Irish newspapers face a tough path back to viability

By David Murphy, Business Editor

The unusual deal to save the newspapers and radio stations forming part of the Irish Examiner group shines a light into the core of the troubled newspaper industry.

Most revealing were the figures at the Sunday Business Post, now in examinership.

The newspaper had revenue of €15.6m in 2007, but by last year it had collapsed to €7.4m. Weekly circulation dropped from 53,000 in 2007 to 39,000 in 2012.

Its problems are not unique. Irish newspapers face falling circulation, recession-hit advertising revenue, and financial obligations which date back to the boom.

Aside from the fallout from the bombed-out economy, there looms the threat of the internet. This makes the restructuring challenge even more complicated.

Newspapers have two types of content: news stories which appear everywhere across the news media, and content that is unique to each paper; such as the views and analysis of columnists.

Until now, Irish newspapers have put up both categories on the web for free.

There are many fine journalists employed at Irish papers whose unique voices bring rigorous scrutiny to current affairs – fulfilling an important role in shaping and contributing to public debate. But if newspapers are to survive, a way must be found of charging consumers to access that content.

One of the first to grasp that nettle was the Sunday Business Post.

Although it does offer free access to news stories on its website, its newspaper’s content lies behind a paywall. The Post’s editor Cliff Taylor told RTÉ’s News at One that it now has 1,500 readers paying for online access.

The Irish Times and Independent News & Media are also working on plans to shield more content behind a paywall at some point this year.

But there are significant challenges with charging for content online. A generation of readers has the habit of reading news for free. Papers also face threats from news aggregators and broadcasters, including RTÉ, which provide substantial content online.

But it is the unique content of newspapers which has the key to their future and the answer may come from a look towards Central Europe.

Publishers in Slovakia and Slovenia have launched national paywalls which, for a small monthly fee, allows readers to access a wide range of mainstream newspapers.

Revenue is distributed on the basis of which newspapers are most read and, by offering readers more than one paper, consumer reluctance to pay for content is broken.

Selling adverting online doesn’t create enough revenue to pay for quality journalism and giving away an expensive product for free does not lay the foundation for a stable business.

That is something that will have to be fixed.