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

Members of the National Union of Journalists protesting about the closure of the Sunday Tribune. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

Sat, Aug 31, 2013, 00:01

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.

‘Sunday Tribune’

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.

There is no single solution to the multitude of challenges facing Irish news media. Direct public subvention for journalism is not a realistic option – not just because of the poor state of the public finances but also as it would not be healthy to have so much of our media system financially dependant on government.

But there are other policy options available. For example, in terms of providing some respite for print sales, the current Vat rate of 9 per cent could be reduced further if newspapers commit to an equivalent cover price cut.

More significantly, there may be merit in examining whether part of the television license fee/new broadcast charge could be ring-fenced to support news gathering across the wider media sector. Under the Sound and Vision fund, 9 per cent of the licence is currently allocated by tender between public and private broadcasters but funding news is precluded.

In the first instance, however, somebody in government needs to take responsibility for this media sector. Currently Pat Rabbitte as Minister for Communications has responsibility for broadcasting. Policy on newspapers – dominated by a focus on ownership – rests elsewhere. The rapid changes over the past few years means that clear and tidy demarcations between broadcasters and newspapers no longer exist. The Irish Times and the Irish Independent offer audio and video content. With its service, the national broadcaster publishes thousands of words of written text every day. As a relatively new entrant, operates as a purely digital news provider. We now have to consider these media outlets as similar electronic publishers of news and other content.

Responsibility for the industry

The need for policy coherence now more than ever demands that a single department takes responsibility for the industry. It is no longer good enough for the Minister for Communications to be concerned with broadcast policy but not newspaper and other digital news outlets (though Mr Rabbitte did express some concern on the subject of newspapers in an interview with Harry McGee this week). Such a move would deliver a clearer policy focus and, as importantly, ensure that the myriad of challenges facing the media industry are the responsibility of one minister.

A good starting point would be a forum or a commission. There was some merit in similar exercises previously including the Commission on the Newspaper Industry (1995-96) and the Forum on Broadcasting (2002). With a clearly defined agenda and fixed time limit such a body would identify the common challenges facing broadcasters as well as print and digital news providers in Ireland.

More importantly, getting the key players around the same table might just, in this environment of crisis, focus them to concede that they have shared objectives, and push them to reach consensus on possible policy solutions. The alternative will be more closures, and fewer local producers of Irish news.

Dr Kevin Rafter is a senior lecturer in media and politics at Dublin City University

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