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September 13, 2004-In 1999 at the height of the dot com hysteria, a hubristic James Cramer, a founder of the US thestreet.com financial website lost the run of himself and bragged at a conference: every week we receive thousands of dollars in revenue from eager and willing buyers who thirst for original material on the Web and get it nowhere else. It is a very winning model. In fact, next year will be the year when these free sites began to cannibalize the paid, hard-copy versions, and you will see a margin decline that will knock your socks off. The dead-tree competitors are trapped and we are coming in for the kill.
The prey escaped Cramer's net and with advances in printing technology, the rise of the Internet has coincided with the dead-tree players providing readers with a much greater quantity of newsprint. Whether quality matches quantity is debateable. A Sunday Times reader confessed to me recently that he feels guilty when he doesn't have the time to read the bulk of the multi-sectioned newspaper. Guilty for not getting value for spending €2! It is however, an interesting reaction. In my opinion, the only newspaper supplement that has the quality to stand alone on a newsstand is the Financial Times FT Magazine, which is available with the newspaper's Saturday edition. It is edited by John Lloyd who is a former editor of the UK weekly magazine, The New Statesman. Lloyd is an accomplished journalist and he provides a mix of challenging articles on international issues, profiles/interviews, arts and book reviews.
Newspaper circulation increased in 2003 in only 35 of 208 countries, with developing countries accounting for much of the growth. Western Europe registered a fall in circulation numbers, according to an analysis by Agence France Presse (AFP). Circulation slumped by an average of 2.2% across 13 of the 15 countries which made up the European Union before May 1, 2004, with 1.4 million fewer newspaper copies sold per day. The most serious declines were in Ireland, down 7.8%, UK with a 4.7% decrease, and Portugal, where reader numbers fell by 4.0%. In Ireland this month (September 2004), the industry body National Newspapers of Ireland (NNI) has been running short of superlatives in its claims of a 'massive' increase in Irish newspaper readership. I have serious doubts about a survey which claims that an average of 3 people read every copy of a newspaper that's sold. Besides the potential for lying in response to a question on reading newspapers to avoid being viewed as ignorant, there is compelling anecdotal evidence that reading a newspaper is not everyone's cup of tea. Nevertheless, here is an extract from the NNI press release which was written for an advertising agency audience:
More than 3 million adults now read a newspaper in a typical week. That's the main finding in the latest Joint National Readership Survey (JNRS), covering the 12 months from July 2003 to June 2004, which was published today.
The report highlights a huge increase in readership of newspapers, with 19 out of 20 adults (i.e. aged 15+) now reading newspapers. The report also shows that daily newspapers have attracted a staggering 136,000 additional readers in the past 12 months, while Sunday 'papers have picked up 135,000 new readers in the same period.
of 15-24 year olds read the average issue of a newspaper
Newspapers Past Passive Role
While traditional media in Ireland has remained stable during the rise of the Internet which also coincided with an unprecedented economic boom, the web has developed as a popular alternative to the mainstream media. RTE, the State broadcaster dominates broadcast media while there is not a significant variation in the coverage of issues by the main non-tabloid newspapers. RTE has been the leader in investigative reporting despite pressure from politicians while the disclosures of widespread corruption at public tribunals confirms that all the newspapers played a passive role during a period of extensive wrongdoing by public officials and business individuals. The broadcaster and journalist Vincent Browne was one of the rare media individuals who stood up to political boss Charles Haughey. The newspapers feared libel claims from Haughey if his corruption was exposed but would he have dared have his dirty linen exposed at the height of his power? There was plenty incriminating material available which a united newspaper front could have published.
Haughey was supported by a significant sector of the population who assumed that he was corrupt but it didn't matter to them. Now after years of revelations of wrongdoing, the corruption tribunals are having little impact on the public. Is there an appetite for more investigation of public wrongdoing and abuse of power?
New Current Affairs Magazine
In early October, the broadcaster and journalist Vincent Browne plans to launch a new current affairs magazine Village which he has said will 'disturb the cosy consensus in Irish society' through quality investigative reporting. The weekly tabloid style publication comprising 80 pages will have operating costs of about €50,000 per issue week and will be published on a Saturday morning. The target circulation is 20,000 copies each week. The magazine will also have syndicated book reviews and other non-political features. However given Browne's long association with coverage of politics, it will be primarily viewed as a current affairs weekly. Is Village going to fill a void in the market?We wish Browne well. He has taken on a significant challenge. 'Quality investigative reporting' doesn't come cheap, which must be the reason why Irish newspapers allocate insignificant resources to it. The new magazine will likely depend largely on freelance journalists, paid by article while material such as US book reviews is easily available online for those who are interested. Good content depends on good research. Can it provide compelling material that is not available in so many other publications?
There is a contemporary pattern of journalism where a reader can end up with more questions than answers. We see extensive material on lawyers becoming millionaires but I have not yet seen the breakdown of a lawyer's hourly charge. For example take a one-person business determining an hourly charge rate for a service: of 40 hours available each week, say 30 are chargeable to customers; in a year of say 45 available weeks, the number of chargeable hours would be 1,355. Then annual costs- salary, administration, rent and other overhead costs- would be divided by 1,355 to give the chargeable rate. Without this breakdown, hired spokespersons arguing the case in the media get away with excuses. Another example is income lists provided under the Freedom of Information Act. A Donegal dentist earns nearly €300,000 in public fees. What does this figure mean? Is it just for one individual plus support staff?
One aspect of public life which Village is unlikely to change, is the lack of accountability of Government Ministers. The photo opportunity cum door step interview is regarded as accessibility while the Dáil Eireann (Lower House of Irish Parliament) format protects Ministers from detailed examination of their performances. The Taoiseach (Prime Minister) and other Ministers can go through an electoral cycle without having to face any probing questions on their performances. For example, the Tánaiste (Deputy Prime Minister) gets staff to write articles under her name, promoting her mantra on low taxes while ignoring key failures in areas of her ministerial brief. Has anyone asked her what's happening on her line on land rezoning last May and a threat of a Competition Authority investigation? : 'In this manifesto, we are... committed to ending private windfall profits arising from re-zoning decisions.'
It remains to be seen as to whether about 5% of purchasers of the main dailies on a Saturday- all multi-sectioned- will have sufficient appetite and reading time for Village. Vincent Browne currently has weekly columns in two newspapers as well as a four-nightly radio political programme. His views are well known and the bar is higher today than when he founded Magill magazine, which is also about to have a rebirth. The mask has already been lifted from the ugly face of Irish society and the Internet provides access to a huge range of interesting information. The challenge is to produce a publication each week that is much more than another clone of Vincent Browne, while providing a fresh insight into public affairs that cannot be just browsed through free at a newsstand.