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Show-us-the-money time for Irish press amid plans for publicly funded news coverage

Coimisiún na Meán has opened up consultations on its local democracy and courts reporting schemes – it’s a landmark moment for news publishers

Some years after they were first mulled, details have emerged of how two publicly funded journalism schemes are likely to operate, courtesy of consultation documents published last week by Coimisiún na Meán.

The media regulator has opened up for consultation two schemes worth a combined €5 million with the aim of ensuring “that all people have access to news in their own areas” and that the news they receive is “trustworthy and accurate”. This sounds like good value for €5 million.

The news outlets eligible to apply probably haven’t forgotten that when Minister for Media Catherine Martin announced in 2022 that she would introduce the two schemes, the total fund was €6 million, whereas the split will now be €3 million for a local democracy reporting scheme and €2 million for one dedicated to court reporting.

I’m assured that €1 million hasn’t fallen down the back of the Exchequer sofa and that this sum will be used to fund a third scheme to be announced by the regulator this summer.


The independent Future of Media Commission body – which submitted its report in September 2021, with the Government publishing it in July 2022 – advocated for the phased introduction of six schemes in total, the others being a community media scheme, an access and training scheme, a thematic news reporting scheme and a digital transformation scheme.

As this was a lot of scheming, coverage of local councils and district and circuit courts got the priority stamp, though the Future of Media Commission was, as it transpired, optimistic about roll-out time frames, suggesting that the local democracy scheme be “prioritised for delivery as soon as possible in 2022″ given the pressures on the media sector and that the courts reporting scheme be up and running “by Q4 2022″.

This much-trailed advent of State subventions has caused unease among some journalists, who may feel that any dependence on Exchequer cash risks eroding the public’s trust in newspapers

But we are edging closer to their arrival. Responses to the consultations, which close on May 2nd, will either reveal philosophical fissures between various strands of the Irish media sector or simply set the scene for a straightforward bunfight between future applicants. Disappointed parties are a feature of pretty much every oversubscribed public funding scheme and these two should be no different.

The rationale for them is clear. Such is the financial squeeze on the media sector that news outlets that once made sure to send a reporter to local authority meetings and court hearings are no longer guaranteed to be able to afford this coverage. And yet, amid the swirl of online misinformation of dubious origin, it has become more critical than ever that reputable news organisations offer in-person, authentic, verified reporting.

In a measure that will benefit the public first and foremost, all the content funded under the schemes will be made available on a free-to-access Coimisiún na Meán online portal no later than seven days after its original publication.

This is a landmark moment for the news industry. Beyond RTÉ, the radio sector has been the beneficiary for years of modest public funding through the Sound & Vision scheme, albeit not in a manner that was optimum from its perspective. But, with the exception of a handful of recent overseas reporting grants provided by the Global Ireland Media Challenge Fund operated by the Department of Foreign Affairs, the press has not received direct supports. The new schemes, therefore, usher in a new era of public funding for news titles that were once happy not to need it.

This much-trailed advent of State subventions has caused unease among some journalists, who may feel that any dependence on Exchequer cash risks eroding the public’s trust in newspapers to hold the Government of the day to account. But direct support for journalism was sought by industry groups and individual publishers in their submissions to the Future of Media Commission, on the proviso that its implementation did not trespass on editorial independence. Whether this speaks to the pragmatism, maturity or desperation of news outlets, or perhaps all three, is debatable.

A key aspect of any funding scheme is who can apply. The Coimisiún has proposed that applications to both schemes may be submitted by “media service providers of news and current affairs” or by “a freelance in partnership with such a media service provider”. The freelance part is important as some courts are currently covered by experienced freelance reporters – sometimes only one – with their work shared by several outlets.

Elsewhere, there is talk of eligibility criteria setting “minimum standards” and the schemes funding applicants that demonstrate “appropriate expertise, capacity and track record and membership of the Press Council of Ireland” or – in the case of broadcasting and video-on-demand applicants – adhere to the relevant codes of practice operated by the regulator or similar EU bodies.

The funding will be “allocated on a geographical basis”, the regulator says, with open contestable rounds held for each of the 31 local authority areas and each district and circuit area in the State. A key restriction on the courts reporting scheme – the exclusion of the High Court, Central Criminal Court, Special Criminal Court, Court of Appeal and Supreme Court – reflects the aim of both of these schemes: to keep local reporting alive.

It remains to be seen whether the distribution of funds will take account of the fact that some “media service providers”, notably those that have national as well as local brands within their portfolio, have greater resources and more financial flexibility than those that operate in the local space only.

Public funding schemes, in an ideal world, wouldn’t be used as a means for grant recipients to invade patches that were previously served by unsuccessful applicants and wouldn’t become a new source of intra-industry bitterness. The impact of similar funds in other sectors indicates that such tensions, however, might be difficult to completely avoid.