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Opinion: What do traditional newspapers have to do to survive?

Dumbing down their content, pursuing ‘edgy’ stories over quality journalism, are not wise decisions, writes Paul Allen.

Paul Allen

BRYAN DOBSON HAS confessed it was the heady mix of “risk and ratings” that led RTE to “devour good editorial practice.” This ‘lapse’ resulted in the Fr Reynolds’ libel case and sparked the biggest crisis of conscious the station has ever faced.

The pursuit of “edgy” journalism was fundamentally to blame, according to Dobson. This is a pressure all traditional media outlets know only too well as they try to grab the attention of consumers amid the growing pervasiveness of digital media. And like watching dads dance at the wedding of their youthful offspring, the result is often embarrassing.

But while broadcasters are struggling to adapt, it is the traditional print media where alarm bells are ringing loudest. Indeed, Ireland’s main newspapers are being forced to embrace an ‘evolve or die’ strategy before all is lost.

Innovation

However, while The Irish Times was one of the first newspapers to develop an online presence and has made several bold, if unsuccessful, moves as part of its digital strategy over the past two decades, the Irish Independent had been somewhat of a laggard.

So why after years of ignoring innovation and having a website that is still years behind the curve, is the Irish Independent and its sister newspapers suddenly realising the need to carve out a digital strategy?

One look at the circulation figures and it is easy to understand why.

Since 2009 the country’s biggest selling paper, The Sunday Independent lost nearly 20% in circulation, falling from 272,174 to 220,565, according to figures from the National Newspapers of Ireland (comparing Jan-June 2009 and Jan-June 2014).

Ireland’s biggest selling daily newspaper, the Irish Independent had 26% wiped off its circulation of 152,204 (it is now 112,383). The Irish Times lost almost 30% as it plummeted from 114,488 to 80,332 in those same years.

During this time period, sales across the board of daily Irish newspapers dropped from 632,985 to 501,937. This is even more worrying when you consider that in 2009 seven titles were tracked, whereas the 2014 figures include eight titles (thanks to the addition of the Herald, which made the switch from evening to daily).

So, it is no surprise there is panic in newspaper boardrooms throughout the country.

New strategies

In response Independent News and Media (INM) is set to eliminate one-in-eight editorial jobs from its national titles (Irish Independent, Herald and Sunday Independent) as it fundamentally restructures its operations around one central content hub. All editorial will flow from this central source into its various print and online titles.

It will be interesting, with all content coming from a central source, if the titles can maintain their individual editorial personalities.

The Irish Times, meanwhile, is set to end free access to its site and surround its online content with a paywall. And while online paywalls won’t make up for the shortfall in the revenue the industry has lost over the past decade, they are at least a step towards newspapers trying to develop an online model that is economically viable.

Despite the sense of gloom, while newspapers or broadcasters will never regain their dominance in the media landscape, they can remain relevant in today’s technology-driven world.

Flexibility and a willingness to experiment with new methods are likely to be the factors that determine whether traditional media survives or falters. But they must not lose sight of the very values that have been at the core of their operations for generations.

Though different audiences may have different preferences, the demand for quality journalism, in-depth reporting and insightful commentary remains the same. It is through providing this content and serving their readership, both offline and online, that traditional media organisations will remain relevant.

In this context, dumbing down their content, pursuing ‘edgy’ stories over quality journalism or providing shoddy online versions of their offline products, are not strategically wise decisions.

And while the media landscape is continually evolving and providing challenges, those in newspaper and broadcast boardrooms need to remember video has still not managed to kill the radio star.

Paul Allen is managing director of Paul Allen and Associates PR. Follow his blog here.

Does the media spin the big stories because of ‘who pays the piper’?>

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