I’ve just completed a chapter for the second edition of an important book on local journalism in the UK and Ireland, entitled What Do We Mean By Local? Grass-Roots Journalism – Its Death And Rebirth, edited by John Mair, Neil Fowler and Ian Reeves. The first edition was published in 2011 and the next edition is due out in September, published by Abramis UK. Below I include an extract from my chapter, examining Irish local newspapers, and their difficulties. I also include some graphs of circulation among paid-for titles between 2007 and 2012.
We Are Where We Are
Ireland’s regional weekly newspapers, once owned in the main by a collection of wealthy merchant families located in the country’s prosperous market towns and cities, changed dramatically in the years either side of the new millennium in 2000. New printing techniques saw first the proliferation of colour, and later the merging of presses. Ireland’s Celtic Tiger economic boom lead to the sale of a number of titles for multi-million euro sums, and the consolidation of up to three quarters of the market by major players including Independent News and Media, Thomas Crosbie Holdings, Celtic Media and Johnston Press.
For a short while, it appeared as though newspapers had a licence to print money as double digit ad growth fuelled almost exclusively by Ireland’s out-of-control property market continued unabated. However, it all came to a sudden, shuddering halt in 2007 when Ireland’s Tiger economy collapsed, plunging the country into the deepest recession in its history. There were, of course, external factors such as the worldwide slowdown contributing to the collapse, but Ireland’s heavy reliance on its property market exacerbated the difficulties considerably. For newspapers, the house of cards their future circulation projections and ad growth assumptions had been built on simply crumpled.
It is, perhaps, an overused metaphor, but describing the steep falls in sales – and the concurrent drop in advertising – for almost all Irish regional titles as tsunami-like is certainly apt. In December 2007, weekly circulation sales of 46 local titles totalled 475,000 according to Audited Bureau of Circulations data. The drop in circulation since then has varied somewhat between titles but on average regional newspaper sales have fallen by about 30 per cent up to December 2012. The worst hit have had circulation drops of almost half. The following tables lists the newspapers with the largest circulation declines between 2007 and 10, and those that remained with audited circulation by 2012.
Newspapers that surround the capital, Dublin, in what is known as the commuter-belt, have fared particularly badly. As well as the Leinster Leader and Leinster Express above, the Meath Chronicle, which circulates north west of Dublin city, lost 35 per cent of its circulation. Up to 2010 the Fingal Independent and Bray People – just north and south of the capital respectively – lost 30 per cent each. There are a variety of reasons for this, but it is certain that the recession has had a significant impact. A major increase in unemployment has left many families living in commuter areas struggling to pay bills, and tens of thousands are in negative equity.
A local newspaper, therefore, is perhaps considered an avoidable expense. Demographics are also a likely contributory factor. By their very nature, families in commuter belts tend to be new arrivals to the areas they live in, with little or no attachments to the local communities – and, arguably, even less attachment to local newspapers. Changing readership habits have also likely contributed to the decline. The age profile – many are young couples in their 20s and 30s – corresponds to those least likely to buy newspapers.
But it is not just in the east that local newspapers have lost circulation. Throughout the country local newspapers have lost on average 5 per cent circulation per year between 2007 and 2012, though even before the economy collapsed, there were warning signs that local newspapers were facing difficulties.
In the early 2000s, more than a dozen local paid-for titles had circulations of 20,000 or more, and despite bumper weekly issues, and a 16 per cent increase in population between 1996 and 2006 circulation was actually dropping slowly. Circulation began to free-fall in 2007, and by 2011, just one newspaper – the Connacht Tribune – had a circulation above 20,000. No data for the Tribune was published in 2012 by the ABC, but the majority for which there was data had circulations at or below 10,000 copies. The Limerick Leader, which dropped nearly 38 per cent since 2007, was the highest selling local newspaper at 13,420 weekly sales, and just two others broke 10,000 weekly sales, while the average was just 7,600 copies. If current circulation trends – roughly 5 per cent declines per year – continue, local weeklies have about a decade left before they will become extinct. It is difficult to see how any newspaper could survive once sales fall below 5,000 copies weekly.
But even accumulating hard data on circulation is proving difficult as many have pulled out of the ABC process entirely. Just 20 Irish regional titles had their circulation audited in the July to December 2012 period. Since 2010, the number of newspapers that are included in the audited ABC local newspaper report has fallen by almost 60 per cent. While there is no substantially verifiable evidence to show why, it is likely that newspaper managements took the decision in part because of the cost, but in the main because local advertisers do not pay much attention to circulation, and agency buyers are spending less and less on print – especially local print – so a certified circulation really doesn’t hold the value it used to. The bragging rights are also gone – nobody is boasting about circulation anymore.