INM has ‘work to do’ to understand what audiences want

Digital ad trend prompts welcome rethink in media group’s stance on subscriptions

INM chief executive Michael Doorly admitted there was “work to do” before the company could introduce digital subscriptions. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

INM chief executive Michael Doorly admitted there was “work to do” before the company could introduce digital subscriptions. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

“Digital” has become the omnipresent, single-word reminder of what is euphemistically termed the “challenges” facing Ireland’s news media – perhaps nowhere more so than at Independent News & Media (INM).

In 2015, INM’s annual digital revenues rocketed 42 per cent from a very low base. In 2016, they grew by 20 per cent – still flattering, but only a modest €2.6 million gain in absolute terms. Last year, evidence that the battle was being lost became brutally obvious: in 2017, INM’s digital revenues grew just 1 per cent – and that’s only when a 53rd week in 2016 is removed from the comparison.

The media group behind the Irish Independent, Sunday Independent, Sunday World and other titles had digital revenues of €15.1 million last year – exactly the same digital revenues it recorded the year before. Outside of classifieds, digital advertising income actually declined. For this stalling to happen so early in the game, near the start of a supposed transition from print to digital, points to one serious glitch in the business model – one that the advertising-reliant INM is now finally confronting.

Having once eschewed digital subscriptions, INM is exploring how it might launch them, the conundrum for the company being how to develop the services that will attract the paying custom of a sufficiently large collection of niche audiences.

INM chief executive Michael Doorly readily admitted that there was “work to do” before it could start charging, and gave “the agri-business vertical” as an example: “That’s an audience we probably don’t fully understand. We are serving them to a degree, but we need more data on what they are willing to pay for.”

Rather than waste energy trying to beat Facebook and Google at their own digital advertising game, INM’s instinct is that it should “go niche” and “go Irish” – the ability to monetise the US-based audience for Irish sport and other Irish content is also on its wish list.

Subscription income can, if it rises high enough, act as a buffer against the miserable declines in print advertising, circulation and distribution income.

But, as Doorly also acknowledged, the time to get this buffer in place is running out.