You never give me your money, you only give me your funny paper

February 22nd, 2011

It used to be that if you needed a job, apartment, car or toaster you would look in the classified ads in the newspaper. If a newspaper could build a city- or region-wide monopoly on classified ads, this became the proverbial license to print money for media outlet owners. People knew that the paper was the place to look. Hence, papers had three revenue streams: unit sales, commercial advertising and classified ads.

When the latter started to move online about ten years ago, it dealt a massive blow to the former two. The most used classified ads site in North America is craigslist; it is so pervasive that it has now joined facebook and google in the list of nouns that are also used as verbs. As a young journalist one might think I would resent the existence of online classified ads sites, but no, I do not. In the past two weeks I have bought a microwave, a lamp, a tea pot and a couple of air mattresses off such sites, and I’m still hunting for speakers, a bass guitar and another lamp. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

“I feel fine”

February 17th, 2011

The French language has an emotional intensity far beyond that of English. When you accidentally bump into someone in a supermarket you are not sorry, but desolated. The play you went to last night was not good or great, but formidable. French ploughs the emotional extremes, as shown by the love affair with the subjunctive mood that French people seem to have. They would never use such a benign word as ‘nice’ to describe anything.

But that’s the French, as in those for whom France is called home. In the last couple of weeks in Quebec I have heard a response to the question ‘ça va?’ (‘how are you?’) that one would never hear in France; I know this because a couple of Parisian friends have told me so. Whereas French people usually define how they feel in the most expressive terms, Quebecers often define themselves by what they are not. ‘Pas si pire’, they say. ‘Not so bad’. Defining how you are by how you are not is not very French and sounds odd and quirky when done in the French language. If anything, it’s a very Irish thing to do – a relic of a time when the closest thing to going to a mental health therapist was confession.

So why would Quebecers respond to ‘how are you?’ by saying ‘not so bad’? I have a theory.

Like the Irish, Canadians are defined internationally and, to a lesser extent, domestically by what they are not. Canadians are not Americans, and the Irish (well, most of them) are not British. As if to prove the point, a good chunk of Canadians sow a little maple leaf flag onto their luggage when travelling. ‘Yank I ain’t!’, screams the square inch of cotton (and probably with good reason). Canadians and Americans might share a continent, but they don’t necessarily share a mindset.

Zooming in a little more, Quebecers don’t necessarily share a mindset with either Americans or fellow Canadians or even with themselves. Emotions? They’re for wrapping up with lashings of tape and stuffing somewhere between your heart and your mouth, never to be heard. And you know that famous ‘gift of the gab’ that Irish people are so famous for? It’s only there to avoid talking about actual feelings. Emotions? Lock ‘em up and throw away the key while you tell us another story about your uncle. Defining what you are by what you are not is not exclusive to identity – it can also influence the use of language.

As many as 40% of French-speaking Quebecers have Irish ancestry on at least one side of the family. So here is my theory: ‘pas si pire’ is a direct translation of ‘not so bad’ that began with the Irish in Quebec using an intensely outwardly emotional language with a way of thinking that was introverted and secretive. Thoughts? Perhaps you’re too secretive to comment . . .

You know my name (look up the number?)

February 4th, 2011

As mentioned in my previous post, I made three pitches in one to the features editor of The Irish Times. It turns out that while fighting for crumbs off the table I managed to find an entire cookie; the editor liked one of my ideas and wants 800 words by Thursday morning Irish time. There’s not much point in me going through the other two, but the one that stuck is this: at Concordia University, one of the two large English-speaking universities in Montréal, there is a department of Canadian Irish Studies where, among other pursuits, a load of Quebecois and other nationalities are learning Irish. Some of these fine people have never been to Ireland.

Last night at one of those generic Irish pubs that are so popular everywhere save Ireland itself there was a ‘Networking and Integration evening’ for recently arrived Irish immigrants. I made it my business to find someone from Concordia as soon as I got there. I struck gold, finding not only the director of the Centre for Canadian Irish Studies but also an Irish teacher from Spiddal, Co. Galway. I’m meeting the director, Michael Kenneally, at his office in about three hours. I asked for his number but he said I should just show up; “It’s on the ninth floor and you turn left,” he said. Aoife, the teacher, was more forthcoming with her digits. She’s also allowing me to sit in on a class this Tuesday where I will get a chance to interview some students.

Unfortunately, my Olympus voice recorder gave up the ghost this week. Some moisture seems to have infiltrated it on the journey from Dublin to Montréal via London. I’ve looked up a replacement on craigslist – the online hub of many a transaction in North America – but can only meet the seller over the weekend. Hence, when I meet Mr. Kenneally today I will be recording him using a Blackberry that I got last week. Let’s hope I don’t mess up the recording. As a back up, I think I’ll use the traditional pen and paper format too.

A beginning

February 3rd, 2011

There is probably a fine line between being bold and being naive, and I don’t quite know on which side of that line I now stand. An application for an online sports writing job has been sent, by me, to some email address hidden under a craigslist-given pseudonym. There is nothing to lose, I tell myself, even though I know that it would be a great and welcome surprise – “a miracle”, if I believed in such things – if I hear back from them, let alone actually get the job. Additionally, I just fired off three feature story ideas to the features, foreign and diary editors from The Irish Times. Fighting for the crumbs off the table.

And then there is my CV (a resume here is called a CV – “say vay” – by French speakers), which has an element of the Marge Simpsons about it.. When she asked Smithers what to do with a machine after getting a job in the nuclear power plant, Mr Burns’ camp sycophant says ‘Mrs Simpson, according to your resume you invented this machine.’ Now, I have not told fibs like that, but my stated trilingualism now demands that I bring my solid posh conversational French up (down?) to fluent Québécois French and that potential employers might be mildly impressed with the fact that I can speak Irish. Well, I could a few years ago anyway.

This is the blog of a 24 year-old Irish emigrant to Montréal, Québec, Canada. It’s going to be a blog about a writer-journalist-sub looking for work, hopefully finding some, and what he thinks about it all. Oh it’s all so terribly self-important, you say. Yes, this first post is, and for that I offer an apology couched in the language of well-it-couldn’t-be-any-other-way. This blog, though, is about an industry – the words industry. You won’t find it as a career category on job search sites, but it exists and has existed for millennia. Robert Harris, the brilliant English journalist-come-author, has in recent years published two novels written in the first person through the moniker of Tiro, Cicero’s servant and scribe. This was over 2,000 years ago, and Tiro’s main job was to research, write and express. His game was words, as is mine today.

Lots of people will tell you that this industry is dying, and they are right, but only if we think of the words and journalism industries as synonyms and only if we think of journalism as meaning newspapers. Are newspapers dying? Probably. Any young journalist should expect their undeniably rapid decline to be terminal and take any future change to this process as some sort of bonus. It’s a sort of dour yet Monty Python-esque always-look-on-the-bright-side-of-life mélange of attitudes. Most people in the business don’t seem to know for how long news and comment will continue to be produced and consumed via chemicals placed on dead trees; they may guess, but they don’t know.

Furthermore, journalism is moving and moving fast. If newspapers are on a permanent downward curve, it is primarily because of THE invention of our times, the Internet. News comes within minutes of the event, in some cases being consumed live like a Chinaman eating fish. Let’s play a little game. I’ll list some words that have been newsworthy recently and you count how many of them you first heard about in a newspaper: Egypt, Thierry Henry handball, Haiti, Chilean Miners, Michael Jackson, Icelandic volcano, flooding, Gulf oil spill. Get it? Most of us can understand the emotional sadness at the demise of some wonderful titles in recent years, but only the most conservative writers could call the move towards online journalism a bad thing in itself.

While one can’t really say that the words industry is in better health than ever, I propose that we don’t see the decline of newspapers as a decline in the industry itself. Think of it as a Venn diagram. We have all the jobs there are where one of the major responsibilities is to write and write well. Journalism is a subset, and within that subset is another called print, and within that is another called newspapers. While newspapers sell fewer copies and take in far less revenue through advertising than before, sales of iPads and Androids go up. As my late granddad used to say, “easy come, easy go.” And as the case of Tiro shows, the words industry gives writers the chance to work in areas that are not necessarily journalism. If Tiro was around today, we might think of him as a spokesperson for a political party; a sort of Alastair Campbell of the ancient world, but without the spite. Politics and online copywriting are just two of the many areas inside the words subset but outside the journalism subset.

This blog is more than just the musings of a young man who can’t quite figure out what he’s doing with his career, however. You, dear reader, will have to put up with me trying to figure out what this place is and what it means. In recent years I have developed an odd fascination with Canada, despite having spent only four days and three nights in the country. And that was in Vancouver, a couple of thousand miles away. I did my postgraduate dissertation on how federal politics is reported in two Québécois newspapers, La Presse and Le Devoir. I regularly stayed up until 3am in Dublin watching ice hockey on satellite television. I have only ever met one nasty Canadian, a rather loathsome girl from British Columbia who treated a good friend of mine terribly, and thus far she is the exception that has proved a rule – Canadians are fantastic people.