Pressed into battle
|Hugh Oram spoke with Vincent Crowley, chief executive of Independent News & Media|
For Vincent Crowley, seated in his top floor office of the Independent News & Media (IN&M) group premises on Talbot Street, it is quite clear who the enemy is – it is Associated Newspapers Ireland, publisher of the Irish Daily Mail, sited over the River Liffey in Ballsbridge.
Crowley returned home from Australia four years ago to take on the job of IN&M's chief executive in Ireland. He had been chief executive of the group's operations in Sydney and played a key role in the restructuring of its Australian and New Zealand interests.
Crowley said that the Irish newspaper market has changed a lot during the past 12 months, with new launches such as the Irish Daily Mail and the advent of the morning freesheet giveaway tussle between the Metro and Herald AM fought out at DART stations and on busy Dublin streets.
The Irish newspaper market has always been among the most competitive in the world but now even more so, Crowley told Marketing. The arrival of Metro and Herald AM last October signalled a new rivalry.
Crowley said that the new freesheets do not appear to be impacting on paid-for titles. They have expanded the market by attracting younger readers who would not normally bother with a newspaper. IN&M says Herald AM is doing well with 5,000-6,000 more copies than Metro.
“Herald AM is beginning to establish itself as a strong medium bringing in new readers”, Crowley said, while admitting the freesheet is still losing money. “But it's part of the Herald package – Herald AM in the morning rush hour and the paid-for Herald from lunchtime onwards.”
IN&M has no plans to jettison the Herald. But Crowley admits that worldwide, evening newspapers are troubled and Dublin is no exception.
Despite falling circulation – weekdays the Herald is now down to 85,000 copies – Crowley still points to its loyal following.
The Herald has a strong solus readership, consumers who buy and read no other daily paper. It also attracts many young readers. On Fridays, the Polski Herald sells up to 30,000 extra copies to the Polish community.
Similar extensions for other groups of immigrants are being considered. At its peak,the Dublin evening newspaper market was shifting 400,000 copies a night. In the North, the group's Belfast Telegraph has grown circulation slightly, prompted by turning into an all-day paper.
Crowley sees the twin-sized approach to the morning Irish Independent staying. Sales are divided between the tabloid and the broadsheet and since there are few extra costs involved in producing the two sizes, it makes sense to keep the two sizes going for the time being at least.
In contrast, the Independent sold in London is exclusively tabloid. The Irish Independent is selling about 163,000 copies a day and recently The Irish Times has been bragging at the Indo's expense, saying that it's been gaining readers while the Indo has seen some loses.
Sales of the Indo are about 17,000 down on the peak it hit just after the launch of the tabloid or compact(comploid) edition two years ago, but Crowley claimed that the morning newspaper market generally is solid and circulation of the Indo remains “rock steady”.
Crowley said that with newspapers it is vital to change to keep up with the times. In many ways over the past 12 months and especially since Gerry O'Regan became editor, the Indo has changed subtly but perceptively in many ways. Evolution, as opposed to revolution.
O'Regan, a feisty Kerryman and former editor of the Star, carries far more sex-related news stories and features, items that his Indo predecessor, the inimitable Vinnie Doyle, would not have entertained.
Crowley had an enigmatic reply when asked whether IN&M planned to sign Kevin Myers from The Irish Times: “It all depends if you believe what you read in the Sunday Business Post“. But sign him they did.
When Crowley talks about extra competition, he does not refer to the titles put out by News International or the Mirror Group, The Irish Times or the Irish Examiner. No the one title he has on his mind is the Mail and he expressed amazement as the Associated Newspapers' title. “I don't see how it makes commercial sense,” Crowley said. “Associated is using the Irish Daily Mail figures to prop up its falling ABC figures in Britain. The real measure of its impact will be when it goes to its full cover price.” But has it affected Indo sales?
So far, the Mail – which some unkind observers say looks like an Argos catalogue – has had no discernible impact on the Indo, but Crowley admits it could have impacted on the red tops.
“I'm never complacent about any new entrant to the market, but we're encouraged by the lack of impact on the Indo to date”. If that's as good as it gets, it won't impinge too much on his night's sleep, even though he says it is going to be “a long game”.
Crowley is also somewhat sceptical about the Irish Daily Mail selling advertising, even though its page colour rate is less than half what the Indo or The Irish Times charges. But clearly, there will be a battle for advertising, as the latest IAPI figures show that growth in press advertising is far more sluggish than for any other medium.
He also points to what has happened with Ireland on Sunday. It is still being promoted, but far less so than before. Crowley points out that cover sales of Ireland on Sunday have fallen back and he questions the Associated approach in the Irish market.
“Ireland on Sunday was a classic example of Associated's model for promoting a launch, but the long term lifeblood of newspapers is editorial content, not free CDs or DVDs,” Crowley said.
In the end, everything comes down to the quality of the editorial product. The IN&M approach is to turn itself into a low cost operator, with the extra funding being put into editorial.
Crowley touched on how Ireland's newspaper industry has become more cost efficient in recent years, mirroring what IN&M has done in recent years in stripping out redundant costs in back office operations.
Crowley stresses the big difference between the dailies and Sundays.
With the dailies, consumers are set in their ways and it is hard for publishers to change the habit of people buying just the one title.
The Sunday market is much more fluid. Many consumers will buy several newspapers and it easier for publishers to launch products. Crowley is happy the Sunday Star has taken wings and defied the critics.
IN&M shares a 50 per cent stake in the Irish Star with Express Newspapers. The Sunday World has made lots of changes, disposed of its printing works in Terenure and moved to the IN&M HQ in Talbot Street.
After some difficult years, World circulation has recovered slightly and with little DVD-type promotions. In the North, the paper sells about 66,000 copies, with sales up five per cent in the past year and that despite boycotts and other moves against it by some loyalists.
A success tussle is said to loom at the Sunday Independent as to who will replace Aengus Fanning as editor. “People buy it week in, week out – regardless of provocations”, Crowley said and that includes the Sindo front page treatment of Liam Lawlor's death in a Moscow car crash last autumn, which caused considerable ethical outrage.
“The Sunday Independent has very thought-provoking journalism but at the same time, a lightness of touch,” Crowley added with no sign of irony. The regional landscape has seen major changes in recent years with the market seeing a host of UK groups buying up local titles.
UK groups like the Naas-based Johnston Press, run by former IN&M marketing director, Barry Brennan, have joined the fray. In reply, IN&M have made some brand extensions. Two years ago, the Wexford People was extended with the launch of the Carlow People.
IN&M developed the Fingal Independent out of the Drogheda Independent. While other similar plans for regional extensions are not on the cards for the foreseeable future, the group is exploring other options.
Thomas Crosbie Holdings, run by the Crosbie family in Cork and owners of the Irish Examiner, have been busy buying regionals too, as has Alpha, owned by former Unionist MP, John Taylor, now Lord Kilclooney.
Crowley sees a beefing up of IN&M online activities, through the unison.independent news website and the recently launched Loadza classified portals, now ranked number two in its market.
IN&M recently bought the Property News website and monthly publication in the North, which covers the border counties. The deal is going through the process of Competition Authority approval.
There is speculation in media that in the longer term, IN&M could become a producer of broadcast content for the internet, as it develops online interests in tandem with the print channels.
But while Crowley would like to see online development running in tandem with the group's newspapers, he does not foresee a time when newspapers will abandon newsprint entirely in favour of online.
There is still a lot of life left in the printed product and it is not just veterans who like reading newspapers. As Metro and Herald AM have proven since their arrival on the Dublin market, given the right offer, younger consumers can be enticed into the paper chase.
Hugh Oram is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Marketing.