Pandemic proves value of local media – and its perilous state

News, an ‘essential service’, has never been harder to produce

Minister for Communications Richard Bruton: his brief does not extend to newspapers. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Minister for Communications Richard Bruton: his brief does not extend to newspapers. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

There is a desperate irony in the publication of news being classed as an essential service by the Government at a time when the financial challenges in continuing to produce it have never been more acute.

Local newspapers and radio stations with long-standing links to communities across Ireland have been covering the Covid-19 crisis in a way that only they can, but they are unlikely to come out of this economic shutdown unscathed.

Minister for Communications Richard Bruton has asked the broadcasting regulator to ringfence a sum of €2.5 million for the production of news, current affairs and information programming on local radio stations, while the broadcasting levy they pay to fund their own regulation has been waived for six months.

This latter measure was, however, long sought by the sector and had been promised many times in recent years. It took a pandemic to make it happen even temporarily.

For local newspapers, there has been no emergency funding to date, and no specific supports at all, though representative group Local Ireland says it is grateful that its members can avail of the Government’s wage subsidy scheme.

The absence of any other intervention is not unrelated to the fact that there is no Minister for Media: the responsibilities of Mr Bruton and his predecessors extend only to broadcasting and are swamped by the climate action and environment parts of the brief. This alignment of departments must be reformed in the future.

‘Breathing space’

Local Ireland is now also urging the Government to give the sector urgent “breathing space” by taking out State advertising in local news titles to spread its important messages on health, safety and welfare.

This would help offset a plummet in the bread-and-butter local ad revenues, many of which come from businesses now closed or operating much-reduced services as a result of virus restrictions. The hope is that local advertising will recover when the restrictions are lifted, but in a recession there can be no guarantees.

The immediate danger is that some newspapers will decide to stop printing, perhaps forever, with temporary layoffs turning permanent.

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