms of web advertising. We are talking about the soul of a machine here and that is the real background behind my personal "journalist's worst nightmare" and that drives the much larger crisis in journalism today.

My agreement with Forbes was to deliver four original articles about Ireland each month for a base fee of $200 (€151) that is supplemented by computer-generated totals of my personal "hits". I long-suspected that this was a formula for disaster – and warned others in international journalism that it was dangerous for a global news venue to abandon the once bedrock principles of fact-checking.

Nonetheless, I spent ridiculous amounts of time on most everything I did for Forbes – articles about the banking crisis, ghost hunters, offshore oil . . . the big with the little. The pay: .005 cent per hit now gone, or $10 (€7.50) additional if 2,000 people read one of my postings. But there was a supplement – ten cents per repeat viewer, of which I averaged 220 a month.

Do the math. My top pay from Forbes over the last nine months was about $270 (€203) for four articles on which I typically spent 10 hours-plus each – $2.70 (€2.03) an hour. However, if I file only, say, three articles in a month, I receive no money, even if the Letter from Ireland has had 6,000 hits. Further, my contract warned that mistakes were my problem alone legally, and when the journalistic equivalent of a firestorm hit, Forbes could not even find my phone number.

It has been a glorious summer in Ireland this year, with other distractions and responsibilities. All of a sudden, I found myself three articles short as July wound down. So after 16 hours of work on the Samantha Power article – for $50 (€38) – I hit the "post" button without that last, last review critical to my lifelong trade. And apparently, not one person at Forbes bothered a look as the post went global.

In my years of writing books and news articles, always there was somebody there to help think through the final version. But no more – the guardians of the truth-seeking process are disappearing, foremost with that powerhouse of breaking news, Forbes.

I care passionately about the search for truth and its every manifestation in the journalistic trade. I pen this now to pray that others can learn from my experience of "a journalist's worst nightmare". I have written so much in the past with love, and, okay, humour when apt about this funny place, my adopted Ireland. And I will do so again. But not for Forbes – I have resigned.

David Monagan is a native of Connecticut but a long resident in Ireland, and is the author of 'Ireland Unhinged: Travels in a Wildly Changing Country' (Council Oak Books and Random House, 2011) and 'Jaywalking with the Irish' (Lonely Planet, 2004). His journalism about Ireland and many other subjects has appeared in major publications, from 'Forbes' to 'Discover Magazine', the 'New York Times' and 'Boston Globe', around the world for 30-plus years.

Sunday Independent

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