Tuesday 23 July 2019

Further consolidation on the way for local newspapers

'Down through the years, local newspapers have excelled at covering the local stories, including court reportage, that matter to people and, when necessary, holding organisations like local councils and health services to account' (stock photo)
'Down through the years, local newspapers have excelled at covering the local stories, including court reportage, that matter to people and, when necessary, holding organisations like local councils and health services to account' (stock photo)

John McGee

The first time my name ever appeared in a newspaper was in the last paragraph of match report in the weekly Northern Standard in Monaghan sometime during the last century.

I was name-checked for scoring the winning point for my school in a feisty Ulster school's GAA tournament against St Pat's in Maghera.

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From then on, I was hooked on the Northern Standard and every week I would scour the sports pages for any mention of my name in their match reports.

But I was no different to many thousands of kids my age around the country who played for their local club or school and who would delight in seeing their name in the local paper every week.

Or indeed, the people who had their photos taken at the sod-turning for a new local nursing home or the guys setting up a new craft brewery in an old Garda barracks at the edge of a town in Mayo, Kerry or Wexford. Or for that matter wily local councillors and TDs - who understand the importance of local papers - opening a new health centre or supermarket.

For most people outside of Dublin, local newspapers are tightly woven into the social fabric of society and, like the local radio station, they are trusted sources of news and information that play a very important public service role when it comes to keeping people up to date with what's going on in their local communities, a task which, let's face it, would be virtually impossible for our national media to take on.

Down through the years, local newspapers have excelled at covering the local stories, including court reportage, that matter to people and, when necessary, holding organisations like local councils and health services to account.

But they are also businesses and in the pre-Google and Facebook era, they were profitable businesses too. Now, some are, others are not.

Putting a size on the market is tricky, although it's estimated that there's around 60-65 different titles published around the country every week.

According to the trade organisation Local Ireland (LI), it represents 46 different titles across 26 counties and between them, they would represent around 90pc of the weekly paid-for titles in the Republic of Ireland.

According to LI director Johnny O'Hanlon, members of Local Ireland sell over 450,000 copies every week and between them and they have a combined readership of 1.5 million, outside Dublin and Cork. That's a lot of copies sold and a lot of people reading their different titles, a fact that is too often overlooked by advertisers and indeed media agencies.

Like the national newspaper titles, local papers also face their own challenges, some of which are unique to them.

While the combined readership of the printed and online versions of many local titles are holding up well, according to O'Hanlon, the big challenge for publishers is how to monetise their offering at a time when press advertising is on the decline and more digital advertising is flowing into the coffers of Google and Facebook.

The reality is that some publishers are at different stages of their digital strategies than others. Some of the bigger publishers, for example, have a full programmatic offering which they can give advertisers.

Meanwhile at a smaller level, some titles have become digital partners to their clients, offering them not just print and online ads but also things like microsites and other digital marketing tools. But it's also an industry that has embraced change in recent years, largely through much needed consolidation, including some frothy and eye-popping trade sales. Following the bout of consolidation over the last 15 years, 70pc of all LI members' circulation is generated by just four groups - Iconic Newspapers, Celtic Media, the Irish Times and INM, publisher of this newspaper.

Apart from the M&A activity over the last 15 years, O'Hanlon points out that his members have also been working at cutting costs wherever they can. "Our members titles are now printed in four print centres, pre-press is largely outsourced, as is distribution and, in some cases, digital."

He is optimistic about the future for local newspapers and LI has been actively lobbying for a Vat reduction on masthead sales, some sort of funding for public service content creation, reform of the defamation laws and the appointment of a Minister for Media.

While it seems likely that some of these wishes will be granted, it seems even likelier that further consolidation is inevitable over the next few years. If this means that local papers around Ireland can continue to publish match reports and name-check the stars of tomorrow or to give a leg up to that local brewer or the aspiring TD then it's a good thing.

nThe Advertising Standards Authority has strengthened its board by the appointment of NewsBrands Ireland CEO Ann Marie Lenihan, while Clare Mulcahy, senior consumer protection manager at the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (CCPC) has been appointed to the Independent Complaints Committee. The ASAI board has 15 members - the chairman and four advertiser members, four agency and six media. The board manages ASAI business and implements the ASAI's Code.

n With podcasting becoming increasingly popular, INM, publisher of this newspaper has teamed up with Bord Gáis Energy to sponsor the podcast, The Throw In, which brings readers GAA Championship insight and analysis, from the award-winning team at Independent.ie. The deal will also give Bord Gáis Energy a cross-platform presence across the Irish Independent, the Sunday Independent and Independent.ie's GAA section.

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