Sunday 16 June 2019

How many media outlets can a small market like Ireland realistically support?

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has set up a fund to benefit certain media outlets. Photo: Bloomberg
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has set up a fund to benefit certain media outlets. Photo: Bloomberg
Steve Dempsey

Steve Dempsey

In a small market like Ireland, it's harder than ever for media outlets to chart a profitable, hell, even a sustainable course. In print, circulation and advertising revenues are in decline. Online, the commoditisation of news and the rise of the Google and Facebook duopoly mean attention and ad revenue are harder than ever to come by. So here's the question: will there ever be sufficient demand to support more than one or two print and digital news sources?

Consumer habits certainly wouldn't indicate a plethora of media outlets can survive. According to the last Reuters Institute Digital News Report, the percentage of people reading newspapers and news magazines in the past week in Ireland has fallen to 37pc, while online news consumption is steady at 83pc. But here's the rub, only 11pc of Irish people say they pay for, or have paid for, online news.

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Unlike many European countries we just don't have a tradition of subscribing to newspapers, so it's harder to get Irish audiences to pay online. Mobile devices are now the primary device for news consumption, and on a mobile screen, any news app or website is competing for attention against email and other messaging apps, and addictive platforms like Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook. It's not a fair fight.

But some digital news outlets are surviving. In the English-speaking world. These are mostly iconic brands that have taken their brand from print to pixels. The New York Times and the Washington Post (with the support of a certain Amazon sugar daddy) spring to mind. But the Boston Globe is also worth a mention. It announced this week that it now has more digital than print subscriptions. In Q1 2019, weekday print subscribers fell to 98,978, a year-on-year decline of 11pc. But online subscribers now number 112,700.

How has it successfully flipped into digital? Well, in American terms, it's a regional title, but it's lucky enough to serve a region with a higher than average income and education. Plus, it has resisted the temptation to make overly swingeing cuts to its newsroom.

Some publishers are going direct to their readers. De Correspondent, for example, a Dutch news service, raised that more than €1m in a crowdfunding campaign in eight days, before launching in 2013.

For as little as €25 per year, users can get access to an ad-free site of in-depth analysis from individual journalists that focus on specific topics.

But it hasn't all been plain sailing. The service recently drew considerable, and deserved, heat when it announced an expansion into the US market, with another crowdfunded campaign.

But a lack of clarity about what US subscribers would actually be supporting left a lot of vocal supporters and contributors to that crowdfunding campaign with their noses out of joint.

De Correspondent apologised and promised more transparency. They summed it up with admirable brevity: "We screwed up". It seems it's not that easy to uproot one journalistic outlet from one country and move it to another.

One area where the media could be looking for help is legislative intervention. In Canada, they've taken this to an extreme, with the announcement a fund of $600m in tax credits and incentives designed to benefit select media outlets over the next five years. The government of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will also allow not-for-profit media organisations to apply for charitable status, which would mean they could seek donations for which they could issue tax receipts.

Over 250 news outlets have closed in Canada in the last 10 years, so it's no surprise that such drastic action is being mooted. But yes, something like this should set alarm bells ringing. A media that's reliant on government subsidies is compromised when it comes to tackling government.

But there are credible legislative steps that could be taken which would have a positive impact without undermining independence. Here in Ireland, a reduction of the VAT on newspapers would be a good start.

So too would be changes to Ireland's defamation law - we have one of the most restrictive in Europe. A review of the Defamation Act of 2009 was supposed to have been completed years ago. But to date, nothing has happened.

With further consolidation in the media market probably unavoidable, a more nuanced approach to media mergers that carefully considers ongoing viability as well as the impact on the plurality of media ownership in the State is vital.

Examining RTÉ's digital output would also be advisable. The licence fee-funded broadcaster is increasingly creating content that competes with commercial news outlets.

In the UK, the government examined whether the BBC was crowding out competition as part of the process of renewing the Beeb's charter.

Given the pressure on media outlets, and RTÉ's need to tighten its belt, something similar would be advisable here. We need a clear line between public service and commercial news outlets. This town ain't big enough for the both of us.

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