1916 and all that

An edited version of this article appeared in Village magazine, April 2016 edition

The Irish Times has had a mixed 1916 commemoration. Even it’s own audiences seem hardwired to expect a certain bias from the newspaper of record, but one particular decision – or possibly, a non-decision no one ever thought to check for unfortunate implications – certainly didn’t help.1916: Padraig Pearse Surrenders

For their 1916 anniversary issue, the paper produced a replica cover from 100 years ago, but decided to cut the original banner headline: “Sinn Fein Rebellion In Ireland”.

The page two explanation – broadsheets aren’t what they used to be, and the resized 2016 dimensions (half the size of the 1916 original) meant the original would no longer fit in its entirely, and although it had been shrunk somewhat, any further reduction in print size would render it unreadable, and something had to go – convinced some, but left others unimpressed. If space was the only issue, then why leave two mastheads on the front page, one modern and one vintage?

It seems on balance that the omission was a design decision, and nothing more, but the online row it generated may speak more about the perceived trust issues the paper has with its audience. Times journalists are prone to complain that their paper is often held to a higher standard than others, and that may be the case, but it is also a backhanded compliment. Its readers expect more from it, and are therefore more inclined to complain when it does not live up to expectations. The Times garners complaints because what the Times says matters more to its readers, present and future, in a way that the other newspapers do not. Being an opinion leader comes with a price.

Twitter media accounts come in two flavours. There are those that engage, joining in conversations with followers over the stories of the day, even on occasion adding their contributions to the joke of the day on the medium, and there are those that broadcast, casting their bread upon the waters for others to consume, but never acknowledging that the audience is talking back.

Irish times editor Kevin O’Sullivan falls into the latter category. His twitter stream is a list of links to articles he finds it worth highlighting, mostly from his own publication, occasionally from farther afield.

While it is assumed that O’Sullivan curates his on twitter account, he does not engage with his followers online, or share his thoughts on the news of the day, beyond a brief “interesting” or “scintillating” appended to a story link. And since he does not share his thoughts in detail, the only insight into the thinking of the man helming the paper of record is in which stories he deems worthy of sharing.

Irish Times 1916 coverage, as highlighted by its editor in the period from Patrick’s Day to the end of Easter Week, was colourful and varied, with thinkpieces by regular and occasional columnists (Fintan O’Toole on Shaw and Casement; Niall O’Dowd on the American input to rebellion; though oddly, no one wrote about the German contribution).

The Times chose to reproduce a letter from Francis Sheehy-Skeffington to Thomas MacDonagh making a case for pacifism, an offbeat Q&A by Frank McNally (who knew there was a General Blackader (one ‘d’) on the British side?), and a fervent wish from Miriam Lord that we could hold an Easter party every year.

Even some ideas that sounded like cringe-inducing embarrassments, such as the new proclamations created by schoolkids, produced some excellent coverage. What does it say of a modern nation if children are calling for an end to homelessness while ministers hide behind constitutional guarantees to private property.

On the new media side, a particular highlight must be the Irish Times Women’s Podcast on Margaret Skinnider, volunteer, sniper, schoolteacher, trade unionist, and would be Shelbourne Hotel bomber.

For the most part though, the Irish Times editorial attention was rooted in the present, internationally on the continuing Trump saga and the Brussels bombing, and at home on the continuing slow dance around the question of who should form the next government.

And then there was the 2016 Proclamation. If schoolchildren came out with a simple vision of an Ireland where no one is homeless, the editorial proclamation for 2016, attempting too cherish all its children equally, had the look of a family christmas tree, with everyone adding their favourite bauble to the decorations until it became an unwieldy beast, overflowing with good wishes, inclusiveness, and a feel good spirit that made it look like an out-of-shape heavyweight next to the spartan declaration of a century ago.