Future of the Northern Ireland media

media-landscapeCommentators and journalists from across the media share their thoughts on the way ahead for the sector at an agendaNi seminar.

‘Content is king’ for ensuring high quality in the future of the media, according to well-informed observers.  agendaNi has held a seminar on Northern Ireland’s changing media landscape, which brought together a range of viewpoints of print journalists, broadcast managers and social media consultants.

“If you see something in a newspaper that you like, tell people and encourage them to buy it,” said Tony Axon as he called for good, credible content to be promoted in the media.  Axon is Media Director for Belfast advertising agency Navigator Blue and is a well known media commentator.

In the technological rush, many media owners had not realised that giving away content for free devalues the whole product.  PR was also a “curse” on journalism and media content and consumers were turning into sceptics, with twitter adding to society’s cynicism.  Axon expected government regulation of social media, with the Obama Administration taking the lead.

We are currently living in the “world’s first over-communicated society” where every person is receiving far too much information to take in, he stated.  This created a “glittering haze” of fragmented sources of information.  The rapid proliferation of media technologies has been driven by technology not consumer interest.

According to his estimates, Northern Ireland’s advertising expenditure currently totals £160 million: £78 million in print (49 per cent), £53 million on TV (33 per cent), £15 million on radio (9 per cent) and the remainder in outdoor, cinema and online formats.

A surprisingly high share of adults (50 per cent) watch two hours of UTV each day.  Sixty-five per cent buy newspapers and 40 per cent buy dailies.  The local press is still strong in Northern Ireland and  comprises 53 weekly papers.

The News Letter “knows its readership almost better than any other paper I know” but that readership was reducing in size.  The Irish News was “very successful at breaking stories and finding themes that we find interesting” and had “excellent” business coverage.

With nine locally-based commercial radio stations, not to mention UK and Irish competitors, Axon questioned how long that market situation could continue.  U105 had doubled its audience in less than a year but Radio Ulster had a “superb service,” spending more than all its local rivals.

Compelling writing

Belfast Telegraph editor Mike Gilson remarked that newspaper identity is no longer shaped by ideology.  With 1.3 million unique users on the Belfast Telegraph website to date, “our journalists are actually as read and as influential as they have ever been.”

“The Belfast Telegraph must be cross-community, modern, looking to the future,” Gilson commented.

“Sometimes, we are virtually the official opposition up at Stormont,” he later claimed. The editor did not see many social media gurus “down at the town hall or up at Stormont or up at court, reporting on the things that matter to local communities.”

JK Rowling’s success proved that a “compelling product” in print could appeal to a younger audience.  Print advertising also served small businesses and shops much better than social media.

Social media, he contended, would collapse without the traditional media and he called for a public debate on journalism that should be funded.  At some point, the Belfast Telegraph would have to consider charging for its website.

“Northern Ireland is the most competitive morning newspaper market in Europe, bar none,” Irish News business editor Gary McDonald explained.  A Belfast newsagent could offer up to 19 daily titles.  Pessimists predicted that the last daily paper would be sold in the next 20 years but he personally refused to believe them.

The BBC’s “continued dominance” on radio, TV and the internet was an “enormous challenge” for newspapers.  The Irish News website previously offered extensive free content, with an archive dating back to 1990, but now everything except the page reader must be paid for.  The Financial Times website is seen as the exemplar, with 900,000 subscribers accessing it each day.

Print outlets could do scrutiny and accountability better than any other media source.  “The Irish News is quite good at writing obituaries.  You will see them on a Saturday but we are not writing our own just yet,” he concluded.

Radio has never been more popular in the UK, according to U105 Managing Director Peter McVerry.  It remained the sole audio medium, allowing people to do other things as they listened, and was personality-led by presenters such as Frank Mitchell, Gerry Anderson and Stephen Nolan.  McVerry highlighted the RadioPlayer application, launched in mid-2011, which allows listeners to stream several stations from the same programme.

“We remain attached to radio and its rhythms, to the hum and the sound of it,” he related.  Media historian David Hendy had surmised that radio is “very clever at popping up in new spaces.”

The broadcast media had always been an overlap of storytelling and technology, BBC Northern Ireland Director Peter Johnston remarked.  He highlighted the success of Frozen Planet and the Estate and looked forward to the forthcoming London 2012 coverage.

Northern Ireland viewers were keen followers of politics, current affairs and documentaries.

Timeshifted viewing (i.e. recorded now but viewed later) had increased to from 2 per cent of UK viewing in 2007 to 10 per cent in 2011, hardly a dramatic shift but this rose to 20 per cent for drama series.  It also proved popular for comedy.  The Blame Game quiz show, for example, had 67,000 viewers from its first showing, rising to 92,000 after a repeat, 104,000 after TV timeshifting and reaching 112,000 when iPlayer was included.

The corporation had a vision of ‘four screens, one BBC’ (i.e. on TV, PC, iPhone and iPad) which was already achieved in BBC News with more progress planned in entertainment, arts and sport coverage.

Johnston remarked: “You have always got to get a focus on what are you there to do in the first place.”

New social media

“What is your audience interested in?” is the key question for businesses embarking on social media, Tim McKane explained.  McKane is Chief Executive of social media marketing agency Navajo Talk and warned that many companies and government organisations were focusing on writing online content about themselves, rather than what interests readers.

Regulating social media is “near on impossible,” marketing consultant Paul McGarrity told delegates.  McGarrity, the Director of Octave Online Communications, instead urged organisations to use social media to their advantage.  The Chief Executive of Domino’s Pizza, for example, had used an online video to respond to a malicious video by a staff member in Chicago.  A facebook page with no comment facility “fundamentally doesn’t work” for businesses.  Social media allowed organisations to ‘listen’ to what people are saying about their brands.

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