The light at the end of the media tunnel
“There is a light at the end of the tunnel,” said Independent News & Media chief executive Gavin O’Reilly at the company’s recent agm. At this point, my mind turned, as it tends to do in these situations, to a song by relentlessly sardonic indie perennials Half Man Half Biscuit. It’s called The Light at the End of the Tunnel (Is the Light from an Oncoming Train).
Then it switched to The Thick of It’s spin doctor Malcolm Tucker explaining to Westminster hacks that he’s invited them around for a curry because he thinks they should have one big square meal before they end up living off their own faeces. “I know that these are hard times for print journalists, yeah. I mean, I read that… on the internet.”
Meanwhile, O’Reilly qualified his tunnel metaphor. “It’s not a blinding light – we’re not going to emerge blinking into 2012.” But all his publications were profitable, he assured shareholders. “There is a light.”
In the end, the INM agm was so overshadowed by corporate tensions – a fist-fight expressed via proxy votes rather than actual punches – that anything positive O’Reilly tried to say about his underlying business just became a shield in his battle with Denis O’Brien. That was a shame. Selfishly, as an employee of a newspaper I am more interested in the uncertain fate of traditional media companies than the latest tit-for-tat between millionaire-billionaire businessmen – though, of course, the two have been historically intertwined.
This week, I met Alan Crosbie, chairman of Thomas Crosbie Holdings, which as the publisher of The Irish Examiner and The Sunday Business Post is in direct competition with INM and, to a lesser extent, The Irish Times. Speaking in TCH’s corporate HQ on Cork’ s South Mall, there was some similarity between his views and the comments O’Reilly made at his company’s Aviva Stadium agm.
Alan Crosbie said this: “I think the biggest problem in Irish markets is the UK papers. They pay no VAT over there, there’s no VAT on the bulk of their circulation. Then they publish here and pretend to be Irish… The only other place this happens in the world is a little bit on the border between Austria and Germany… I respectfully suggest that if it happened in any other democracy, people would be jumping up and down. It’s treating newspapers as if they were any other industry. They’re one of the pillars of democracy as far as I’m concerned.”
Faced with an assembly of not-angry-just-disappointed shareholders, O’Reilly didn’t invoke any pillars of democracy. But when asked a delightfully optimistic question by the representative of a South African shareholder about when circulation would start to grow, the INM chief executive said this: “You are right to observe that circulation figures have come off. At the time we have had increased competition, particularly from the UK titles, all of which are loss-making I might add – all of our competitors are loss-making.”
Only recently the INM board of directors had observed it was “remarkable” that no titles had gone out of business this year (apart from the INM-funded The Sunday Tribune, of course), O’Reilly noted. “It’s a fairly unreal market,” he sighed. “If dysfunctional competition in Ireland continues, it will be hard to see volume increases, but I suggest [such competition] is unsustainable.”
The loss-making UK publications that O’Reilly and Crosbie say are creating an unreal, dysfunctional market can’t pull out of Ireland without taking an unpleasant hit on their all-important circulation totals. Still, the idea that they might to do so is a flickering light of hope for the newspaper groups that compete with them. If the bid to keep circulation up by vanquishing physical competitors is the short-term battle, however, the longer-term, more serious threat of total eclipse comes from online.
From INM’s Independent Woman micro-site to TCH’s decision to brand its main news website as Breakingnews.ie, Irish newspaper groups are following the Daily Mail and The Guardian path of differentiating the tone and style of their websites from their newspapers, in order to preserve the perceived worth of the latter. In recognition of changed reader patterns and in preparation for a print-free future, The Guardian has already reached the stage of signalling it will remove some of the space devoted to “straight” breaking news reports in its print edition – making it more Newsnight rather than News at Ten was how editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger phrased it. Some £25 million of cutbacks from the print operation will be reinvested in its digital activities.
Faced with plummets in advertising and circulation deemed likely to be irreversible, the Guardian Media Group has calculated that the risk of doing nothing is greater than the risk of banking more of their business on still revenue-challenged online models. But as Alan Crosbie said to me this week, “nobody really knows… No one knows how to make money out of online”.
It’s either time to stop listening to Half Man Half Biscuit, take down the copy of the Future Exploration’s Newspaper Extinction Timeline on my office wall, and pretend none of this happening, or it’s time to start sucking up to some Malcolm Tuckers for a dinner invitation.