Fearlessly on the farmers’ side as he takes helm at ‘Farmers Journal’

New editor Justin McCarthy hopes to continue to cater for news-hungry farmers

Justin McCarthy grew up reading the Irish Farmers' Journal on the family farm in Portaferry, Co Down. Last month, he became its editor. But unlike editors appointed to other titles in recent years, the 35-year-old took over a debt-free newspaper with a healthy circulation and strong advertising revenue.

Circulation increased by 8.7 per cent between June 2006 and June 2012. By the end of last year, the weekly newspaper’s circulation was 70,111 – a fall of some 1,500 copies but still nearly five per cent ahead of 2006 figures.

“Advertising this year is running ahead of last year,” he says. “Our advertising has held up very well, even throughout the tough times but we’ve had to be innovative.”

Critics of the practice of offering free online newspaper content will point to the Farmers' Journal pay wall as a key factor in maintaining its circulation. It charges €2.60 – the same price as the newspaper – to read an edition online and has other rates for subscriptions of between three months to a year. But McCarthy says there are other factors at work.


Internet threat
"It's reflective of the hard work that has gone in and the investment that the Journal has made in our team and in Irish Country Living (its magazine supplement)," he says.

He also highlights the industry expertise from its writers. “We have a team of guys who, if they are not farmers, they are exceptionally close to farming, and I think that’s critical but they also have the expertise and the knowledge of the industry. It gives us that unique content that farmers value and trust.”

While the internet has been perceived as a threat to most newspapers, McCarthy sees an opportunity for the Farmers' Journal . "All we have to do is to look across the Irish Sea to the UK where we have a farming audience with very little independent research and advice and with a similar production base and climate as ourselves. I would see that as an opportunity for us. And it's a much cheaper route to market than printing a newspaper."

The Farmers' Journal , which is printed by The Irish Times , is run by a trust, thanks to a selfless gesture by its former owner, farmer John Mooney. In the early 1960s he was offered £100,000 for the paper by the Thompson media group in Britain. He turned it down and instead set up the Agricultural Trust to protect its future.

McCarthy says the trust status is very appealing. “We don’t have a board or shareholders looking for dividends. Our mission statement is to improve the competitiveness of Irish farming and the well-being of those involved in the sector and I think we do that through being fearlessly on the farmers’ side.”

The middle child of five, McCarthy spent his weekends with his father buying cattle in Tulsk and Roscommon marts. “We all grew up knowing how to work and that’s something that young people growing up on farms have. That stands to you no matter where your career takes you.”

Livestock specialist
After leaving agricultural college he worked with Larry Goodman's ABP Food Group in Britain.

“I did every job from buying cattle to selling beef. You had to be able to take a carcass off a hook and bone it out into the various primals.”

He also worked as a beef specialist with Teagasc, helping farmers in the west become more profitable and admired the inventiveness of farmers with 20 or 30 cows on marginal land.

McCarthy joined the Farmers Journal as chief livestock specialist in 2005. He has dyslexia and says he would have never considered a career in journalism until he was approached by the then editor Matt Dempsey.

Now he believes dyslexia makes him a better communicator. “I break things down in my mind and communicate in a slightly different way to others. It’s more visual. With dyslexia you assimilate information differently.”

He says the best piece of advice he got about journalism was that the more you knew about something, the simpler you could make it. "Our job in the Farmers' Journal is to take technical information and translate it to into a farmer's language."

Having worked in ABP, did it put him in an awkward position when it came to the recent horse meat scandal in which the meat processor played a key role?

“Farmers are the best judge of my impartiality,” he says. “I believe in telling it like it is. The industry needs to be held accountable. Some of the stories we have broke, and some of the articles which challenged the industry, were pretty hard-hitting but they were fair and factual and that’s the key.”

He says the horse meat scandal put a focus on the journey that meat takes between the farmer and the fork. “One of the largest buyers of Irish beef who are closest to their suppliers is McDonalds and they came out of this more or less unscathed.”

McCarthy sees “a lot of posturing” by retailers about getting closer to their suppliers but says time will tell if it is genuine. “I think it has brought the realisation that the race to the bottom is not a sustainable way to go.”

He predicts an increase in demand for high quality animals. "I think that's going to be a challenge for farmers and a role for the Farmers' Journal to help educate farmers as to how to address that in ways like maximising carcase value."

The newspaper has often been accused of being a mouthpiece for the Irish Farmers Association, which shares the same building and is represented on the Agricultural Trust.

'Close links'
"Of course there are going to be close links because both have a very similar agenda," he says. "There is no doubt that that two organisations work closely together but I think that's in farmers' interests. But we certainly drive our own agenda. With farm organisations like the ICMSA and ICSA, if there is a valid and coherent policy and story, irrespective of where it comes from we certainly run it."

Negotiations on the Common Agricultural Policy are trundling on, huge changes are ahead in dairying with the removal of milk quotas in 2015 and the global demand for food continues to increase. It all bodes well for a newspaper catering for farmers who are hungry for news.

Asked about his plans, he talks about new thinking and new ideas but nothing that would frighten the horses – or cattle. “It will be like every changing of the guard and I have a fantastic young team to work with,” he says.

“So will I be around in 10 years? I certainly have every intention of it.”