“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I…”: The fears of the Unionist working-classes

 Note: Over the last 15 months, I’ve been working on a book about the Reverend Robert Bradford, the Ulster Unionist MP murdered in November 1981. Some of the insights and quotes here are drawn from my research. 

 

It feels like Northern Ireland is at a fork in the road. One way leads to the “dark old days” (a euphemism for The Troubles). The other leads to a (hopefully) permanent peace.

Lately, I’ve been blogging/tweeting/arguing about politics a lot more than I usually do. I was eight years old when the Good Friday Agreement was signed. I didn’t see its impact until I was 16, at college and making friends with East Belfast Orangemen. By then, the notion that Protestants and Catholics couldn’t be friends was laughable. We called each other sectarian names with affection. It was our way of distancing ourselves from the pain our communities had inflicted on each other.

We could talk about the past without being angry. My friend’s Grandfather was a B-Special. My Mum was a West Belfast Catholic who saw members of the B-Specials help loyalist mobs burn Bombay Street down. Our family histories intersected in a very tragic way yet to this day, we’re good mates. My Mum harboured no bitterness and I knew well-enough to know that no side or organisation was “all bad”.  My friend, for his part, was horrified.

I, too, was horrified to learn of the horrors people from my community had inflicted on my friends families. If I learned anything during those two years at tech, it was that neither side could claim a monopoly on pain. Bar victims, no one could seize the moral high ground.

Yet both sides do. That’s the problem. The peace walls in Northern Ireland are not just physical but mental. When “one of our own” is hurt, we speak out, protest, march. When something happens to “one of them’uns”, we say nothing.

Consequently, much of the conflict was driven by the assumption and fear that the other side harboured only ill-will. This is a belief we need to abandon if we are to avoid another civil war.

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On Saturday, I spoke on a panel at the NI21 conference in the Europa Hotel. The topic was young people and politics. My good friend Brian John Spencer told the crowd I was his “hero” because I’m “a self-made woman” who dropped out of university and “made my own way” as a journalist. Brian’s biggest regret in life is doing the “done thing” and going to university to study law. 

Consequently, I received a message from a young woman who was at the conference. She’s hating university and is thinking about dropping out. She asked for my advice. 

The “university dropout” is a stereotype that has been romanticised by many. Given that I hear some form of this question every few months or so, I decided to publish my reply to her. Below is a slightly edited transcript. 

 

Okay,

So I’m going to be really, really honest with you because this is a big decision to make.

Firstly, it sounds to me as if you’re struggling with the workload. Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water, though. Go and talk to one of your tutors; there should be help available for you. You are not the first person to have this problem and you will not be the last. It’s nothing to do with you not being academic; uni is a shock to the system for most people because it’s so different from how things are done at school and if you’re not used to it, it’s hard to adjust. This is not a reflection on you not being “academic” but on how the education system doesn’t prepare students enough for the transition to uni.

Failing that, it could just be a case of swapping courses – or universities. A range of degrees in the humanities – anything, actually – will prepare you for a career in [redacted].

I understand this may not be what you want to hear because I was at QUB [Queens University Belfast] and I hated it. I just wanted out. It wasn’t the workload but the atmosphere and the social groups within the place. It wasn’t a place for working-class kids.

I know Brian made my story out to be very romantic – anyone who hasn’t travelled that path would – but in truth, it was anything but. The last four years have been hell for me. Getting by without a degree is so hard. It took me a long time to establish myself in my own right. Dropping out doesn’t mean you’ve failed but for most people, that’s how it’s viewed.

In fact, I’m now back at uni studying for my Masters and I intend to go back and get my undergrad because I love learning – I just didn’t love Queens.

When you don’t have traditional qualifications, you can’t climb the ladder. The traditional routes that everyone else takes are closed to you. You have to build your own path, out of whatever materials you can find. To extend that analogy, sometimes you’ll be making a ladder out of cardboard. You will fail so many times and success will be far from certain. University may be painful and it may be hard but it is the easiest way to get into any profession. By dropping out of uni, I forsook the traditional path which really takes away career stability. For a long time, I wasn’t sure how I would make a living. It’s taken me four years to get a point where my efforts are paying off. 

It’s only in the last six months that I’ve been able to say dropping out of university was a gamble that paid off. Before that, I regretted it bitterly. What I didn’t see back then was how all the entrepreneurial projects I was working on would set me up for roles working in new media companies for entrepreneurs (like my roles at Mediagazer and The XX Corporation). These are the companies that are growing while old media companies are struggling to survive. This, however, was luck and luck isn’t always on your side. As I said earlier, there’s a lot more uncertainty in building your own ladder than in climbing the one created for you by others.

This is the other setback: traditional, established companies will not hire people who don’t come up through the traditional route. That would be a risk for them. Luckily, I enjoy working for small companies and entrepreneurs but if I didn’t, it would be a huge problem because my career options have been severely shrunk by the fact that I don’t have a piece of paper from Queens.

I hope this helps and if I can help in any other way, please let me know. If you’re still determined to leave uni, let me know and I will offer more positive pointers and any help/introductions I can. I don’t mean to be dreadfully pessimistic. My life has been amazing because of the decision I made at 19 and I’m so glad I made the choice I did. Yet it is not an easy path and I would be lying if I said it was. If you’re going to do this, you have to be utterly committed to your dream because there are days when it will be easier to give up than it is to keep on fighting. If you love it, you’ll keep fighting. You might take a break for a while but you’ll always come back to it.

Hope this helps,

Lyra.

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Journalism, Northern Ireland’s ageism problem and the Brain Drain

Note: I don’t normally post off-topic issues like this to The Muckraker but since it involves my experiences as a young journalist, I thought I may as well. Also, The Muckraker has become my de facto home online. It feels odd to post elsewhere, even though I have a blog for more personal issues.

 

As a woman, I consider myself very lucky: I’ve never experienced sexism. Or if I have, it was too subtle to notice. It’s sad that I think this makes me privileged – not being subject to sexism should be a right – but not everyone has caught up with the feminism movement yet.

Yet I do face one type of prejudice pretty regularly: ageism. Every week, I hear a derogatory remark about my age and perceived lack of wisdom/experience. 

Here’s the context: I’m 23 but I look a fair bit younger. I have a baby face. Normally, I ignore nasty remarks but the camel’s back was well and truly broken today. During a conversation – in which I didn’t seek advice or try to talk about my book – the person I was meeting told me they’d heard about what I was working on. They then proceeded to lecture me why it wouldn’t be published, mostly involving my youthful naiveté. The implication was that I hadn’t thought through the risks involved. What really bothered me, however, was the tone: that of an adult remonstrating with a naughty child about what they’d done wrong. It was utterly patronising. 

Maybe this person is right – maybe the book won’t materialise. Maybe it will and will be the worst thing ever written. What bothers me was not her criticism of the book but the assumption that I was young and consequently don’t know what I’m doing. 

 

I’ve been a reporter for eight years. In that time, I’ve received some cool recognition, including an award from Sky News and a nod from Stanford University. That doesn’t mean I don’t have a hell of a lot to learn – I do and I’m always willing to listen to the folks who’ve been there/done that. If anything, all my achievements say is that I was lucky and in the right place at the right time. Yet I’ve had to work so hard for them. It didn’t come easy and it still doesn’t. I bust my guts on every day. I’ve had many knockbacks. There isn’t a clear path to doing what I love so I’ve had to pave one myself. Over the last 15 months, I’ve given everything I have to the book. I’ve financed it myself, worked on it every night until the wee hours and juggled other work commitments while trying to make everything else “fit”: family, friends, social life. I’m sure many women can sympathise with that last line.

None of this seems to matter to these folks. They dismiss everything I’ve worked so hard for as if it’s meaningless because I’m 23 and haven’t lived long enough yet. 

 

I try not to publicly rant about individuals or personal issues but I’ve experienced so many of these conversations over the last two years. Sadly, this incident was not the worst experience I’ve had. 

A local charity I wanted to interview was struggling; their clients were searching for certain documents and coming up empty. Public records laws are my specialty so I offered to help, not in return for the interview but because their cause is one very close to my heart. 

To say I had my head ripped off would be an understatement. The head of the charity told me that she didn’t need “someone my age telling her how things worked.” The only reason I’d offered to help was because I heard said lady expressing confusion as to how to go about getting the documents. I was so shocked I didn’t bother replying – what could I do? Show her my CV and a birth certificate?

She then went on to criticise my attire (sweatshirt, blouse and grey trousers with brown shoes) as well as my hairstyle. I doubt she’d have had the gall to be so rude to someone 10 years older.

The same person promised me an interview with one of her clients. Four times, we arranged to meet. Each time, she would order lunch. Her client would fail to turn up. She would make excuses for him, promise that we would rearrange and then leave without settling her bill, leaving me to pay it. When this happened for the fourth time, I gave up. I realised that the client probably wasn’t aware we were meant to chat. She was taking advantage of me, knowing I didn’t have an expense account. Would she have treated an older reporter from The Irish News in the same way? Probably not. The total bill for her lunches and wine came to £60. I chalked it up to a lesson learned. 

 

I wish I could say these incidents were isolated. They’re not. I have to deal with insults about my age in the same way a pretty woman has to deal with cat calls. 

I don’t mean for this post to be relentlessly negative. For every naysayer, I have 10 supporters cheering me on. The support I received last night after tweeting about my experience was incredible. 

I wanted to write about this, though, so that people are aware that it’s an issue. In North America, young people are praised for trying to get ahead. They’re encouraged to take the initiative and make things happen. 

In Northern Ireland, a young person taking the initiative is the equivalent of a career mum in the 1950s. They’re sneered at for stepping out of line and not knowing their place. Is it any wonder they’re leaving?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Northern Irish people are awesome and they’re not homophobic

Everyone’s life is hard and everyone has problems but I live in a country where the rights of gays – to marry, to adopt – are actively opposed by our politicians, the very people that are supposed to fight for my needs and rights. So life has always been a little bit harder than it needed to be.

Yet it has still been awesome because most people in Northern Ireland are supportive of gays and our right to have a normal life. My countrymen are wonderful and they make me proud to call myself Northern Irish. I will fight for their rights just as much as they have fought for mine.

The reason I’m writing this is because of a Belfast Telegraph report which says that the Royal Ulster Academy (RUA) banned a painting of two women kissing from an exhibition in case it deterred families and schools from visiting. 

It’s so easy to get upset over random acts of bigotry. And it’s really easy to forget all the good that exists out there. My people are the most wonderful in the world. They are good and kind. They just want to live in peace. And in various ways, they’ve let me know they don’t agree with the bigots.

Like when they flooded me with messages of support because I was upset that our Health Minister, Edwin Poots, had challenged a court’s decision to allow gay people to adopt children. I couldn’t keep up with the number of tweets I received. From Orangemen in Sandy Row to evangelical Christians, they all encouraged me to keep my chin up and told me they had my back. Whatever my sexuality was, they didn’t care.

Then there was the time one of my closest friends became a Christian. I was afraid it would change everything until he text me: “This doesn’t change anything. You’re still my friend.”  

Then came the “coming out” period. I was 20 and terrified but Mum told me she loved me no matter what – why would I ever think she would love me any less? This was followed by hugs and kisses from brothers and sisters. Not one person was upset. 

It’s exceedingly rare that I come across anyone who has a problem with my sexuality. During one interview, a Methodist minister remarked – out of the blue – that he “didn’t think there was anything wrong with my lifestyle” and winked (he’d obviously guessed).

People have been universally lovely. The only place I’ve ever experienced homophobia is Dublin! I’m so accustomed to people being nice about it that I don’t try to hide it anymore. I just take it for granted that people don’t care. 

So I’m not going to get upset about incidents like this anymore. Every time something like this happens, I’m going to read this post and remind myself that I have an army of supporters – and they’re far bigger in number than the bigots.

 

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An ode to Jeff Jarvis

I was browsing Facebook tonight when I came across a post from Jeff Jarvis, talking about being insulted on the Internet. Jeff takes a lot of abuse, day in, day out, yet he’s one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet. I don’t understand why people give him so much grief. Despite being an “internet celebrity”, he is incredibly down to earth.

I first met Jeff at the Online News Association (ONA) conference last year. Yet he was an influence in my life long before that. When I was 17 and the industry was falling apart and I didn’t know whether the job I loved would exist in five years,  his writing gave me hope.

Jeff was the first person to introduce the concept of “entrepreneurial journalism” into mainstream debates on the future of news. It’s a philosophy that can be summed up thus: the empire is falling apart, journalists need to rebuild it. As well as breaking news and views, we need to figure out how to pay our own salaries, otherwise journalism is going to be like Latin: dead. The big media companies aren’t innovating (at least, they weren’t in 2007 – a few are starting to now) so we need to.

When Jeff started writing about this stuff, I was feeling hopeless. I wanted to be an investigative reporter so badly yet every door I knocked on was locked – newspapers weren’t hiring. What depressed me wasn’t the rejections but the explanations behind them: “We don’t do investigative reporting anymore – it’s too expensive.” It seemed like the industry had evolved and left muckraking behind. 

It would have been easy to give up but Jeff’s insistence that the future of journalism was “entrepreneurial” made me experiment instead. Six years later, I’m still experimenting, studying under the wonderful Paul Bradshaw at Birmingham City University where I’m researching new media business models for investigative journalism. Next month, I’m launching #planb, a radical new project that I hope will change investigative reporting and help make it sustainable. For the last two years, I’ve been running my own news site, The Muckraker, a “diary of an investigative journalist.” Earlier this year, I was shortlisted for a journalism fellowship at Stanford University

None of this would have happened without Jeff. If he hadn’t been so optimistic when everything seemed so hopeless, I’d probably have given up. When everyone else was screaming about the coming death of the news, he was the one saying: “Calm down. Let’s work this out.”

It’s odd to think that his words, written on a computer 3,000 miles away from Northern Ireland, would have such an impact on my life. They did. That’s the beauty of the internet. You can touch people with your words and ideas, even those you’ve never met.

Jeff has been a huge supporter of The Muckraker since its launch. It saddens me to see him hurt by the critics. For me, he’s the most misunderstood man on the Internet. He has done so much to help me and received nothing in return. The least I could do is write this post and remind him that he is more respected than he knows. 

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I hate reading newspapers: Why print newsrooms need to embrace (some of) the Internet’s values

“To me, the most important trick is to deeply inculcate the joy of Internet journalism, without losing (actually restoring to some degree, after recent cutbacks) the great editorial values and breakthrough journalism of the Post. Fusing the old-media storytelling and news-integrity values that I learned at the Post with the Internet values of speed and personality — and, well, some level of fun at the right times — is critical. 

In other words, make it clear that it is possible to do great journalism in an Internet way — even more possible because you’re freer and, most of all, readers want to read it that way. That entails inspiring the staffers of the newspaper to create content that is — as it has been — accurate, ethically sound, of high quality, but also much more compelling, and delivered in a way that modern customers want to consume it….

Except in some cases, that is simply not happening at the Post, where the Internet still — still — feels like an afterthought. As much as I like Wonkblog, for example, I love Nate Silver so much more….Think of that: I. Love. Nate. Silver. You need to find more reporters and writers that readers love again, for all the right reasons, and not because they can string together a clever listicle..”

Kara Swisher of All Things D in an open letter to Jeff Bezos, discussing his purchase of the Washington Post.

 

If you haven’t read it, go check out Kara Swisher’s excellent post. It’s a devastating portrait of an industry playing King Canute; only in this version of the tale, Canute believes his own hype and thinks he can resist the tide. 

In her post, Swisher talks about how the attitude of WaPo newsroom – at which she worked – to digital:

“It was there that I also first saw the extraordinarily stubborn resistance by old media — which still exists like some super-barnacle that will not detach from a sunken ship — to what the digital age meant. It happened every day — other reporters playfully mocking me for using email so much or for borrowing the Post’s few suitcase cellphones, or major editors telling me that the Internet was like the CB-radio fad, or sales people insisting that the good times would never end for newspapers as long as there were local businesses that needed to reach consumers.”

It reminds me of my own experiences, first in launching The Muckraker blog and then its companion magazine, The Muckraker Report (which launched yesterday).

 

For years, journalists have sneered at bloggers (I’m loathe to even make the distinction between the two). Their sin? Injecting themselves into the story. In journalism, that is seen as a cardinal sin. Before reporters were sneering at bloggers, they were sneering at the gonzo crowd.

For me, this debate can be settled with one question: Do you enjoy reading newspapers?

I read the newspaper every day. I don’t do it because I enjoy it. I do it because I have to know what’s going on for my job. Its “hard news” style – universally taught on journalism courses – is so boring that I have to force myself to sit down and read it. 

By contrast, I enjoy reading AllThingsD. And NSFW

I fucking hate reading newspapers.

 

This is a secret I’ve carried around for many years. I actually feel ashamed to admit it. I’m a journalist; why would I hate the medium that spawned me? It’s like rejecting my own mother.

I didn’t always hate reading newspapers. Once upon a time, I read local news every day because there was nothing else competing for my time. Twitter didn’t exist (and I didn’t join it ’till 2009). I didn’t have a Pocket queue full of  tales to get lost in. There were no Longreads. My Kindle hadn’t been invented yet. Neither had my iPhone. There was a stack of paperback books on my bedside table but that was it.

I had no concept of how the web could be used to create amazing stories (obligatory Snowfall link). 

I enjoyed reading the newspaper because I didn’t know how much better journalism could be. 

 

News writing  in newspapers – and traditional newsrooms – is stale. It’s formulaic. 

In journalism class, I was taught:

1) Your lede is 20 words long, no more. Communicate the gist of the story in that sentence

2) Introduce the most important details next

3) Then introduce your quote

4) And then a nice contrarian quote from someone else to balance 3) out.

 

Constraints constrain creativity. And that leads to boring copy that no one wants to read.

 

When it came to launching The Muckraker Report, I knew I wanted to do things differently. I’d read a piece I’d written six months before and it bored the shit out of me. The investigation itself was of huge important yet it’s meaning had been lost in dry, dull writing: “X happened. Y happened. Here’s the documents to back it up.” It was “hard news”, exactly how I’d been taught to write it. It didn’t work.

My writing on The Muckraker has always been a bit edgier but it still bored me. It didn’t matter how big the scoop was or how important the story; I was losing the reader halfway through by numbing them with details.

So, with Issue 01 of TMR, I sat down to write a narrative rather than a story. I would take the reader on a grand tour through my memory, a bit like the Pensieve in Harry Potter. Rather than tell them what happened, I would show them, framing it through my eyes as a reporter.

 

Now, immediately, the purists will shout, “THAT’S NOT JOURNALISM! TAKE YOURSELF OUT OF THE STORY!” This overlooks the fact that the first-person narrative is just another storytelling technique. It’s not about turning the reporter into a heroine. It’s about making the reader remember the story a week after they’ve read the last line.

Take this scene:

 

“Years later, I found out. The details are sketchy but around 12 months before she died, she was raped. Every day, after school, she had to walk past her rapist. He would pretend they’d never met. She was a child and he was an adult. If she told the truth, who would believe her?”

 

When I sent the first few paragraphs of the story to Andy Boal, the first thing he said was: “Have you written any more yet? I really want to read the rest.” It was the first time a reader had ever said that to me. I knew I was doing the right thing. 

 

I’m not saying that ditching the hard news style is going to save journalism. Yet people would care about journalism’s survival a lot more if they actually enjoyed it. Hell, they’d probably even pay for it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Resentment

I was sitting having drinks with my friend Bolster yesterday. The venue was the Europa Hotel – best known as the most bombed hotel in Europe.

That’s pretty much sums up my life for the last four years: dodging grenades. Climbing over one obstacle to find another.

When life is tough, it’s easy to grow resentful – and to hate those who make it harder.

Still, good news and a change in direction this week suggested things might be getting better. Bolster is dealing with change too – he’s off to Liverpool soon to start a new life.  And so we were sitting, drinking, and talking about the past.

We talked about the people we like and hate. On the subject of the latter, Bolster said:

“The next thirty years are going to be tumultuous. To get through them, we need people to be better than the people who wronged them. So if that person you hate emails you to ask you a favour, no matter how much you hate them, say yes.”

It made sense. It’s easy to hate. We in Northern Ireland have grown very good at it.

It’s so much harder to love. 

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The one thing I’m constantly thinking about is investigative journalism and where it’s going next. 

I did an interview with Northern Ireland’s newest startup blog, StartNI, about The Muckraker Report and where we hope to go with it. It’s funny how answering people’s questions helps you clarify your thinking: in this case, Adam wanted to know why we’re only publishing every 

“Investigative journalism takes so long to do. In fact, we’re already wondering if we should push publishing back until every 4 months – or abandon the schedule altogether. We don’t want to compromise the quality of our stories by forcing ourselves to conform to a timeline. Some stories take weeks to uncover; others take months and years. I’m worried that a set schedule will place too much pressure on us.

We’ve also had endless debates about what the format should look like – rather than a collection of small snippets, should we have 2,000-30,000 word stories? Or both? Right now, we’ve settled on producing longform stories. We may decide to abandon the word “magazine” altogether because a magazine has a set schedule and I think we’d like to be more a hybrid of a magazine/book publisher.

The problem is the economics of publishing. You need to publish content regularly in order to make sales and stay afloat. Investigative journalism takes a lot of time so publishing regularly is hard – and that’s why it’s so hard to become sustainable. No one has figured out the sustainability/business model question yet so we don’t have anyone we can follow/copy/imitate – we’re literally figuring it out as we go along, mainly by making mistakes and realising, “Damn, we shouldn’t have done x, we should have done y.”

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The brick wall

I was having dinner with my buddy Jason Walsh tonight. It was an interesting conversation.

I was exhausted and bitchy. Recently, I had a big breakthrough in a story (it’s still not ready to be published but still, it was a victory). Every time that happens, exhaustion takes over and I have to sleep for at least 2 weeks. It’s like pushing a heavy boulder up a hill and reaching the top. You just collapse.

With a magazine due out this month, I’ve had no time to collapse. So I’m tired. And cranky. I feel physically and emotionally drained. I feel like giving up. 

The ‘What if’s?’ are bothering me too. They’re keeping me up at night. What if it doesn’t work? What if it all blows up in my face? What if no one buys it? What if I look stupid?

Jason’s answer was simple:

“Journalism is like a brick wall. Bang your head on the wall for 2 or 3 years and you’ll have brain damage – but there will also be a hole in the wall.”

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Chasing philanthropy is endangering investigative journalism, not saving it

“CIR Editorial Director Mark Katches also wrote today that in addition to less coverage of San Francisco, the merged organization will do fewer overall stories: “First and foremost, we have rededicated ourselves to high-impact investigative reporting – stories that matter. We’ve largely stopped covering routine stories and breaking news, which got in the way of this core mission. Last year, we generated about 1,000 stories. By choice, we expect to produce about 200 stories this year. But the stories we go after will be the ones we think can make a difference.” – “”One powerful newsroom” pulls back from its San Francisco roots“, San Francisco Bay Guardian.

This article decries California’s Centre for Investigative Reporting’s (CIR) decision to step away from local coverage and focus on bigger issues. While I understand the fear – local journalism is in trouble and needs help – I think CIR made the right decision.

Ultimately, their mission is to produce investigative reporting. That means producing less copy but more impact.

It’s the same reason I try to stay out of the “breaking” Continue reading

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