Media predictions 2009, Part 5: The Irish Independent’s readership will suffer significantly from cost-cutting

Here is my fifth and final Irish media prediction for 2009:

The Irish Independent, in fact the entire IN&M group in Ireland, has endured plenty of back-room changes recently – all in an effort to cut costs. These cuts have been taking place long before the economic downturn and their impact on quality can already be seen – as the knife goes deeper I think we will see readers walk away in significant numbers in 2009.

One of the most significant moves made by IN&M in Ireland of late was the decision to out-source sub editing to private operators, often ones based in mainland Europe. The obvious result of this split is a decrease in communication between each side of the editorial divide, not to mention a huge potential for poorer sub-editors doing the job due to the decreased rate and job security.

As part of its reaction to the economic turmoil the group has asked journalists to take a pay-cut and is likely to push this further as the company seeks to work its way out of its poor stock market performance.

All of this combined, along with the slashing of editorial budgets that is not unique to IN&M ‘papers, has two effects. Firstly it drives talented staff away, be they existing staff who get a better offer elsewhere or potential staff that seek employment in another organisation or even industry. Secondly they destroy morale within the remaining staff as they see the declining importance of their input and output. In the end, every aspect of the newspaper’s quality suffers.

It is one thing for a newspaper to change its focus or tone, it is a whole other thing when it becomes visually and grammatically unappealing. Readers nowadays tend not to tolerate ugly newspapers and there is no greater sin than to have one that features repeated errors and even inaccuracies.

Mark Coughlan thinks The Irish Independent will finally drop its broadsheet edition this year and I think he’s right – in a world of cost-cutting it makes no sense to have to pay sub-editor to edit and layout two versions of the one newspaper. However the readership of the newspaper is split at almost 50/50 between the two formats and removing one could alienate those who have stayed loyal to it – after all these are people that have decided to stick with the broadsheet version even though the ‘Metro edition’ is just as available.

According to recent figures The Irish Independent has a readership of 508,000 people, compared to The Irish Times‘ 319,000 and The Irish Examiner‘s 238,000. All three newspapers saw declines between 2007 and 2008 however The Irish Times’ was just 1.8% while The Irish Independent and The Irish Examiner were both at 10.9%. The overall readership for all daily newspapers saw a 1.4% decline, so The Irish Times is only slightly below that.

Logically there are many reasons for The Irish Independent’s bad performance, however the impact of its cuts is sure to be one. As the cuts get deeper and the effects of them become more pronounced this level of decline is likely to continue at a far faster pace than it will elsewhere.

In fact I believe if The Irish Times can manage to weather the current storm, and the general issues facing print media, for now it will pass The Irish Independent in readership and circulation by 2014.

Media predictions 2009, Part 4: Total removal of The Irish Times paywall

My fourth Irish media prediction for 2009:

The Irish Times has been quite impressive of late when it comes to its online content, however it is still forcing a subscription on printed content more than a year old. By 2010 I believe this awkward limitation will be gone.

While The Irish Times was an industry leader when it came to online content of any description, up until recently its presence was hindered by the decision to put everything behind a pay-wall. Last year’s move from Ireland.com to IrishTimes.com, and the merging of print and online news-rooms, saw this pay-wall come down on the daily newspaper’s content at least and you can be sure online readership sky-rocketed.

Perhaps of equal significance, there has been an expansion in their breaking/rolling news and blog-based content with some of the ‘paper’s most high-profile journalists regularly contributing online news and comment in addition to their printed work. Some Irish Times staff have even begun Tweeting, showing real enthusiasm and interest in new media and its potential.

However while many journalists are making the most of the company’s latest push to grow online, the appeal of the newspaper’s web-based service is severely limited by the decision to put a price-tag on newspaper content over a year old.

So if someone wishes to read these articles – or even play soduku for that matter – they must pay anything from €10 a day to €395 a year. What is odd about this decision is that it is based on the same flawed logic of the old pay-system used in The Irish Times, only it’s more expensive.

Clearly the company reckons that researchers and readers wishing to access old content will be happy to pay a premium to do so, just like they previously thought they would to read daily content. The fact is, however, that other Irish newspapers offer their content at no cost and while it may not be as user-friendly to search through it is worth it for the savings made. So it’s not a case of paying The Irish Times or not getting what you want, it’s a case of simply spending a bit more time looking elsewhere.

Under these circumstances, The Irish Times cannot truly claim to be the newspaper of record or reference for Ireland today, as its pay-wall does not allow for either. Instead the reference points in an Irish, online context are fast becoming The Irish Independent and The Irish Examiner, both currently below The Irish Times in terms of their websites’ quality but far more attractive simply do to their cost-less nature.

It will become apparent to The Irish Times during 2009 that very few people wish to pay €395+ just to access their archives. Most of their previous subscribers would have left once they found they could get the daily newspaper for free, while researchers and students can access the information and material elsewhere at no cost if they wish to do so.

The Irish Times will probably decide to keep a subscription service on some content but for the most part they will remove it on their articles by December. They will continue to charge for access to their digital archive, along with other premium services such as photo-sales and dating services however I believe all but the oldest printed content will be offered for free to the masses before this year is out.

Media predictions 2009, Part 3: Ireland’s DTT deadline will change

This is my third Irish media prediction for 2009:

At some point in 2009 the Irish Government will accept that the EU-recommended deadline for the digital TV switch-over in 2012 is too ambitious for Ireland to meet. They may do so for their own financial reasons, for the financial reasons of the DTT-contract holder or simply because they have re-assessed the realities of the roll-out but it is already clear that they need to.

Realistically, Ireland has been unlikely to hit the deadline for some time now. Despite this the Department of Communications has repeatedly stated that it can and will switch of the analogue deadline by 2012, along with most if not all of Europe.

The problem is that Ireland still does not have a DTT system, bar a limited trial. In addition to this the company that won the tender has been strangely quiet in recent months on the issue, despite the fact that it initially marked January 2009 as the service’s planned launch date. Boxer’s DTT service is still anticipated to launch at some point in this year, although it is hard to be certain even on this given the recent silence.

There is every possibility that the company will need to re-think its strategy in a very different economic climate to the one that existed when it won the contract and that could have implications for the launch and roll-out time of the eventual service. It could even have implications for the tender process.

At the moment the silence mean any assumption here is just conjecture, however. Perhaps their lack of visible activity is as a result of the hard work they’re doing behind the scenes to get this service off the ground. However even assuming it does get the service out in a timely manner this year, its plan will see DTT become available in a phased basis across the country with total coverage only occurring in 2012. This means that the company will have to establish a service and then ensure total take-up within the same year – and that’s assuming take up is equally strong and prompt in areas covered under early roll-out plans.

One thing Ireland has in its favour is its high rate of households already using paid-for digital systems. Roughly 2/3 of all houses in the country have a Sky or UPC contract, so there are less houses wholly dependent on the analogue broadcasts in question. Equally we have a relatively small population and a relatively small island to cover, so the equipment needed to broadcast should be a little easier to establish nation-wide.

Of course these could be seen as negatives too. If 1/3 of the population has decided against upgrading its service beyond analogue all of these years, it may be difficult to convince them to do so now – even if there is no subscription on the basic package of channels. As well as this we have an extremely low population density by European standards, so more equipment will be needed to cover less people. Finally, assuming that households with an existing digital subscriptions will not be impacted upon by the analogue switch-off is invalid – many households have one Sky or UPC box and a number of other sets around the house using aerials to pick up basic channels.

If you look across to the UK’s roll-out of a DTT service you will see just how hard it is going to be for Ireland to follow suit in such a tight time frame. The UK naturally has more people to cater for and a larger land-mass, however their Freeview service has been up and running since 2002 and had a pre-existing, albeit small, user base left hanging over from the ITV Digital service it replaced.

Since then it has been heavily promoted and the country has already started its digital switch-over campaign in earnest, despite the fact that it is also aiming for 2012 as its final deadline. The first region (the Border between Scotland and England) is already in the process of switching – before Ireland has even started the ball rolling – and despite all of the money spent on awareness campaigns people in the country are complaining about not having enough information or time before the switch.

Ireland is faced with a near-impossible task if it wants to shut down analogue by 2012 – it either has to roll out the service nationally before the end of 2010 and put a huge amount of resources into promoting it afterwards, which it will not, or flick the switch before people have made the move and anger the masses.

Given the current situation one could even bet that there will be no commercial DTT service anywhere in Ireland before 2010 anyway and that no-one will have the money to promote or invest in it as much as they need to once it arrives.

Long story short the boat on a 2012 switch-over passed some time ago. In 2009 I predict the Government will stop pretending it hasn’t.

Media predictions 2009, Part 2: Today/Newstalk merger will be completed

My second Irish media prediction for 2009:

The merger between Newstalk and Today FM is already in its advanced stages, however 2009 will see it be completed on every level.

Since Denis O’Brien’s buy-out of Today FM in late 2007, the linking of both stations has moved at an impressive pace. From a standing start in October of that year the two stations quickly moved to sharing an office block and news-room, while at least some of their respective marketing teams are understood to have merged too.

What I think will come in 2009 is a complete combination of functions like ad sales and marketing, with the stations cross-promoting programming and sharing advert packages, and a slight re-working of each station’s focus to remove conflicts.

This further amalgamation of services and staff will be pushed through as part of an overall cost-cutting exercise in the context of the credit crunch and recession, which has already been the reason given for freelance journalist and programming cuts.

As part of these moves the stations will also need to iron out some kinks in their respective schedules to ensure the services compliment rather than compete with each other.

For the most part that is not really an issue – most time slots have different types of programmes on each station. The only real overlap exists in the 9:00 – 12:00 “morning” slot and the 16:30 – 19:00 “drive-time” slot. For Newstalk they have relative newcomer Tom Dunne in the morning and probably their strongest performer George Hook in drive-time. For Today FM they have the popular Ray D’Arcy in the morning and even more popular Matt Cooper in drive-time.

Exactly what might happen in the morning is tough to call. D’Arcy is regularly one of Today’s best performers in terms of listenership but Tom Dunne is a new arrival to the slot who management may want to give time to find his feet. Of course the station may decide that he isn’t drawing in the crowds quick enough and may move him out of the morning, perhaps even to a time closer to his show’s repeat slot at 22:00. That may depend on how well-performing this repeat programme is.

The drive-time slot is a little bit more predictable. George Hook has done relatively well for Newstalk since it went nationally, certainly far better than any of its other presenters. However The Last Word is regularly competing with RTÉ for the most listened to shows in Ireland and had previously managed to beat the state broadcaster’s time-slot equivalent, Drivetime.

Hook’s show has also been badly impacted upon by the recent cuts made to editorial operations – his team of freelancers and researchers is worn down to the bone. Newstalk won’t want to lose him as a broadcaster but there is no rationale in having him compete with one of Ireland’s strongest shows when he could boost the group’s performance elsewhere.

A palatable option for the station’s bosses would be to make a two-hour gap in the morning and push everything back. This would put Moncrieff on 12:00 – 14:00 and George Hook on 14:00 – 16:30, leaving Off the Ball to air alongside with The Last Word.

The Last Word covers plenty of sports, especially on a Friday, but this move would still give listeners a better choice and remove most of the overlap of content. Equally it could give Off The Ball a better space to improve its loyal fan-base while allowing George Hook to broadcast his show earlier, affording him crucial bragging rights over getting stories first.

The gap could be created by dropping Eamon Keane’s Lunchtime or Tom Dunne’s show, the latter of which would solve both schedule problems at once. Lunchtime (which would have to be renamed, of course) could provide a slightly more newsy counter-balance to Ray D’Arcy while Dunne could move into the 19:00 – 21:00 (or even to 22:00) time to go back into his old Pet Sounds slot, albeit on a different station.

Whatever does happen to the schedule it is unlikely that either station will re-brand as part of the merger – at least not in the near future. Unique management structures will also be maintained at the top, just like they are across the RTÉ stations, but operations below that will be merged or re-worked to allow for greater co-operation.

Effectively, they will be genuine sister-stations by December 2009.

Disclaimer: I’m a relatively regular guest on The Last Word and have guested on Newstalk programming also.

Media predictions 2009, Part 1: End of the Sunday Tribune

I made a few technology predictions in the final Business and Finance of 2008, although truth be told they were more ‘things to watch out for’ than actual predictions. For media, I think there’s room to take a little bit more of a chance.

I will be posting one of my five Irish media predictions each day over the coming week – so here’s the first:

The Sunday Tribune will cease printing.

The demise of The Sunday Tribune has been predicted every year for the last decade (even here) but there are a number of reasons why 2009 is, in my opinion, to see its swan-song.

For a start, Independent News & Media has been getting more impatient with the newspaper in recent years. With the group trying to manage a €1.2bn debt in the current economic turmoil, the well is likely dry when it comes to further loans. Especially when they are as sizable as the ones previously handed out to the Tribune. In other words, the company needs to turn a profit soon as it cannot rely on IN&M to bail it out any more.

Independent News & Media’s debt is not the only problem facing the group. It is no different from other media groups in seeing advertising revenues drop amid the current economic “turmoil” and to make matters worse, it still has Denis O’Brien on its back. O’Brien’s main weapon has been to criticise Tony O’Reilly for his continued investment in unprofitable “vanity projects” like The Independent in London; the cost incurred in keeping the Tribune alive is equally bad for the balance books.

Finally the reason for keeping the Tribune around in the first place no longer exists. It was originally there to act as a buffer to the expansion of Rupert Murdoch’s Irish edition of The Sunday Times but readership and circulation figures shows it has failed miserably in that regard. As it stands its battling it out with the niche Sunday Business Post and relative newcomer The Irish Daily Star On Sunday (the latter part-owned by IN&M, by the way) for 6th, 7th and 8th place out of 10.

There are signs that IN&M haven’t given up the ghost completely – they are said to be moving the Tribune’s operations into its head office on Talbot Street as part of a cost-cutting exercise – but one cannot help but think that this is the beginning of a merger or at best a last swing of the bat.

What’s not in doubt is that the group is planning on selling off assets in order to reduce its debt and make it more sturdy for the months and years ahead. The assets up for grabs are not known yet but they are said to be ‘non-strategic core assets’ and perhaps most importantly those that are loss-making.

The Independent of London is likely to be one such asset – at least that’s what The Sunday Business Post is saying – and it’s hard to see the justification remain for The Sunday Tribune’s future when that happens.

Of course, IN&M could sell the Sunday Tribune rather than just shutter it – at least that way it might re-coup some of the losses it has incurred over the years – but this presents two problems. Firstly, finding a buyer when purse-strings are tight across the industry may not be easy. Secondly, IN&M are unlikely to want to gift a newspaper to a rival, no matter how unprofitable it is, when it is going to have to compete directly with it in the future.

My bet is that it will cease to exist as we know it before the year is out. It may simply shut down, or perhaps “merge” with another IN&M Sunday to become a supplement but for all intensive purposes it will no longer be. IN&M will own the title as part of its loan agreement, of course, and that will ensure the brand never sees the light of day again afterwards.

Thanks to whoever nominated me

The 2009 Irish Blog Awards nominations have been published; the list of nominees is available here.

This blog has been nominated for the category of Best Blog from a Journalist and I’d like to thank whoever put it forward for the category; I’m genuinely delighted someone felt it was worth their time to do so.

A big congratulations to everyone else who was nominated; the list is long but considering the size of the Irish blog community being a part of it puts you in the minority and means someone out there likes what you’re doing.

Technically this list is the long long list; the nominees will be judged by a panel and reduced to a long list and later to a short list. After that a winner will be decided but I’m not sure how; though that will be made clear in the weeks ahead if it hasn’t already.

So best of luck to everyone in the coming weeks as the slightly creamier cream rises to the top of the existing pile of lovely cream. Or something.

My own bet for the Best Blog from a Journalist category would be a toss-up between Jim Carroll’s On The Record and Michael O’Toole’s Crime, Ink.

They’re two very different blogs covering two very different topics in two very different ways. Jim has been so prolific on his site and has mastered the short, sharp and regular blog post. Michael, on the other hand, has posted far less but it has been so enlightening when it comes to the world of Irish crime journalism (and Irish crime in general) that it is always worth the wait.

I’m sure the most deserving site, be it either of the above or another, will win out in the end.

Technology tips to stay ahead in business (B&F, 15th-28th January 2009)

The latest issue of Business & Finance is on the shelves as we speak and on page 50 you will find this fortnight’s technology spot.

As it was the first issue of the new year, a year that many predict will be a tough one, I thought I’d get some tech-savvy experts to talk about what businesses can do to ensure they survive and thrive in 2009.

Space was limited so many thanks to Damien Mulley, Conor O’Neill and Pat Phelan for giving some very useful and concise advice to readers.

The site is due to get a bit of an overhaul in the coming weeks so once it does all my previous B&F articles will be uploaded; as will this one.

Alongside the advice feature is a review of the Lenovo IdeaPad (in short, I quite liked it) and some brief stories on the more interesting news from CES.

The end of a printed State Magazine

As pointed out by Frank via Twitter, State Magazine has announced that it will no longer exist in printed form due to a downturn in advertising revenue.

The tenth issue of the music magazine will instead be available digitally only, while all the company’s focus will switch to the website from now on.

State Magazine had begun life as a paid-for printed monthly, with a strong web-presence backing it up. After a few months the business model shifted to a free, printed monthly magazine with the website becoming more central to its operations; now the site will take over altogether.

It is perhaps not so surprising to see State Magazine cease as a print operation. The high quality of the publication never diminished after it dropped its cover price and this must have been a significant drain on resources. The limited amount of advertising revenue doing the rounds in the current climate would simply have pushed it over the edge.

The financial situation in general is likely to impact upon the Irish media market just as much as it has internationally; State Magazine appears to be the first victim and it’s a safe prediction to say it won’t be the last.