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.

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