The local newspaper industry is going through a torrid time at the moment, with circulation falls, title and edition closures and redundancies. And, while there are likely to be more tough times ahead, writes Ciaran O’Neill, there are also reasons to be optimistic.
Tucked away in a box at the back of my attic is a small piece of paper which gives me much hope for the future of the local newspaper industry.
It’s a laminated copy of an article which appeared in the Derry Journal newspaper over 30 years ago.
The article is about the Chapel Road Primary School team which won the Derry Schools 5-a-side football competition in 1981.
This, of course, will mean nothing to you, but it means the world to me.
That little piece of paper represents the first time that my picture ever appeared in my local newspaper.
Well, in truth, it wasn’t actually the first time, but it was the first I could remember.
Having had the misfortune to have been born on Christmas Day, I and a few other December 25 babies also made it to the pages of the Journal in December 1971.
A copy of that newspaper is treasured by my mother and will probably be passed on to my children.
And there, I would argue, is the crux of what makes local newspapers so important.
They are there to highlight and capture events of importance to people in their local area.
They may not be ‘important’ events, but they certainly are of importance to the people involved.
Is there any other form of media that can capture, or is willing to capture, these moments in such an everlasting way?
No daily newspaper, radio station or TV crew would have turned up to cover the final of our schools football competition all those years ago.
And I think my mother would have had something to say if a TV or radio crew had appeared on the scene to cover my entry into the world.
However, this is exactly the type of coverage that makes good local newspapers such a key part of their communities and why I think they will remain in place for many years to come.
I would stress, however, that the most important word in that last sentence is ‘good’.
There are too many local newspapers in the market at present, many of which are of a poor quality, something I have discovered on my travels over the years.
To my wife’s annoyance, the first thing I do when we go somewhere new is buy as many local newspapers as I can from the nearest shop.
She can’t understand why I would be interested in news about an area I don’t even know.
I try to explain to her my obsession with checking out the competition and seeing if there are any ideas I can nick.
During the many years of my obsession, I have worked my way through hundreds of papers throughout the UK and Ireland.
We can certainly be proud of the fact that we have so many fantastic local papers.
However, there are some stinkers out there.
Some of the newspapers I have come across, including ones that have been around for many years, look as if they have been written, edited and designed by a bunch of primary school kids.
As well as doing a disservice to their readers, I believe these papers are clogging up the market for the good papers out there.
If a lot of these papers were taken out of the market, it would leave more space for the better publications to survive and prosper.
Therefore, in some ways, we have a lot to thank this recession for.
Many local newspapers have closed in recent years and this was obviously a difficult experience for everyone involved with these businesses.
However, I believe these closures, and the many more that will no doubt happen in the coming years, will even out the market and allow those papers left standing to once again become essential reading within their local communities.
The Derry media scene
My own home city is a good example of the current overcrowding in the local newspaper market.
Derry is a city with a population of around 100,000 people.
It has always been what could be described as a ‘newsy’ city.
It is regarded as the birthplace of the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s, a precursor to the outbreak of the Troubles.
Indeed, Derry witnessed some of the worst incidents during the northern Irish conflict, including Bloody Sunday in 1972 when 13 people were shot dead by soldiers during a civil rights protest in the city.
Derry is also home to prominent political leaders such as John Hume and Martin McGuinness.
It has also been granted the title of the UK’s inaugural City of Culture in 2013 and great excitement is building ahead of next year’s celebrations.
Not surprisingly, over the years, Derry has always had a busy media landscape.
The city currently has three local newspapers, which in total publish six papers a week.
The Derry Journal, which was first published in 1772, has three editions, on Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays.
The Londonderry Sentinel, which dates back to 1829, is published on Wednesdays.
And my own newspaper, the Derry News, a relative newcomer on the scene which was first published in 2001, comes out on Mondays and Thursdays.
So that means a newspaper is published in the city every day of the week except Saturdays.
You may think that it would be difficult to fill all these pages.
However, speaking for my own part, we rarely struggle to fill the pages of the Derry News, which usually contains 64 pages on Mondays and 80 pages on Thursdays.
The news is certainly out there. However, are the customers still out there?
The latest ABC figures show that the circulation of the Derry Journal’s papers stand at 14,381 (Tuesday), 16,721 (Friday) and 2,557 (Sunday).
This is a drop in sales in comparison with the same time the previous year of 9.3%, 8% and 1.6% respectively for each paper.
The latest circulation figures for the Derry News stand at 6,035 for the Monday edition and 5,919 for the Thursday paper.
This is a 1.7% rise in sales for the Monday edition and a 1% rise for Thursday’s paper when compared with the previous year.
According to the ABC figures, the Londonderry Sentinel now sells 4,056 copies a week, a drop of 8.9% from the previous year.
These figures show that almost 50,000 local newspapers are sold each week in a city with a population of 100,000 people.
Not bad going but the figures also show that for the main, sales are dropping.
For me, six papers a week in a city of Derry’s size is too many.
If I was a betting man (which I am), I would predict that at least half of these editions will disappear within the next five years.
I believe that both the Derry Journal and Derry News will eventually move to publishing only one edition a week.
Given its history and importance to the Protestant community in Derry, which it mainly serves, it would be sad to see the demise of the Londonderry Sentinel but, speaking from a cold hard business point of view, it looks like it will face a major struggle to survive in a print format.
If these predictions come true, Derry will see its current six local papers a week cut to two.
Again, this will be a difficult process for all involved and will inevitably lead to job losses and other cutbacks.
However, my argument is that once this process has taken place in every area, the local newspaper market will have evened out and will be a lot stronger for it.
We will then, hopefully, return to the times when the publication of the local newspaper, usually once a week, was a big event in the local community.
It was a chance to find out who appeared in court, what happened at council meetings, who married who, who had a new baby and who, like my own childhood experience, had won the local schools football competition.
However, for those lucky enough to remain in the local newspaper industry in the years ahead, it will be their responsibility to make sure that the papers produced are good enough.
There’s that word ‘good’ again.
Produce a rubbish paper and people will not want to buy it or advertise in it.
On the other hand, produce a good paper, packed with local news, sport and photographs, and people will buy it and businesses will want to advertise in it.
So the onus is on all of us working within the local newspaper industry to work towards this goal.
If we do, the papers left standing after the further expected closures will have a strong future.
If we don’t, then the prophets of doom will have been proven right about the demise of local papers.
So, while we all know there are more difficult years ahead for the local newspaper industry, I, for one, can see a light at the end of the tunnel.
Whether or not I’m still on the train when it reaches the end of the tunnel is a different matter.
However, whatever I’m doing 20 years from now, I am very confident that a photographer from my local newspaper will be along to take a picture at my retirement party.
I will then buy the following week’s edition, laminate the photo and add it to my collection in the attic.