Northern Ireland: Will the press still flourish in peacetime?

WHEN
BELFAST Telegraph editor Martin Lindsay was asked how he managed to
raise sales of the newspaper at a time when every other evening title
had seen a slump in its ABC figures, he answered that big news events
such as the deaths of Pope John Paul II and George Best had helped. His
paper had also added a morning tabloid and a Saturday edition to its
traditional evening broadsheet and serialised the autobiography of
boxer Wayne McCullough. Simple really.

The same question that was
posed to Lindsay at the recent Newspaper Society conference in
Manchester is one that is currently being asked of the entire industry
in the province. Because if Northern Ireland hasn't had the best press
over the years, its daily and weekly newspapers are enjoying a
surprising amount of glory themselves.

The Belfast Telegraph was
the only evening newspaper in the UK to increase sales in the second
half of 2005, according to the latest ABC figures for July to December.
The Sunday World's Northern Irish edition went up 5 per cent
year-on-year, despite a Loyalist paramilitary campaign of intimidation
against the title last summer. The News Letter was one of only two
morning regional titles in the UK to buck the downward trend in
circulation. The Telegraph, Irish News and Sunday World all took away
gongs at the Newspaper Society Awards in March.

There are plenty
of theories as to why the province's newspapers are thriving, and as
usual, they start with politics. Of that, Jim McDowell, editor of the
Sunday World, is in no doubt. "What's been happening here for the past
37 years hasn't been elsewhere in the UK. It's been what people have
been waking up to — and because of that experience people here are news
junkies, they feed off news as a topic of conversation," he says. Most
editors agree that the violence in the north has kept punters reading.
McDowell contends that this has embedded a news sense in the Northern
Irish that is lacking elsewhere. "There's a strong tradition of news
awareness," he says. "Northern Ireland's a big positive white-knuckle
media area whether [the news is] the farmer down the road done for
drink driving, or the politicians spouting their party line, or the
paramilitaries."

Perhaps Northern Ireland continues to buck the
UK trend because, to quote one of its most prominent actors, the
troubles haven't gone away you know. The murder of former Sinn Fein
staffer and Government informer Denis Donaldson in April illustrated
how paramilitary crime remains top of the news agenda. "Crime is going
to be one of the black holes of Northern Irish society for years to
come, and people will read about it," says McDowell.

Others argue that it's wrong to assume sectarian loyalties will continue to dictate newspaper sales.

"We
have a divided society and to a certain extent newspapers reflect
that," says Irish News editor Noel Doran, "but it would be wrong to
suggest that because newspapers hold a political stance, they will
automatically hold onto readers." After 1998's Good Friday agreement
there was speculation that the dailies' circulation would go into rapid
decline. It is difficult to get a definitive picture as both the
Telegraph and News Letter were in a sales slide anyway, but sales of
the Irish News actually increased in the subsequent period to a high of
52,066 by the end of 2002. So circulation gains are possible in times
of relative peace. What's harder to measure is how much old divides
will dictate future reading habits.

Parochial outlook?

Jackie
McKeown, editor of the Newry Democrat, a young weekly in Northern
Ireland's newest city sees newspaper readership in the province as
"based on geographical and sectarian lines". She says it may help
explain the number of weekly titles available to the Northern Irish
consumer: "In a negative way [the sectarianism] turns into defence of
communities; in a positive way it translates into being proactive on
behalf of your community."

It is not uncommon to find between two
and six weekly titles competing in small pockets of the province.
Newry, for example, with a population of just 48,000, has two weeklies
based in the city — the Newry Democrat and the Newry Reporter — with
arguably four to five other titles within the region whose content
crosses over. Dr John Coulter, a member of the Newspaper Society's
National Qualifications Council and former journalist in Northern
Ireland, says this pattern is repeated throughout the north. "Towns
have two or three weekly newspapers. There's competition to be first
with the Women's Institute jam tart competition — which may seem
flippant, but these stories are very important to factions of society."

Northern
Ireland hasn't had the same pace of change as elsewhere in the UK and
its sense of community remains, to a larger extent, intact.

"Ironically,"
adds Coulter, "Northern Ireland is regarded as parochial on issues and
it wouldn't be seen to be as cosmopolitan or multicultural as other
areas in the UK, such as London or Birmingham.

This parochial outlook has benefited the local newspapers which specialise in parish-pump news."

Rapid
change A distinctly rural history has fed into this, further fuelling
newspaper consumption. The News Letter's Monday to Friday sales of
25,957 are shadowed by its Saturday circulation of 41,197 — a peak
largely attributed to its extra supplement, Farming Week, which remains
the crucial buy for the agricultural community. People tend to work in
their locality rather than commute, which maintains an interest in
local news, says McKeown. "Readers' social, family and working lives
are all in the community where they live, so consequently their
interest is higher, which accounts for a lot of the success of the
local."

Northern Ireland is, however, facing rapid change.

The
dependency on a rural economy is lessening and the old sectarian
shackles undoing themselves, if at a painfully slow pace. Immigration
and industrialisation mean that if the province is behind the rest of
the UK in societal terms, it is quickly catching up.

Others suggest the north is nearer to its UK counterparts than its press might like to imagine.

Sam
McIlveen is the media director of AV Browne advertising agency in
Belfast. He urges caution when looking at recent success in Northern
Ireland.

"When you look at the Northern Irish dailies in
comparison to the UK, basically what you're saying is that in Northern
Ireland we're losing readers, but not as fast as in the UK. I don't buy
that as a particularly positive argument. I think the papers try to
position it as a positive argument — not doing terribly well but doing
better than everyone else in their class — is that good or bad?"

McIlveen
has a point. Both The Belfast Telegraph and News Letter may be
celebrating a rise in sales, but this comes after a period of general
decline. The Telegraph sold 131,829 copies in 1997 compared with its
latest figure of 96,435 for weekday sales. The News Letter, which has
been busy holding onto its 25,000 readers for the last few years (down
from 33,000 in 1996) has bigger concerns, says McIlveen.

"Their
readership is older and rural, and quite a lot of their readers are
dying — that's a natural consequence." The Irish News is gaining
readers, but this increase has tailed off at around the 48,000 mark in
the latest ABCs and its nationalist rival, Daily Ireland, posted a
first ABC of 10,017, which doesn't account for the split between sales
in the north and south.

The Irish News' Noel Dolan agrees: "I
wouldn't say that Northern Ireland is a major success story. I think
people are doing well in difficult circumstances, but if you look at a
five- or 10-year pattern, it would be difficult to argue that most of
the newspapers are doing significantly better than used to be the case."

One
way the Northern Irish press is similar to its UK counterparts is in
its talk of the future. The buzzword at the Newspaper Society
conference was "convergence", or merging new technologies with the
newspaper. "The big challenge for the local press in Northern Ireland
is to combine," says McIlveen.

"The tendency until now has not been to do that — they have to start converging their offerings."

There
are further signs of a shake-up in the local press. "During the
Troubles, the weeklies had an easier time than dailies," says Lindsay.
"People were judgmental [of the dailies] because we were continuously
reporting all these big events.

The weeklies were able to bump along, unchallenged."

A
government review of advertising, completed in April, illustrates just
how uncompetitive the weeklies have been. The majority of local titles
do not have audited figures, but, says McIlveen, they earned government
advertising revenue anyway "because they've been able to play an orange
card or a green card, where the papers say we're the unionist paper and
we're the nationalist paper and the government said: ‘then we'll use
both of you.' " The review's final report issued an ultimatum — get
audited within 12 months or lose this crucial source of revenue.

Looking
to the future A commercially driven, less sheltered future seems
inevitable with the arrival of the major publishing companies. Big
regional players such as Independent News & Media and Johnston
Press have recently gained a foothold in the market. Last year,
Johnston bought Local Press, home to the News Letter and 11 other
titles with a total weekly circulation of 343,000.

INM bought The
Belfast Telegraph from Trinity Mirror in 2000. Already, Johnston has
closed one of three printing presses for its papers and INM has pledged
to axe up to 80 jobs at the Belfast Telegraph group.

Editors
remain optimistic, predicting a future where the Northern Irish press
get to be more proactive in its newsgathering, deal with
bread-andbutter issues and invest in neglected areas of reporting, such
as sport and education. If doubts exist, they are about readers falling
away through news apathy, now the province has stabilised. The Sunday
World's McDowell wonders if a portion of the Northern Irish might have
switched off from news altogether. "There is a lumpen middle class
[that has] become less news aware than perhaps any other section of
society because they're fucked off with politics, and that's reflected
in the percentage voting at elections over here. Less and less of the
middle class are getting off their arse to buy a newspaper because
they're bored with politics."

Others are convinced the
traditional appetite for news will continue, but needs harnessing in
the light of new and competing media. "No matter where I go in the
island of Ireland, the people are voracious readers and you really
can't give them enough column inches to read," says Lindsay. "As
newspaper people, that's something we should be grateful for — that
people still want to read newspapers as well as watch TV and listen to
radio. Now we are finding ways of delivering our news differently — it
isn't just printing words on dead trees."

With more than 50
paid-for weekly titles for a population of just over 1.5 million, four
dailies and competition from British and Irish titles, the province's
market is being fought more fiercely than ever. Casualties are
expected. Only time will tell if the Northern Irish societal
peculiarities of old really did guarantee a high readership and, if
they're declining, if the readership will dwindle too.

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