News production in Ireland and elsewhere is facing a crisis due to changes in industry
Opinion: A forum with a clearly defined agenda would be one way forward
Members of the National Union of Journalists protesting about the closure of the Sunday Tribune. Photograph: Aidan Crawley
Over the past fortnight we have had two very different Government responses to the financial challenges facing news media in Ireland. Earlier this week the Government proposed a new broadcasting charge to deal with the technological changes that are undermining the current television licence fee. This policy response to the broadcast sector is in stark contrast to the silence that prevailed a week previously when new figures showed further dramatic declines in print newspaper sales.
The business of news production in Ireland, as elsewhere, is in crisis. Even before the economic collapse hit advertising revenues – and for print outlets accelerate falling newspaper sales – media outlets have been grappling with the reality of online advertising and the need to generate sufficient revenue from digital content.
RTÉ and TV3 are struggling to cope with audience fragmentation and well-resourced international broadcasters who extract advertising revenue from the local market without any presence here.
The impact of industry change for Irish newspapers has been even more dramatic. Taking the last four years (from 2009 to 2013) sales have fallen significantly – The Irish Times (down 26 per cent), Irish Independent (down 20 per cent), Examiner (down 24 per cent), Irish Daily Star (down 36 per cent), Sunday Business Post (down 33 per cent), Sunday Independent (down 15 per cent) and Sunday Times (down 15 per cent).
This newspaper sold more copies in 1990 than it does today. But, conversely, due to its web offering The Irish Times has never had as many readers in its 154-year history. And, like other established newspapers, it has adapted to digital innovations as a business, as has its staff – a fact that is sometimes overlooked.
Unfortunately, however, for revenue-generation, news is now more accessible than ever before, and it is free. Getting paid for producing news in a digital environment is a real challenge, and it is a challenge as yet without a satisfactory solution, notwithstanding the creeping introduction of partial pay-walls.
Whenever government policy in relation to the media sector, in particular, is discussed there is a tendency to concentrate on ownership. But the real issue for the industry in Ireland is elsewhere. The danger is that as news media struggles to find a viable solution to its business model, time will run out. A continuation in recent circulation declines for local and national newspapers will inevitably see titles close.
Newspaper and new digital entrants are private companies – if they don’t make profit like any other businesses they fail. This reality eventually led to the closure of the Sunday Tribune in February 2011, a month after the demise of Irish Star Sunday. If there is not immediate action other outlets will follow.
There is always criticism of the editorial stances adopted by different media and their respective approaches to reporting on specific news stories. Nevertheless, a vibrant Irish media sector is vital for democracy in delivering news and also acting as a forum to underpin freedom of expression. A plurality of balanced public and private media assists political debate.
These sentiments sound grandiose but they are important. Close a few more newspapers, shut down some broadcast outlets, scale back other news services, and their absence would be noticed.