10 Ugly Truths About 21st-Century Shipping

Today's News

John Konrad (gCaptain) Almost a decade ago Barista Uno contacted me to announce that he was publishing a blog, Marine Cafe, for mariners in the Philippines. In the years since we have shared mutual frustrations about this industry but nothing rings truer than this article – 10 unorthodox truths about 21st-century shipping – which we share with his permission.

Marine Café Blog has been running for more than nine years now. That is a long time, certainly long enough for me to discover or validate certain truths about the shipping industry and its various players. Not ordinary facts, but fundamental truths — not glossed over but stark naked, the kind rarely, if ever, spoken in public or in the press. Here are 10 of them:

The captain is no longer in charge of the ship. It’s the banks, office managers and the weather that make the ultimate decisions.

The traditional maritime press is dead, strangled by cut-and-paste journalists and PR agents.

No maritime journalist has ever been liked who did not know how to kiss ass.

Manning agents owe their livelihood to seafarers. Out of ignorance and pride, they think it’s the other way around.

Most seafarers are patsies — easily taken advantage of, cheated or blamed for something.

Manila is the manning capital of the world and ground zero for the exploitation of seafarers.

With a few exceptions, maritime charities serve only themselves.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) is regarded by the industry as a sacred cow, although there is nothing sacred about it.

If there’s an opioid epidemic, there’s also a maritime training epidemic. Doctors are responsible for the first, the IMO for the second.

Most maritime folks are too preoccupied with money to give a hoot about marine art.

 

The truth will set you free, says the Bible. Unfortunately, it does not always work that way. Shipping is a conservative industry with little tolerance for maverick views. Maritime writers who dare say what others are reluctant to, for whatever reason, are bound to be scorned and shunned. Follow the herd, and you’ll be fine. By far, this is the most precious truth I have learned in nine years of blogging.

~ Barista Uno

Barista Uno is not the first to share his frustration of “cut and paste news”. Splash24/7’s  Sam Chambers has, in the past, called out a number of maritime news websites for “cutting and pasting” news… as have I. But there is no easy fix solution to this problem.

What is Fake News?

There will come a time when our descendants will be amazed that we did not know things that are so plain to them… Many discoveries are reserved for ages still to come, when memory of us will have been effaced.” – Seneca, On The Shortness Of Life

What sets gCaptain apart from most maritime media outlets is we are free and we don’t publish press releases unless they are paid and clearly marked as “Sponsored” or are truly newsworthy. We believe this policy improves the quality of the news we provide our readers but it comes at a heavy cost. Most large maritime companies today have diverted their advertising budget into PR budgets. This means that instead of advertising on sites like gCaptain they use the money to hire journalists to write press releases which our competitors publish free of charge. Many PR companies also provide free trips to events like NorShipping and promise a little bit of advertising dollars if you publish their releases. By not participating in PR we miss out on many amazing opportunities and cash.

We would love to accept free tickets and hotels to events like nor-shipping this year, the problem is PR is not real news. 

We must give credit to Nick Denton, the founder of Gawker, and Ryan Holiday author of Trust Me I’m Lying, Confessions of a Media Manipulator, who five years before the rise of fake news accurately detailed the extent to which most news is fake.

“Fake news. I don’t mean fake news in the Fox News sense. I mean the fake news that clogs up most newspapers and most news websites, for that matter. The new initiative will go nowhere. The new policy isn’t new at all…The product isn’t revolutionary. And journalists pretend that these official statements and company press releases actually constitute news…Fake news, manufactured, hyped, rehashed, retracted—until at the end of the week you know no more than at the beginning. You really might as well wait for a weekly like the Economist to tell you what the net position is at the end of the week.”

Both Ryan and Nick gave me advice many years ago when I first started working on the idea of launching gCaptain. Sadly I didn’t fully listen. This type of #fakenews isn’t inflammatory and doesn’t have a political agenda. Its only agenda is to sell product and most of it is boring drivel. The most common example is “Mr. Smith is promoted to CEO of Apex Products” but press releases can also be thinly disguised click-bait with links to products like ” Offshore Wind: 10 must-see products that will save the planet”. 

Now some PR companies say we are shooting ourselves in the foot by not participating in PR and, from a monetary perspective we certainly are; but our readers aren’t dumb and they do not want to have to scroll through ten press releases to find a real article. They don’t want to have to ask themselves “is this real news or fake news?” every-time they read an article. To thank us for not making them do that, they return often; to the tune of 2.5 million plus page views a month. 

That’s the problem with PR. Advertising is expensive and companies think that by hiring public relations companies who promise to get their “news” published free of charge, they are saving money. Truth is they are paying their PR departments and agencies, like JLA Media, a lot of money to get these “free” articles posted BUT very few people are actually reading them. Readers know fake news when they see it (even if they can’t articulate what it is) and scroll past. Readers flock to websites like gCaptain because we curate only the best maritime news. Our curation standards are what makes us the 1st place people go to get maritime news.

More chilling is that the second we hit publish on this article the large maritime PR companies will have a meeting. They will pick apart this article. They will come up with a 1000 ways why I’m wrong. They will fight back because for them it means survival. They will fight to keep the system that allows them to pay news sites only a fraction of what they bill clients.

The Truth

Give me ten thousand Filipino sailors and I will conquer the world.” – Douglas MacArthur

Barista Uno suggests that most maritime news organization do not speak the truth. He is mostly correct. Here at gCaptain we do not shy away from speaking the truth as often and loudly as possible. The problem with speaking the truth is it takes time and money. Writing and research for the article “Admiral, I’m not ready for war” consumed 20 hours of work and I have spent 68.5 hours since it was published answering calls and emails from Navy Admirals, war colleges, journalists, and podcasters. Zero point zero of those hours are billable. We just don’t do it as often as we should. 

The thing about truth is you have to choose which articles to dedicate time and money to.  

For example, gCaptain does not publish nearly enough news about the Philippines. We do try to highlight major stories ( e.g. China’s encroachment of fishing grounds which I highlighted at the end of last weeks midrats podcast )  But again is the occasional podcast mention enough? Of course not.  To fully cover this very important maritime country we would need to spend time in the country… and travel is expensive. This is not an excuse, just a fact.

Below The Iceberg – Syndicated News

“The optimum organization is modeled on the iceberg- eight-ninths below the water line, one-ninth above.” – Aldous Huxley

Now more truth: despite the fact I own gCaptain and love it like a child, you are right. We are FAILING. We MUST do better. While we don’t publish garbage PR we do rely heavily on syndicated news.

What is syndicated news? The articles we publish that are written by Bloomberg and Reuters. We use these news sources because they are real news organizations, not PR agencies, and among the few news organizations that get the story right. It’s not just maritime news outlets that are failing; read most any major news article about a shipping incident and you will see countless errors. Bloomberg and Reuters get it right because we help them find real experts to interview. 

Most of the work we do at gCaptain never gets published on this website. Most of our time is spent helping journalists from larger news organizations get the story right. Most of this work is unpaid but we feel that it is important that ordinary citizens, people who don’t read maritime news websites, learn the truth about what we do offshore. Sometimes we spend months helping journalists write books about our industry. Sometimes we spend over a year writing the book ourselves.  

Admittedly we can only help a few big journalists at a time and, when a BIG maritime story breaks, hundreds of journalists descend like vultures. Most get the story wrong. 

Real News Is Written By Real Journalists

“We don’t become journalists to be rich or popular. It is our job to seek truth.” –Helen Thomas

Barista Uno is right. The IMO is failing. Maritime Charities need to do more, Maritime Art is important ..   and maritime news sites publish very little news on these topics.

The reason is these subjects require real journalists. Real journalism is expensive and most maritime companies spend their ad budget on writing more press releases. Real Journalists get paid really good money because their work is hard. Even if a maritime news site wants to hire a real maritime journalists we can’t. Most real maritime journalists were laid off years ago and now work for PR firms churning out press releases. It’s sad but true. Even sadder is the fact that these PR companies pay them a lot more money than gCaptain can offer.

Some people think I’m a millionaire because I run the most popular maritime website in the world. Truth is everyone here makes a fraction of what we made at sea because we put every dime we can find into real news. But, as Barista Uno correctly points out, maritime journalism is dead because nobody is willing to pay to read articles and most big companies would rather give $1m to a PR firm than spend $100,000 on gCaptain Ads.

Thank you for publishing this, Barista!! gCaptain shares your frustration as do the handful of “competitors” – theloadstar,  Splash24/7 and Maritime Executive and Tradewinds – still willing to hire real journalists when budgets allow. 

How can you help?

Please ask your company to spend less on press releases and more on advertising. That’s what Apple and Coke and most large companies (even B2B) do because it’s much more effective.