Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Rural newspapers remain strong in Ireland

By Bill Reader, journalism professor, Ohio University
Academic partner, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

DUBLIN, Ireland – Print newspaper readership remains strong throughout rural Ireland despite the growth of online media and the ravaging of the local newspaper industry after the 2008 collapse of the “Celtic Tiger” economic bubble, according to the director of the national organization representing rural weekly newspapers.

An estimated one-third of the 4.5 million residents of the Republic of Ireland read a print newspaper every week, and community weeklies serving the predominantly rural country enjoy high levels of trust and value, according to research commissioned by Local Ireland, which has a membership of about 50 “newspapers of record” across all 26 counties. Circulations vary, but the average Irish weekly is between 8,000 and 9,000 per week, and Local Ireland’s members range in circulation from 5,500 to 22,000 per week.

In rural Ireland, about three-fourths of residents
say getting the local newspaper is a tradition in
the home, according to the Local Ireland trade
group of community weeklies. (Image courtesy
of Local Ireland/Regional Newspapers & Printers
Association of Ireland)
Gone, though, are the heady days before 2008, when Ireland’s economy was booming, rural newsrooms were fully staffed, and thick weekly editions were brimming with ads, said Johnny O’Hanlon, director of Local Ireland and a former editor of The Anglo-Celt in County Cavan. After the 2008 economic crash, newsroom staffs were reduced dramatically, pension funds were folded, local job-printing all but dried up, and independently owned papers that had been in families for generations were sold to larger publishing groups. “In a word, it was ‘carnage’,” O’Hanlon said.

But the belt-tightening was able to save the vast majority of Local Ireland’s member newspapers from shutting down, and the community press in Ireland remains strong largely due to audience loyalty. About a third of the population reads a local newspaper every week, more than 75 percent consider their local weekly to be well worth the cover price (which approaches US$3 in some cases), and 63 percent trust their paid local weekly more than free news sources, according to Local Ireland’s most recent survey data.

Although that survey data is dated (2011, just as Ireland’s economy was starting to creep out of depression), O’Hanlon said the rural newspaper industry remains popular across most demographic groups. One surprising detail from the 2011 survey was the relatively high percentage of regular readers who are young adults — 30 percent of community newspaper readers are aged 18 to 34.

“We keep hearing ‘print is dead’ and ‘young people don’t read newspapers,’ but that’s just not the case here,” O’Hanlon said. “We were surprised ourselves at the number of young people who buy newspapers.”

Most of Local Ireland’s members publish online too, but just like newspapers around the world, they are finding it difficult to monetize online content, especially given that there remains a consistent demand for ink-on-paper news and advertising; 72 percent of those surveyed agreed that “It’s a tradition in our house to have a copy of the weekly local newspaper in our house to read,” and that copy is kept in the house for an average of nearly 6 days before it is tossed or recycled.

The persistent popularity of Ireland’s weeklies belies significant changes behind the scenes. In addition to deep staffing cuts since the economic collapse, most weeklies also have shut down and sold their presses, such that now only one Local Ireland member still prints its own newspaper — the rest are printed at a handful of commercial printers around the country, O’Hanlon said. A number of mergers and acquisitions also have consolidated ownership into several small-to-medium-sized newspaper groups. Iconic Newspapers now hold 12 newspapers and Celtic Media Group has six.

Several of Ireland’s regional weeklies are owned by global giant Independent News and Media, publisher of Ireland’s largest national daily, the Irish Independent (the “Indo”), and some 200 other print titles around the world.

Those consolidations have not diminished competition, however. Most of Ireland’s 26 counties have two or more newspapers, as the community press in Ireland is focused on counties rather than individual cities and towns. As a result, the market remains competitive for advertising, news, and readers.

As with the community press throughout much of the world, Ireland’s community newspaper sector is investing in online and mobile delivery of news, and many in the industry can see a future, albeit distant, in which rural Irish newspaper readers will rely more on pixels than print. “We don’t have our heads in the sand about that,” O’Hanlon said. “But print is likely to remain strong for another 10 years at least, I think.”

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