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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: June 18, 2011 @ 10:33 am

    The light at the end of the media tunnel

    Laura Slattery

    “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.

    • Des Canine says:

      The most salient remark in this article is the reference to the relationship of the print media to “millionaire-billionaire businessmen”. The MSM is the mouthpiece and spin doctor of that class.

      The only legitimate “fourth estate” function of the media is reporting news. Yet most papers, including broadsheets, are a cornucopia of “analysis” and opinion – and that’s not including the opinion embedded in the text, presentation and selection of the news.

      The notion of professional commentators on political matters is absurd – people are capable of absorbing news and analysing it themselves. Surely nothing could be more welcome than the demise of professional spin-doctors masquerading as servants of the “fourth estate”?

      If press freedom and the rights of the print media are such a crucial part of democracy isn’t it a wonder that the ownership and control of editorial policy isn’t analysed as repeatedly and relentlessly as, say, politicians are?

      The beauty of the internet is that it largely, for now, removes much of the filter that can be applied in the service of the billionaires. While one can understand the anxiety this induces in the filterers, that is hardly reason not to embrace the new, freer, more democratic media?

      What does it matter if “nobody can make money” by controlling democratic conversation? That, in fact, is the best thing that could happen.

    • Des Canine says:

      Well, this topic isn’t putting many bums on seats, is it?

      So I’ll address the issue of British titles taking market share through (possibly) nefarious means. Frankly, it matters not a jot. May be a good thing.

      The Irish hacks writing for the “Irish” version of British papers have a culture and POV indistinguishable from the INM/IT/RTE culture. The effortless crossover between them all testifies to the fact.

      The crypto-Unionist D4 meeja establishment have dug their own graves here. The IT is a prime example. In terms of Irish nationalism, British Imperial policy (in Afghanistan, for example), social policy, economic policy – any policy – it sits snugly somewhere between the Guardian and the Sunday Times.

      If I wanted the views on the Third Reich in 1941 I’d have read Goebbels, not Quisling.

      When the “Irish” papers are more British (see the collective orgasim at the Queen’s visit) than the British papers they have lost any claim to have any national value.

    • Des Canine says:

      So, Laura, it’s just me and you then?

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