Telegraph Media Group executive director Lord Black has warned of ‘serious commercial question marks” over the viability of local newspapers in Northern Ireland.
The difficulties faced by the sector were the result of swingeing cuts to the public sector, which accounts for 70 per cent of recruitment revenues on some newspapers, according to Black.
While newspapers such as the Tyrone Courier had beaten circulation trends and doubled its readership in the past 10 years others were at risk at closure, Black warned at a House of Lords debate on the Northern Ireland economoy.
‘The newspaper sector is facing particular challenges,’he said. ‘In recent years its workforce, according to Skillset, has shrunk to around 1,000 people, and the workforce of the publishing sector as a whole has halved.
‘There are serious commercial question marks hanging over the viability of some of the Province’s smaller local newspapers, themselves a vital part of Northern Ireland’s civic tapestry.”
The depressed property market in Northern Ireland had also had big impact on classified advertising revenues, said Black.
He claimed the commercial pressure came at a time when ‘ironically, weekly newspapers in Northern Ireland are often at the centre of boosting the province’s private sector businesses”, including the recent launch of the Newspaper Society’s £15m ad give away to local businesses in the UK.
He also cited initiatives to help local businesses by the Banbridge Leader, Dromore Leader, MidUlster Mail and Tyrone Times.
But he said there were still ‘continuing concerns’about the threat to statutory public notices in newspapers, which Black said were a key source of income, with council public notice advertising spend down 37 per cent in Northern Ireland.
This was ‘hitting newspapers hard and opening up a democratic deficit’and further reductions would be ‘intolerable”, according to the Peer.
He urged the Government to help publishers in the region to diversify their businesses and expand beyond print, allowing them to cross-sell advertising across newspapers, TV, radio and the internet.
Describing last week’s collapse of KM Group’s attempted takeover of titles from Northcliffe as ‘deeply troubling”, Black said it was important such deals were able to go through.
KM Group withdrew its bid after the Office of Fair Trading referred the decision to the Competition Commission, with the publisher unwilling to take on the additional costs of the review.
Black said: ‘It is however vital that the UK regulatory regime recognises the realities of today’s highly competitive local media markets, allows greater flexibility over media mergers and acquisitions and does not continue to block small, family-owned newspaper publishers from developing and growing their businesses in the deeply troubling way that happened only this week in a proposed merger relating to the Kent Messenger Group and Northcliffe Media.”
Lord Kilclooney, chairman of largest newspaper group in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, Apha Newspapers, disagreed with Black’s claims that small newspapers in Ireland are in trouble.
‘We have the largest circulation in Northern Ireland, with 75,000; the big papers, like the Belfast Telegraph, are down to 50,000.
‘The weekly papers are succeeding; the daily papers are in decline right throughout the United Kingdom – so be careful at the Telegraph!”