Clicks (or how flowers fought for life in the graveyard)

I’ve decided to write a follow-up piece to How journalism lost the battle, how journalism lost the war, a blog post I made recently about the current state of journalism in this alternative-fact, clickbait era. In the post, I argued the evolution of journalism can be compared to the landmarks moments of 20th-century military history. Today, inspired by a number of polls I ran on twitter about my own writing, I want to show you the graveyard those wars have left us.

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Perhaps the most liberating thing about writing in the 21st-century is that we have a platform to do it from. The most restrictive thing, on the other hand, is that we’re all struggling to share it. The metrics of running a blog are views, visitors, followers, numbers reached across social media platforms etc. The eyes of the reader become a sort of currency, a few gold coins that we’ll draw swords and pour blood over if needs be. I wouldn’t go so far as to say blogging is cut-throat, but there’s no room in the graveyard for names easily forgotten, no space in its garden for flowers afraid to bloom. It’s a bit Shawshank in that respect.

Get busy living or get busy dying

You might consider that quote a bit of a paradox. After all, a cemetery is home to a great many dead things. Even so, there’s life in these worn headstones, breath in these knotted grasses. A graveyard is a place where people are remembered, not forgotten, and nothing remembered can ever truly die. Writing, as a craft, is broadly similar.

Much of the day in, day out blogging you see from your smartphones is an homage to the words of those gone before us, a silent prayer to the greats buried deep. Their work has fed ours, as sure as soil feeds a garden, and we slender flowers rise to guard their final resting place. If that joyous sentiment was all there was to it, then blogging would be ever-spring. The problem, however, is that we’re not the only ones here in the grasses.

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Part of running a blog is acknowledging its limitations, the cap the world places on its growth. The first flower rising is often cut by the wind. Many blogs bring a new concept to the world only to see those behind, watching and learning from their mistakes, shoot past them and reap summer glory. It’s the risk that comes with innovation, with trying to punch through the frost.

Many more blogs, latching onto the light, fall into the trap of the seasons, the belief in the eternity of the high-shining sun. But reader taste is as fickle as the hand that flicks the pages of summer, and if ill-equipped come the whisper of autumn, even the most beautiful blogs are laid to rest with a shrug of the shoulders. Often, a few words are read at their graveside about the nature of fads.

Life in the garden also means growing under the shadow of trees, those blogs so dizzyingly tall that they must dare to scrape at the sky. In Ireland, these branched giants ply their trade in areas such as fashion, makeup artistry, activism, and tech. They are the “influencers”, the writers whose words seemingly matter so much that those visiting the graveyard will stake claims on their survival. And whether or not us flowers beneath them think their evergreen coats impressive, these aged trees are affecting us, tunneling their roots deep into the earth of society, determining the extent of our growth.

The battleground at the surface is so pock-marked and close-quarter that at first, we do not notice the weeds.

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The greatest threat life faces in the graveyard is the economics of life itself. Food, water, sunlight. Perhaps a scrap of land to call home. That’s all anything really needs here to take root among the crumbling stones. But while flowers juggle these requirements with great difficulty, weeds have mastered the art of it. Their aim is not to flourish, of course, just to grow. But in life, growth is enough. These are the blogs, facebook pages etc that know traffic is what counts (if your entire revenue is ads especially), and are only too happy to sacrifice quality on the altar they’ve fashioned from a headstone. These blogs add nothing to the conversation, to the diversity of life in the garden. They simply want a click, to draw you to their page as a spider does a fly to its web. People rarely leave these sites satisfied with what they’ve read, but unfortunately, it’s nearly impossible to pull the weeds up once they’ve gripped firm. LadBible, Benchwarmers, TheLiberal.ie. There are many species of weeds, their tactics all roughly the same.

I, like many other bloggers, hope they’re a flower in the garden, though that is no easy task. It means the hard road to summer, and oftentimes the sure hand of death in the winter. It means contending with the swift-choking weeds and the long-reaching trees, even if only to one day feel the light slip through the branches, warm our face for only a moment.

But it’s honest. It’s head-down, hone-your-craft honest. It’s giving readers what they deserve, not what a clickbait headline sells them.

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Above all, it’s honouring those in the garden. We flowers are the watchfires, the timid little things that shiver against the onrushing night. But instead of dying, we continue to burn, to stand guard, to remember. We continue to live among the fallen.

And if the names faded from these gravestones could whisper, perhaps that’s what they’d ask for.

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How journalism lost the battle, how journalism lost the war

William never really liked the term “British Intelligence”.

He sits at his desk and watches the monitor flicker. On a field of blue, two red dots are edging closer, the little lights certain to meet. Around him, the Yanks are shouting, pressing alarms as they slam down their phones. He turns back to his computer and tries to ignore them-tries to forget why the whole room is in chaos. Blinking, it seems as though the Russian ship has stopped moving. William rubs his eyes, pushes himself close to the screen. The ship, one bright drop in a dark ocean, freezes for only a moment, just long enough for a sigh of relief.  But then, even as that breath comes, it’s off again, knifing through the water towards Cuba. At this rate, it will be less than an hour until they’re forced to take counter-measures. War games, much like chess, tend to happen with such sobering speed.

William looks at the picture on his desk, a black-and-white shot taken twenty years previous. The three men are sitting there: Stalin, Roosevelt, Churchill. The last had his hat off, his legs crossed, his eyes pressed to the floor. The Tehran Conference. Hadn’t they decided to storm France that day? William feels they had. In fact, he’s sure they made a great many decisions, determined what pawns would be sacrificed.

He brings his attention back to the screen and frowns. Yes, he really did hate the term “British Intelligence”.

I’ve decided to write about journalism today, more specifically about the death of it. Even so, I’d like to start by focusing on the positives, acknowledging that it’s not all quite doom and gloom just yet. We’re at a cliff-edge, to be sure, but we might still be able to climb down, remember the precipice as only a reality-check. After all, the top of the mountain is what we aspired to, and if this is indeed the summit, there’s no use only dreading the fall.

Journalism has come a long way from the few-copy newspapers of the 1700s. Recently, its transition to the digital landscape has made for some amazing strides forward. Now, journalism is not only instant, it’s ubiquitous. Anybody with a smartphone can break a story, debate world issues, be a voice for the people around them. Where before our interpretation of events was filtered, stirred and flavoured as to how we might like it, now we’re brewing coffee ourselves, sipping-happy before “big media” has even pulled out a cup. When bombs rained down on Palestine, the world knew. The evidence was all over Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat. It came right from the very source, live, and when the heart of that story beat we listened. With the internet, the news is always pumping, a constant lub-dub tap of fingers. We’re taking pictures at every angle, analysing, debating future history on a scale of millions. Digital journalism has become the great equaliser, a platform for professionals and journeymen alike. The online community is now our ultimate conversation, the great pinnacle of human interaction. We’re talking, we’re shouting, we’re screaming. Marching on Washington online. Interestingly, we’re still being heard. Because now businesses and governments both can’t ignore us. There’s money in this new journalism. And whether or not it’s healthy-whether or not you like it, this journalism is shaping public opinion.

William looks at the only other photo on his desk. In it, his eyes, fixed in a younger face, stare back at him unmoving. Perhaps they don’t recognise him. Alongside his younger self stands Peter. Well, not Peter-Piotr. Simple, smiling Polish Peter. In the background are a pair of Spitfires, their brilliant colours lost to the camera, the heat of that British summer day gone with them. That’s our only photo together, William realises. The Few. That’s what they called us. The room grows as loud as an engine, voices roaring in his ear.

Two weeks after the happy little moment in the photo was captured, they’d gone up against the germans again. The Luftwaffe: Hitler’s well-behaved boys, who’d gotten bored of lighting up ships and factories and instead turned their attention to cities, to people. Break their moral. Hit them where it hurts”. That was what the high-command wanted, and so day and night the waves of bombers lapped up over the British coast.

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more. William had those words in his ears when he climbed into the cockpit. Shakespeare-at a time like this! Mad. Fitting.

They met the Messers and those Jabos just outside of London, English fighters screaming across the sky, lions leaping at their prey. Black clouds and black wind. When the lions bore their teeth, they chewed off a wing or two, sent metal drops of fire into the countryside below. They must have looked awfully funny from the ground, the RAF, flying in V’s like King George’s ducks. Was that what the children thought the Blitz was-a squabble, a great mess? Those of them that weren’t in tunnels pointed to the wrecks, listened for bombs, watched tracer fire light up the sky. Guy Fawke’s every night of the summer.

The morning after the dogfight, William found out Peter had gone down with his ship. Almost British of him. A boy had found him in a field, face down, maybe still smiling. “Look Mummy, that Pole got covered in Red.”

In London, William tried to find Betty. Maybe she wasn’t at home, he thought, when he saw her house had blown half way into the street. They’d been courting for a year: dinners, walks, the occasional trip to the cinema. And oh-my was there talk of marriage. Now he saw her mouse-brown shoes sticking out of the rubble, a scene like the Wizard of Oz. She’d loved that one, talked about the fields of poppies all the way home.

William later found out Hitler liked it too.

‘Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.’

Perhaps the first sign of the shift in the world of journalism was the tabloid. It isn’t a modern phenomenon. Not really. They’ve been around for quite some time. A condensed version of the news, often geared for the masses. Is that really such a dangerous concept?

The battle began in earnest when these papers challenged the grip broadsheets had on the news. After all, they’d already conceded to radio, television etc. If they were to lose on their own soil, were they really a news empire to be reckoned with at all? Tabloids, outside of their physical and read-easy convenience, gave people a side of the news broadsheets had for decades shunned away from. There’s a lot of money to be made in gossip, scandal and the shiny world of celebrity culture. Tabloids fed off that, made an arsenal out of human emotion. It wasn’t long until they felt bold enough to challenge the status quo. They cast the first stone, moved before broadsheets could stop them. It came to a head about twenty years ago, one great battle to establish a victor. For broadsheets, it may have been their Waterloo. Instead, it was their Trafalgar. Their Kursk, their Midway. Their Stalingrad.

The movement of news to online platforms gave broadsheets the much-needed jolt they were looking for. They might not have had a copy in everyone’s hands, but their words were getting out there nonetheless. They were surviving, making key moves to close out the war. Enigma broken, tabloids followed but lost all their ground. They certainly looked feeble on D-Day.

On the screen, William watches the dot come to a halt. Is it stopping, or is the computer slow to keep up? He thinks of the cogs turning in the Russian war machine and wonders can they match the pace. Once, he’d hoped the wheels would turn faster, back when the USSR had been allies, back when they’d been friends. You come from the east, we’ll come from the west. Hadn’t that been the way of it?

He remembers that day in the boat, his stomach rolling inside of him. The nausea of flying had never been that bad. They were off the French coast, backs to the white walls of England, bobbing towards Normandy. William the Conquerer, come again, sent back the other way to France-that was how he felt as he sat there. They must have made quite a sight for a German boy with his binoculars. A thousand ships, the ghost of a fleet setting sail for Troy. Wilhelm would have a Luger in his shaky hand. Which way would he point it?

They hit the beach with dawn, landing on the Gold sand, sweeping over the German lines as though they were high tide. They had at least expected a welcome party. Over at Omaha, the Yanks were damming up the English Channel with their dead. The Germans there must have had British ancestors. A proper good way to greet guests.

William sat on the beach after with the others. From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered. We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that sheds his blood with me, shall be my brother.

More Henry V.

William remembered smiling about it. Shakespeare, his namesake, must have known a thing or two about writing.

Once the move to an online platform had been made, journalism lost a run of itself. Now that everyone had access, whole armies of writers swarmed over the internet with blogs and forums and start-up magazines. I’m counted among them. The sad reality of being a part of it is that it’s hard to be heard anymore, one voice lost among thousands. Very few people at all will ever read this, too busy with the rest of the noise. The more dilute our information becomes, the less impact it has. Perhaps the integrity associated with journalism is gone. It’s drowning in a sea of click-bait articles, viral videos and facebook-rants-of-that-fella-down-the-road-who-thinks-he-knows-Enda-Kenny’s-thought-process. The amount journalists invest in pieces nowadays is measured in puddles, not oceans. It’s not about what you write; it’s about how you promote it, how you get a response out of as many people as possible. You want their likes, their views, their retweets. Their emotions are sort of desirable, so long as you get the traffic.

But in a world of political instability, increasing levels of hatred, declining mental health, melting ice caps and “alternative facts”, the importance of clear, accurate information is paramount. We don’t have the luxury of wasting away a day on LadBible anymore. The time to stand up and be counted is upon us. The hallmark moments of our generation are here.

*sigh*

Perhaps I’m just afraid we’re moving too fast, generating information that we just can’t handle anymore.

After all, if too few of us reach the enemy lines, we’ll hardly make an impression at all.

William smiles. The Russian ship is turning around, heading home, leaving them safe for another day. Perhaps they aren’t all that bad, those communists. He keeps that thought to himself. He feels an outsider enough as it is.

His father said in the First World War the Commies gave the Germans a lesson. Meanwhile, he added, they were stuck in French fields, going nowhere.

“I lost my hearing very early on”, he said. A howitzer blew a hole in the ground next to him, left a constant ringing in his ears. He hadn’t been able to mark the whistle after that. When they were going over the top, he saw the men around him stand up-that’s how he knew it was time. One day his friend George climbed up ahead of him. When William’s father followed, he found George had fallen, face pressed to the mud, almost kissing it.

“Come on George,” he said. “You won’t kill Kaiser from down there.”

For years after, he told William about the Somme: the rain, the explosions, the way men would trudge to their doom. The clouds never left those fields, he said. It was always dark on the Somme.

Near the end, he woke up screaming in his sleep and William had to run to his bedside.

“Turn off that damn typewriter,” he shouted, crying, rolling about in William’s arms. His son, terrified, waited until he calmed down, thought of the typewriter kept in the attic. Nobody had touched it in years.

On the morning of his father’s funeral, they passed the fields of flowers by their house, the bright petals waving to them in the breeze. And William thought of the memorial in France, where the names of the dead were engraved, the list running into thousands. He imagined that soon they would fade. He imagined that soon they too would be forgotten.

Later, after all was said and done, he took the typewriter out of its dusty home in the attic, thought of the simpler times it must have seen.

He pressed a single key, heard its sound and realised that his father, deaf, must have dreamt of the chatter of machine guns.