A return to news?

The Irish press after the crash

When the Celtic Tiger roared ahead, foreign media owners rushed in to take advantage of burgeoning advertising revenues. They failed to warn of the impending disaster and now, in the wake of the collapse, are leaving the country. Irish readers, meanwhile, are turning back to tried and trusted domestic voices, writes Michael Foley.

The collapse of the Irish banking system and with it fears for the economy itself, coupled with the financial bailout from the EU and the IMF, has brought with it talk of a second Irish Republic. Just as the French have established five republics, many in Ireland believe that after the failure of the regulatory regimes and political leadership, it is time to reshape the institutions of state, the make up of parliament, the system of government and society.

The media is yet to come under the same degree of scrutiny, especially as regards its role, at least in some areas, as cheerleader for the property bubble that led to the collapse of the banking sector. Some sectors of the media benefited hugely from the advertising that came with the property boom and much of the media was involved in uncritically hyping a range of economic policies throughout the period of the so-called Celtic (lasting from the second half of the 1990s to 2007), especially that of low taxation and economic liberalism.

However, it seems clear the media in Ireland is going to go through a major shake up, with or without discussion and debate. The media environment was to a large extent shaped by the economic climate of the past 10 years. The three Irish Press titles, which had been a major part of the Irish media scene since the 1930s, collapsed in 1995, just as the first shoots of the economic take-off were becoming visible. That was probably the last casualty of the old order. From that year on, Ireland appeared to be an attractive proposition for media expansion, especially for UK media concerns.

A unique feature of the Irish print media scene has been the strength of the UK press in Ireland. It is obviously a factor of the geographic, cultural and linguistic closeness of the two countries, combined with a degree of post-colonialism, but it is still a unique phenomenon. Since the mid-1990s newspapers published in the UK have targeted the Irish market, using “Irish” editions, often consisting of little more than then the word “Irish” on the mast head and two to four Irish pages wrapped round UK content. British newspapers have always been available in Ireland and are usually read for sports coverage of UK soccer and horse racing. But as the Irish economy grew and with advertising revenue in mind, it became an increasingly attractive proposition to target Ireland specifically. Rough circulation figure comparisons suggest about one quarter of all daily newspaper sales are for newspapers published in London and one third of Sunday purchases.

Ownership generally, not just that of the UK media operators, became increasingly concentrated into a few big companies; “light touch” regulation allowed companies to merge, with news operations offered across a number of radio stations or newspaper newsrooms. Much of the sub-editing function of the biggest media group in Ireland, Independent News and Media, was outsourced. Dublin¹s only evening newspaper, the Evening Herald, is subbed in the South of France.

Regional newspapers

It is possible to count over 100 local and regional weekly newspapers in Ireland, but probably only 60 have significant circulations and impact within their local areas. Until the 1990s, most were family owned and had long histories, often going back to the nineteenth century. Once again, however, as the Irish economy experienced growth, regional newspapers, many operating as monopolies in their areas, were seen as attractive and profitable investments and were bought by major media groups. There was a similar, though less marked, pattern in local radio.

Many analysts maintained the amount of money that changed hands for newspapers in the early years of the economic boom was unrealistic. But given the health of the advertising market, especially in areas such as property and recruitment, any price seemed worth paying to get in on the economic windfall. The newspaper sector today is totally unrecognizable to anyone who knew it in the 1990s, with most family-owned titles now owned by media groups. A number of old, established, regional newspapers folded, having been bought by groups that had little commitment to the areas the newspapers served and closed them as soon as advertising revenues started to decline.

Although the broadcasting regulator sanctioned increase in the number of radio stations, especially in Dublin, major growth took place within the regional newspaper market. A number of newspaper groups, including the Gazette Group, River Media and the Voice group, started strings of titles. Some have recently closed their publication, which were in reality little more than vehicles for sweeping up advertising, with little investment in editorial.

During 2009, advertising spend declined by about 30 per cent, with further reductions in 2010. National newspapers are probably down about 40 per cent on 2008, with further reductions expected in 2011. Television was probably least affected, but a 2 per cent decline last year and little sign of the market stabilizing has meant cutbacks in services. For the public service television and radio service, RTE, the fall in advertising, coupled with a freeze in the license fee – the service is dual funded by the license fee and advertising – has meant a serious fall in revenue, which has led to pay reductions for all staff. The decline in advertising has, of course, also forced closures, and where that has not taken place, it has meant staff reductions with the consequent impact that has on services to the public.

If we leave online media to one side for the present, no area escaped the harsh wind of recession. Some sectors suffered more than most. Last year, radio took a hit of between 5 and 8 per cent fall in advertising. Regional newspapers were badly affected – some titles lost as much as 18 per cent of their sales – as was the magazine sector. At least two magazines have morphed more or less into newspaper supplements, the fashion magazine The Gloss is given away with The Irish Times, while the Dubliner is free with the Evening Herald newspaper. Both were relative newcomers to the publishing scene and appeared successful until the advertising dried up and they could no longer continue as stand-alone publications.

All national newspapers have also experienced a decline in sales, down 7 per cent overall. The Sunday Tribune, owned by Independent News and Media (INM) saw sales drop by 14 per cent. The main dailies, The Irish Times and the Irish Independent, had more modest reductions of 7 per cent and 5 per cent respectively.

Going online

Web-based media has been slow to take off in Ireland but that is changing fast. The two most popular online sites are linked to traditional media outlets, RTE and The Irish Times, the main quality newspaper. The Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC), which calculates newspaper circulation figures, now provides a similar service for online outlets. This indicates Rte.ie has 2.93 million unique users per month, while irishtimes.com has 2.3 million. Independent Digital, the digital arm of INM, which includes a number of news sites and classified advertising sites, recorded 2.3 million users, but the number of visitors to its news site, independent.ie, was 1.8 million. Despite such credible numbers, most sites run by traditional media are still struggling to make their online services economically viable; advertising and other revenue is still small and in most cases hardly covers the operational costs. The Irish Times did charge for its online content for a number of years, but decided to return to the traditional free model when it saw its users go elsewhere.

Recently, however, a range of online competitors to the traditional media’s sites has emerged. Many of these sites are generating significant traffic and operate with minimal resources and not all could be considered commercial ventures. They tend to be niche players, for example Politics.ie for political news and views, Beaut.ie for fashion and beauty, AskaAboutMoney.com for personal finance and so on.

Traditional advertising models are under threat and newspapers have seen much of their classified advertising going to the Internet. Sites like Daft.ie are now dominant in property, while sites like CarZone.ie are dominating motoring classifieds. The Irish Times and the Irish Independent have had very mixed fortunes with websites they have acquired. The former bought MyHome.ie, a major property sales site at the top of the market, but has since lost out to other sites, such as Daft.ie, with no traditional media connections. Search engine marketing, mainly Google AdWords, is also sucking revenues away from newspapers. In 2010, online advertising will be the third largest category in Ireland after press and TV; is expected to grow by 9 per cent in the coming year despite the decline in the market overall.

The shape of things to come

All the above might seem to be a logical consequence of a recession with the consequent expectation that when the economy picks up again it will be more or less business as usual. However, certain trends can be discerned that indicate this might not be the case. Even if some commentators did sound the alarm, much of the media failed to see the recession coming and the public have taken note of this. At the same time, Irish people have become obsessed with news and, as things get worse, the failure of the media is clearly seen to be far less than that of a government that is now the most unpopular in the history of the state. While media watchers wait for the new circulation figures, due out in early 2011, it is clear some media are doing better than others. Although the evidence is somewhat anecdotal, it appears the Irish public is looking to that which they can trust, and that, it seems, is a media that is more or less wholly Irish. News programmes on RTE have done well in ratings, and The Irish Times is expected to post improved or stable figures for the last six months of 2010.

Online outlets, too, are now a real and influential part of the Irish media mix. New sites such as TheJournal.ie, are not linked to existing media, while social media sites have provided news and information as well as forums for commentary as the economic crisis unfolded over the past year.

It is obvious a number of media outlets, regional newspapers, some national newspapers, possibly some radio stations are financially vulnerable and are unlikely to survive. The downside is that while traditional media continues to get rid of journalists, the online media is more often than not acting as news aggregators, linking to news provided by journalists working for the traditional media, with blogs as value added. The question is: if the number of journalists is further depleted, who will gather the news for the online aggregators to make use of? This is not an issue confined to Ireland, of course, but it will probably become an issue for Ireland more quickly than we thought.

What is clear, however, is that the crisis in the economy and public life generally has meant Irish people are constantly in search of the latest news. They feel fearful of what is happening and need their radio, television, newspaper, online and social media to keep them informed. They know that without an honest, reliable, hard-hitting and truthful media they are powerless. And it is this that will drive change in the media.

Published 31 December 2010
Original in English
First published by Eurozine

© Michael Foley / Eurozine

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