Wednesday, October 02, 2019

Change in the Irish media scene in 2019

RTÉ, the Irish state broadcaster, is “flat broke” according to one of its radio presenters last August; the Irish Times owns the two Irish-owned daily broadsheet newspapers while Mediahuis, the new Belgian owner of the Independent titles after successive control by two business entrepreneurs since 1973, will likely give a welcome greater European orientation to news at a time when the number of the Irish that leaned towards Euroscepticism has plunged, thanks to Brexit.

There is still diversity in the Irish media with 70 TV and radio stations and about 50 provincial newspapers (data from the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland and Press Council of Ireland).

  • The Irish Times average daily sales (including 6,000 bulk sales) were at 118,000 in January-June 2008 while in the first half of 2019 the total was 79,000 (56,500 newspapers and 22,500 digital subscriptions). The digital total may be boosted by corporate subscriptions which provide for multiple users.
  • The Irish Times’ daily sales have fallen from the period of boom by 31% in the 11 years of bust and recovery;
  • The Irish Examiner, now owned by the Irish Times, has haemorrhaged sales by 54% since 2008;
  • Mediahuis NV of Belgium officially acquired Independent News and Media Plc on July 31, 2019, and the new owner did not supply data for 2019;
  • The Sunday Business Post which was a sister publication of the Irish Examiner in 2008 also saw its weekly sales crash 48% from 56,000 average sales in 2008 to 29,000 (including 3,100 digital subscribers) in 2019 (data from the Audit Bureau of Circulations).

Why has there been such a spectacular fall in the sales of the Business Post even though the Irish economy has been growing strongly in recent years? 

The business newspaper could only acquire just over 3,000 digital subscribers since 2014 and it has not had any new competition until now.

Last week The Currency — a born-digital news website — was launched in Dublin by Ian Kehoe and Tom Lyons, former editor and business editor respectively of the Sunday Business Post.

The site has what is called a hard paywall with open access to the first few lines of an article.

The subscription is €250 including VAT for 1 year which auto-renews annually thereafter at €295.

The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford noted in a report this year on 212 of the most important news organisations in 7 countries — Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, the United Kingdom and the United States:

  • Almost all born-digital news outlets (94%) offer free access to their news. Mediapart in France and the Independent in the UK "are the only digital-born/digital-only organisations in our sample that operate a paywall, up one from 2017";
  • In Ireland the born-digital, thejournal.ie, is popular as it's free; 
  • Just as in 2017, all broadcasters continue to offer free access to their digital news in 2019. This includes private sector broadcasters as well as public service media like the BBC in the UK or Yle in Finland;
  • The average (median) number of news subscriptions per person among those that pay is one in almost every country.

"Even among those who are most interested in news, the wealthiest, or the most educated, most people only pay money to one news organisation. This point matters because, depending on the way subscriptions are distributed among different publishers, it may mean that only a small handful of those that are currently available will be able to attract enough paying subscribers to survive.

...In order to achieve their financial and journalistic goals, media organisations need to build reliable audiences. This involves hard choices about who to serve, and how to reach them. A basic split exists between media organisations that are scale-orientated, generally relying on advertising- based funding models, and niche publishers who are aiming to achieve impact and sustainability through more specialised coverage supported in many cases by some form of direct payment (and in some cases by charitable foundations)."

Based on my own experience at Finfacts from 1996, I guess estimates of sales at The Currency will be revised. Of course, there would be time to retool the model.

There is a business market for useful content but possibly not 10,000 word articles.   

Even the Irish Times without an economics editor for 6 years and a lack of fact-checking particularly on economic issues, could still get subscriptions because of the range of content.

In the small Irish market, inconvenient truths are not always welcome — for example, scroll down the posts here!

Beyond Ireland, in English, access to economic and business news in the Financial Times, the Economist and the Wall Street, are without peer.  

Postscript

Oct 22, 2019: Last week it was reported that Leo Varadkar, the taoiseach (prime minister) and Micheál Martin, leader of the opposition in the Dáil and Fianna Fáil leader, were among the signatories of a joint letter sent from members of the Dáil to Communicorp, the broadcast group owned by Denis O'Brien, the telco entrepreneur.

The letter requested the lifting of bans on journalists of the Irish Times and the Currency site, appearing on Communicorp's radio outlets. The bans were prompted by critical commentary and a story in the Sunday Business Post that triggered a failed defamation case in the High Court by O'Brien.

Bans and censorship related to fair reporting or commentary should not be a feature of Irish media.

However, it would be naïve to believe that informal bans do not exist and about a decade ago, Independent Broadcasters of Ireland (IBI), a trade group for independent broadcasters, complained that its journalists had been banned from appearing on programmes of RTÉ — the state broadcaster.

It would also be naïve to believe that cronyism is not an issue in the Irish media market.

Journalists want access to rival outlets but it's OK in Britain and Ireland to use rivals' content citing no sources, unlike the US media.

In 2010 Alan Rusbridger, then the  Guardian's editor-in-chief, said in a speech that scoops have a life of 3 minutes before pilfering by rivals — with for example no concern about stealing a struggling freelancer’s work.

On June 05, 1997, the Irish Independent famously ran its front-page editorial on taxes, titled — "For years we have been bled white - now it's payback time" — a day preceding the general election. 

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