Ireland’s online media market: Sophisticated but will not pay

An edited version of this article appeared in Village magazine, July 2015 edition

The Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2015 for Ireland gives an effective overview of who learns what where for the country, or at least who the major players are.

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Image: NASA

In summing up itself, the report describes Ireland as “a broadly engaged audience who are digitally immersed but with a substantial allegiance to traditional sources.”

The report is produced in association with Dublin City University’s Institute for Future Journalism and Media (FuJo) and the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI).

In a foreword, BAI chief executive Michael O’Keeffe hopes that the reports will “track key trends and identify data points that will assist the BAI in its deliberations”, something that should come in handy in context of the authority’s newly announced role in refereeing media mergers.

Ireland is not particularly special when it comes to media consumption compared to the other 12 country Reuters studies, though we are more reluctant than average to pay for news, and more than usually likely to read foreign news. The Irish have also – so far at least – been less willing than other English-speaking audiences to abandon print, although even in Ireland circulation numbers are falling.

The survey, based on a sample of 1501 adults who access news once a month or more, was conduced online in Ireland by ResearchNow, the Irish research partner of YouGov. The overall margin of error rate is 2.5%.

The primary news source is online media, at 83%, with TV coming second at 76%. Radio (50%) and Print (49%) bring up the rear. It is notable that while radio and print come last, both are above average compared to international trends. The survey also reveals a glaring generation gap. Put bluntly, TV is for old people, while under-24s are abandoning it in favour of online sources. The contrast could not be more stark for RTÉ: 77% of over-55s got news from TV or radio in the past week, while the equivalent figure for 18-24 year olds is just 34%. At the same time, 21% of 18-24s checked te RTE.ie website, compared to only 0.5% of over-55s.

As this is the first time that Ireland has been included in the Reuters report, it provides a baseline for future comparison, but no Irish trends are apparent yet. However, internationally broadcast news is in decline, with print and broadcast news merging online. The survey took place in January-February, before the Irish Times introduced its paywall, so future surveys will also show the full effect that had on audience figures.

Put simply, while viewers will still check in with TV and radio broadcasts at fixed hours, they are becoming more and more likely to get news, whether audio, video, or text, by phone. What’s true of entertainment, through services like Netflix, is equally true of news.

TV is seen as the most accurate/reliable (37%) and trustworthy (38%) news source, but a majority (53%) believe that the best sources of analysis and comment are available online. This may reflect the wider range of opinions available in specialist blogs and news websites, the limited number of columnists in print, or a combination of both. Unsurprisingly, online is also seen as the best place for updates on breaking news.

Online, just under three quarters (74%) of the population use a computer to access news, and the halfway tipping point has been reached on mobile, with 52% using it to check news. The generation gap is again visible here: smartphone users are younger, computer users are older. Among over-55s, 72% have used a computer to access news, but only 17% a smartphone.

Gender issues show a strong male preference for sports (52% of men, 15% of women) but it may be worth asking whether this is a chicken and egg situation. Most sports stories are about men’s sports, which may influence the audience it attracts. During June, the soccer columns were full of transfer rumours, for example, while the women’s World Cup was almost ignored. It may also be notable that while men read more about sports, only 17% said they were interested in health stories, compared to 42% of women.

Some survey answers are, at first glance, difficult to accept at face value. The Irish claim to care deeply about international (64%) and national (59%) news stories, but not that much for celebrity (21%) or fun/weird “offbeat” news (18%), a figure any journalist aware of what stories are most read and shared will question. This could be due to the nature of the online survey – those who answer are self-selecting, and may have a higher than average interest in news, or they may be giving an answer which reflects better on themselves.

Another question, on what makes a story get read, provides an interesting contrast. Most (58%) said they “click on headlines that are most interesting to me”, contrasted with 32% based on trust in the news site and 8% based on trust in the person sharing the story. This is the reverse of what is seen internationally, where trust is more highly rated. It may reflect deep cultural issues with trust in media, or a refreshing honesty about the effectiveness of clickbaiting headlines.

The Irish certainly have trust issues. Only 46%, trust the news in general, and 30% said they don’t trust most news. However 57% said they trust their chosen sources of news. Traditional news was seen as more accurate, reliable and trusted than online news in general, and TV news is seen to be more accurate than either print or online news, which will please RTÉ. Trust increases with age, education and income.
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Age makes a difference once again when it comes to preferred online news sources. The users of the traditional news brands – RTÉ, the Irish Independent, and the Irish Times – are much older than those for TheJournal.ie, which dominates among younger readers in the 18-24 and 25-34 age cohorts.

RTÉ dominates the overall market. 58% watch TV news, and 33% listen to radio news. RTÉ radio and TV combined reach 65%. Online, RTÉ web offerings reach 31% of the potential audience. The Independent group combined reach one third of the market, just ahead of TV3, while the Irish Times reaches one on four exactly. UTV scored 11%, a figure that will be watched closely – the survey took place in the same month the new UTV Ireland service launched. When it comes to non-Irish brands, the BBC is the most accessed, with 17% of users checking their website in the last week.

However, few respondents show any willingness to pay for news. Only 7% pay for any news, and of the remainder, only 13% expressed a willingness to do so in future. And older people are less likely than younger people to pay for news in the future.

Perhaps the most intriguing detail on Irish media consumption comes with a pair of graphs showing the audience shares of all the main brands. One striking item is that the graph of digital brands is dominated by traditional names, led by RTÉ, the Independent and the Times. TheJournal.ie is the only truly new Irish name in the top ten, although BreakingNews.ie, an offshoot of the Irish Examiner, also features.

The only other digitally native Irish title in the comprehensive list is Broadsheet.ie, which is used by 4% of those surveyed. To put that in perspective, it equals the share of Newstalk and the New York Times online, and beats UTV, the Sunday Times and Sunday Business Post websites.

Broadsheet.ie is an odd inclusion in the category of news. At times it seems closer to a humour/ satirical site like Waterford Whispers than a straightforward news site, with its combination of cartoons, YouTube clips, cute pets, and missing bicycles. Yet those lighter pieces are supplemented with JPEG images of newspaper front pages (both Irish and international), transcripts of radio and TV interviews and press conferences, and, most notably in the recent past, a speech in Dáil Éireann.

Broadsheet.ie not only continued to carry the transcript of the recent speech by Catherine Murphy TD after receiving legal threats from solicitors for Denis O’Brien, they published the legal correspondence, while the Irish Times and RTÉ felt legally unable to carry the story without first going to the courts for clarification of parliamentary privilege.

No figures are given, but it is likely that the next generation of news consumers feature heavily among Broadsheet.ie readers. Buzzfeed, an American site with a similar tone, and the likely inspiration for Brooadsheet.ie, attracts 6% of all readers, but scores 21% among 18-24 year olds.

The spiky and irreverent attitude of Broadsheet.ie, not simply reporting on the speech but being deliberately provocative in response to legal threats, and taking an editorial position rather than the traditional neutrality of the “view from nowhere”, plays well with its audience, ensuring that its following, though small, remains extremely loyal. It remains to be seen whether, like Buzzfeed, the site can move from occasionally challenging quirkiness to a fully fledged media business.

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