Challenges mount for our daily newspapers

Recently the official, independently audited daily sales of the UK and Ireland’s daily newspapers was published for the period July-December 2020. Not unexpectedly they made very uncomfortable reading for editors and proprietors as overall the UK daily regional press sale had fallen by a record 19%. Obviously, the impact of Covid-19 had a major impact on this period, but publishers will take no comfort from that as once lost, it is rare for readers to return, no matter the circumstances.

Northern Ireland was not immune. Sales of the Irish News fell by 14% and the News Letter by 18%, Both below the national average but still worrying. The Belfast Telegraph had pre-empted this when withdrawn by its owners from the industry’s audit body (ABC) following publication of the figures for the second half of 2019. That in itself was very telling as newspapers don’t generally withdraw when the figures paint a positive picture.

In THIS ARTICLE last April, I offered my view on the prospects of these three historic brands post-covid. In light of these new figures the issue is worth revisiting.

While the story isn’t positive for any of our publishers, its less relentlessly depressing for the Irish News. While its daily sale is down to a worrying 25,494, the Irish News is incredibly now the second highest selling regional daily paper, second only to the Press & Journal (Aberdeen) and well ahead of former metropolitan behemoths like the Wolverhampton Express & Star, Birmingham Mail, Manchester Evening News and Liverpool Echo.

We shouldn’t underestimate the importance of the fact that our most successful paper has remained under the same private and local ownership in a period when the Belfast Telegraph has now had four different owners and the News Letter has had seven! The fact that the Irish News is privately and locally owned has meant the paper has not been subject to the catastrophic and often idiotic corporate management that has beset the other two.

The News Letter was recently purchased by a consortium led by former News of The World Editor and Daily Mirror Chief Executive David Montgomery, as part of the sale of its parent JPI Media. The Bangor man and his team have so far made all the right noises with its plans to restore local content as the raison d’etre of its brands. That could be good for both the News Letter and the seriously weakened Derry Journal, but with sales down to 9,125 and no tangible Belfast presence since the mid-90s, reviving the brand is a very tall order. It has the advantage of Sam McBride’s high profile and credibility, and that could be an asset in helping the paper take mainstream, urban middle class pro union readers from a rudderless Belfast Telegraph, but that will require heavy investment in both product (including staff) and promotion and a steely nerve to see the job through.

The story certainly hasn’t got any better for the Belfast Telegraph, giving the new Belgian owners an even greater challenge than initially anticipated.  When the BT withdrew from ABC its official sales figure was 24,218 (plus a claimed 7,122 given away free). It’s not unreasonable to suggest the Tele has fallen by at least as high a percentage as the Irish News. So how is it handling the challenge?

When I posted my earlier series of articles on the local press, I picked up a feeling among many posters that newspapers should be balanced (apart from the Irish News of course). Of course that’s nonsense and betrays a complete lack of understanding of what newspapers are about. Generally they reflect the views of a specific community and are unapologetic about it. The Irish News has done it superbly under Noel Doran’s editorship and continues to do so.

The News Letter did it badly and inconsistently for a couple of decades under previous owners and editors and paid the price. The Belfast Telegraph strategy under Gail Walker’s editorship was taking it in the right direction of trying to broaden its base largely within the pro union community in the way the Irish News has always done within its own community. Gail was criticised for doing so, but she was right. Anyone who understands the history and readership of that paper will know she was right. But having nailed its colours to that mast, the new owner now seems to have abandoned that strategy and dropped some columnists who resonated with the core even if they weren’t from that core themselves, without really deciding how to replace it or them. I genuinely believe that by the time it gets its act together (if its capable of doing so) it will be too fatally wounded.

All of this makes Allison Morris’ imminent defection to the Belfast Telegraph very hard to comprehend. Historically a move to the Tele from any other publisher here was the one journalists aspired to. But no longer. Obviously, Allison is a loss to the Irish News and a coup for the Tele (particularly in terms of her personal brand enhancing the paper’s brand), but if the new ownership thinks the loss of a reporter – even one with such a high broadcast profile – will cause readers to defect from a well-established paper that serves its community with clarity and that retains a much higher than average level of reader loyalty for one with no identifiable characteristics, they will be very disappointed very quickly. The Irish News is strong enough to brush off even the most unwanted departures.

Last year I wrote that ultimately, I don’t think there will be room in this market for both the Telegraph and News Letter. Events of the past year copper fasten that view, but with both brands under new ownership the eventual winner is less clear cut than before. At that time, the News Letter was owned by a company just out of receivership and perpetually up for sale. I said then that “had it been bought by a private enterprise led by someone with publishing experience and a strong unionist outlook the picture might look different today, but that looks like an increasingly remote possibility.” That has now occurred. Let battle commence.

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