With its pre-budget calls for VAT reductions on newspapers and taxpayer funded schemes, the recent NewsBrands Ireland #JournalismMatters campaign sounds more like a plaintive SOS than a viable plan for the future of the Irish newspaper industry.
The scale of this decline is evident when we consider that daily sales of Ireland’s biggest selling newspaper the Irish Independent have gone from 152,000 in 2008 to 87,000 in 2018. Neither has the conscience of liberal Ireland – the Irish Times – been spared; over the same period its sales fell from 114,000 to 60,000. All of this happened against the backdrop of significant population increase over the same period.
While newspapers have, in part, compensated for this fall in sales by adding online readers, the reality is that people remain notoriously reluctant to pass paywalls. Even when they do, online readers return far less revenue than their traditional newspaper reader counterparts.
An essential part of the newspaper industry’s pitch for special treatment is that it performs a vital public service by facilitating public debate. In today’s media environment, where media ownership and journalists themselves are anything but diverse, pedalling the myth of the fourth estate has become little more than a sick joke.
Journalists are slow to remind readers that it was the media and the newspaper industry in particular which were amongst the most enthusiastic cheerleaders in talking up property prices in the run up to the 2008 property crash. This was because they were making so much money from the related advertising revenue.
It is hardly surprising, therefore, that trust in journalists is low. In a poll conducted by the Claire Byrne Show in 2017, just 27% of people said that they trusted the Irish media. This puts journalists close to the bottom of the pile in terms of public trust in Ireland.
The media bias displayed in the recent abortion referendum may well help to explain these low trust ratings. In a survey conducted by the new-ireland.com website during the campaign, people were asked whether they believed the media generally favoured one side or the other in the referendum to repeal the eighth amendment.
In response, 42% said that the media favoured a yes vote while just 28% said the media was broadly neutral. Whatever delusions the media industry may harbour about its role in facilitating free and fair debate, it would appear that the general public view journalists more as campaigners than facilitators of public debate.
The role of media bias may well be an important factor in the declining fortunes of newspapers and the media industry. In the same survey, people were asked about the importance of perceived media bias in determining their own media consumption habits. A significant number – 37% – stated that media bias was an important factor in determining their media consumption habits.
The newspaper industry likes to portray itself as the hapless victim of the new tech revolution over which it has no control. Indeed, blaming new tech for its declining fortunes has become the standard excuse for the newspaper industry. However, this fails to take account of the fact that new tech has affected virtually every work environment over the last 30 years and not just journalism.
As in most work areas, journalism has had to adapt and it is worth considering publications such as thejournal.ie in this context. Less newspaper and more social media platform, The Journal is infused with a ‘socially progressive’ narrative which influences not just the stories it covers but their treatment also.
It seems that this narrative even extends to include The Journal’s readers’ comments section. Going by the comments of posters at any rate, it would appear that it is not uncommon for comments to be deleted for no other reason than they don’t conform to The Journal’s own exacting liberal narrative! So much for the brave new world of Irish journalism…
Groupthink, not new tech, may well be Irish journalism’s biggest problem. In fact, if you want to see latter day seminaries then look no further than Ireland’s schools of journalism. Here, the imperative seems to be to take people from similar backgrounds with similar outlooks and mould them into ‘journalists.’
So what does it mean to be a journalist in 21st century Ireland? The Irish Journalist Today, a study by Kevin Rafter and Stephen Dunne from DCU provides a fascinating under-the-bonnet insight into this area based on surveys of working journalists.
This study confirms the widely held perception that journalists are politically to the left of the general population. This will hardly come as a surprise to any observer of the media in Ireland.
Another interesting finding relates to the relative youth of journalists. In 1997, 55% of journalists were in the 25-44 age category; twenty years later, this had increased to 68%. This would suggest significant movement by journalists in to other work areas in their thirties and early forties.
The notion of the veteran news reporter holding all to account may well be an attractive one but it seems to have given way to that of a younger freelance journalist who, in time, may well be on the lookout for a ‘real job.’
Going by some of the recent high profile journalistic career switches, it would appear that careers in political ‘communications,’ spin or PR are increasingly the natural homes for journalists.