Government Ignores Regional Press Woes

29 Apr 2021 | 02.31 pm

Government Ignores Regional Press Woes

As Covid state aid for radio stations mounts up

29 Apr 2021 | 02.31 pm

These are troubled times for local newspapers, as the Covid-19 pandemic worsens an underlying slow rot in the regional publishing industry. According to Local Ireland, the representative body for 42 local newspapers, advertising revenue in 2020 decreased by more than one-fifth and has fallen by up to 40% so far in 2021.

Covid lockdown and its effect on ad revenue is just the latest in a series of problems to beset regional publishers. The global recession in 2008 and the ongoing migration of advertising to social media and other online platforms have also taken their toll. Sixteen local paid-for newspapers have closed in Ireland since 2010 and employment levels are currently half what they were in 2000.

Bob Hughes (pictured), executive director of Local Ireland, is hoping that The Future of Media Commission (FMC) will defibrillate the ailing sector. Hughes took his role at Local Ireland after a career in local and regional journalism in England, the Press Association, ITN, Reuters, Sky and TV3.

The FMC was established by the government in September 2020 to examine the future of the media in Ireland. In its submission to the FMC, Local Ireland called for a reduction in VAT charged on newspapers and digital content from 9% to 5%, and eventually to 0%, in line with the UK and several other European countries. It also wants government to introduce a digital tax to be levied on digital platforms such as Google and Facebook for using content that originates with regional publishers.

“In a typical month, Local Ireland publishers attract nearly 25 million page views,” says Hughes. “The question now is how to monetise this. Remuneration from the tech platforms for the content we create and that they monetise is absolutely vital.”

Other measures requested by Local Ireland include a new media charge to replace the television licence fee. Local Ireland is also calling on the government and state bodies to advertise more in regional publications, and reform defamation laws to abolish juries and cap damages pay-outs.

According to Hughes: “Local Radio has been allocated millions in state funding to support its Covid coverage. We have had no such support from government, yet we provide an essential public service to our readers in the same market.”

On April 29, the Broadcasting Authority announced payments totalling €2,580,000  to every commercial  radio station in the country. The spurious rationale  is “to promote greater awareness and understanding of the Covid-19 pandemic”. The payments, listed below, range from €37,500 to €100,000 and follow on from a similar €2.5m Covid bailout last December.

The BAI says that over 6,500 hours of content will be broadcast relating to COVID-19 which are sourced, produced and tailored for the various target audiences. This includes adult and youth audiences across broad-format, music-driven and speech-driven services at local, regional and national levels.

Hughes commented that Local Ireland has no issue with the supports allocated to local radio but is disappointed that government has failed to provide similar supports for local news publishers.

“All we are asking for is a level playing field,” he said. “We operate in the same local advertising market as local radio stations and employ more journalists.

“During the Covid crisis in 2020 our advertising revenues fell an average of 22% and tough decisions around cost reductions had to be taken as a consequence. Despite this we have continued to significantly grow our readership and audiences online and deliver an essential service to our communities at a hyperlocal level that no other media can provide.

Unfair Support

“It is clearly unfair that media businesses operating in the same market can receive support while news publishers cannot. Our coverage of the pandemic is as vital to our readers as local radio stations’ coverage is to their listeners. Local news publishers have faced the challenges presented by the last recession and the huge migration of advertising to the major tech platforms like Google and Facebook but the crisis created by Covid requires an exceptional response from government.”

Hughes is hopeful that a mooted new Media Commission, that would subsume the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, could assist with a rescue plan for regional publishing.

“We see the Media Commission as being able to offer news publishers the same kind of supports that the BAI provides to local radio stations to help with training innovation, digital skills, diversity and all of the things that we are keen to develop in local news publishers.”

 

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