Newspapers and journalism matter
A recent nationwide survey showed that one-fifth of people in Ireland never read a newspaper in a typical week - mostly the young - but that four-fifths do so at least once a week, with almost a third of those turning to a newspaper each day of the week. By that standard, you would think that rumours of the demise of newspapers have been greatly exaggerated, and to a certain extent, you would be right.
Newspapers live. Long live newspapers. But the battle for their continued survival is far more complex than that. In some ways, it is a battle that comes down to 'pounds, shillings and pence', to commerce, or the paid-for advertising that is the lifeblood of all newspapers almost everywhere, now under threat in an era which understands the price of everything but the value of nothing. Without money there would be no journalism.
Without journalism, there would be no truth, or even search for the truth. For some, that is distasteful; for others, not least those of us in the business, it is a simple reality - the central fact in our working lives. But it is more fundamental than even that. At its core, the battle for the long-term survival of newspapers reflects the battle of all of our lives well lived, albeit messily, however imperfectly - and newspapers can be both messy and imperfect - although, at their heart, they still beat with a deep yearning for justice and truth. All of our lives matter and, it follows, of course, that journalism matters too.
While newspapers may not be dead, neither is the business of newspapers thriving. For that matter, neither is the business of television and radio, books or cinema, or any of the so-called traditional media. Like many industries caught in the apex of seismic technological change, the media business, and newspapers in particular, is fighting hard not just to re-adjust, but to get ahead of a rapidly evolving curve, to thrive, to do its job. Eventually that fight will be won. Right now, though, traditional media in all forms, but especially newspapers, is being made to fight with one hand tied behind its back.
It is as though journalism is aware of, indeed taking to the fight of its life with gusto, but that officialdom in the form of politicians and policymakers has yet to fully realise, let alone catch up with what is going on; to level an unfair playing field, to untether the guardians at the gate which hold it to account, which informs, investigates, analyses, mobilises, entertains and gives expression to a plurality of views that, in turn, are the lifeblood of a healthy democracy.
So, while the household names behind this great technological advance have the red carpet rolled out, are levied with special low tax rates, are met with open-mouthed awe, at a time when worldwide they facilitate the traducing of the meaning of democracy, traditional media in Ireland is still hounded with penal defamation laws and slammed with a Valued Added Tax which is wildly at odds with elsewhere, for example, in the UK and throughout much of Europe; while the still raw and, in many cases, ill-crafted 'fake news' to be found online becomes the new norm, the real craft of newspaper journalism developed through the centuries, honed through the decades - the skills and expertise, the judgment and balance - is thrown on a bonfire of vanities.
This is not to say that newspapers or newspaper people do not value the great benefits brought by the internet age. Of course we do. We are not dinosaurs. We have positioned ourselves at its cutting edge, in fact. All the newspaper industry asks for is a fair wind, to be given a chance. That is why newspapers are mobilising as one in Ireland this week ahead of the Budget, to hold government to account - not out of fear, or for self-preservation, but on behalf of the people who will realise what they miss only when eventually it is gone. At a minimum, the Finance Minister must apply a 5pc VAT rate to newspapers and digital products in this Budget and ultimately reduce VAT on printed newspapers to 0pc.