The Examiner examined: still provincial

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

The pre-pack receivership of Thomas Crosbie Holdings (TCH) was intended as a rescue package for the group, most well-known as the home of the Examiner newspaper. Two years on, circulation figures at the Irish Examiner, the crown jewel in the TCH empire, now rebooted as Landmark Media Investments, continues their downwards slide. However, if the group can live within its means, it may find a path to survival in contracting media market.

The Irish Examiner
The Irish Examiner

Latest circulation figures for the flagship title show a seven percent year-on-year drop for the period July to December 2014. The title has fallen by forty percent since its peak circulation a decade ago, and currently stands at 34422. The paper’s lack of “bulks”, discounted copy sales distributed to hotels, colleges and the like, make its circulation figures look even more bleak in contrast to the Irish Independent and Irish Times, both of which distribute up to 12% of their copies as bulks.

The former Cork Examiner was once satirised among newspaper folk with the fictional headline Cork Man Killed By Dublin Train, and despite retitling as first the Examiner then the Irish Examiner, its provincial focus remains. Its readership is overwhelmingly Munster-based, and this is reflected in its outlook.

This is not always a bad thing. The Irish media landscape is susceptible to a narrow consensus, and having an editorial office outside the capital (or in the Real Capital) does give the paper a different perspective. To give just one instance, the Examiner is the only broadsheet not to engage a columnist from Lolek Ltd, the conservative Catholic group better known by their business trading name, the Iona Institute.

AIB – and hence the State – was the main lender , and took a financial hit when Thomas Crosbie Holdings (TCH) collapsed in March 2013, when circulation stood at 42083. Despite this, the bank backed the restructuring of the company.

Under the “pre-pack” re-structuring, most of the assets of the group were bought from the receiver, Kieran Wallace of KPMG, by Landmark Media Investments Ltd. Father and son Ted and Tom Crosbie, both shareholders in TCH, backed the new company.

In addition to the Examiner, titles in the group include the Evening Echo, the Carlow Nationalist, the Kildare Nationalist, the Laois Nationalist, the Roscommon Herald, the Waterford News and Star, Western People, and the Wexford Echo.

It also includes shareholdings in radio stations Beat 102 FM, Red FM and WLR, and the and Recruit Ireland websites.

The chief effects of the reorganisation were to close the TCH printing works, and to hive off the Sunday Business Post. The latter was not a voluntary disposal, and Landmark was among the initial bidders to buy the Sunday Business Post from the receiver, but had to drop out of the running.

The paper is now printed at the Irish Times print facility in City West, as a result of which the rebirth has benefited not only the Examiner and its sister titles, but also the bottom line of the Irish Times.

However it has not been plain sailing. Just one year on, Landmark Media announced 50 lay-offs in April 2014, divided between its Cork and regional operations, as part of “business re-engineering project through work practice changes and centralisation of services.”

In December 2014, the company announced a €700,000 loss on turnover of €36.9m in the nine months to the end of 2013, its first financial result since the restructuring. The accounts also show outstanding bank loans of €19.5m at the end of 2013.

Online, the Irish Examiner seems unsure of its identity. It offers free content on its website, yet also asks readers to pay for an “e-paper”, which may explain why its website feels unresponsive and ill-suited to smaller phone and tablet screens. Former chairman Alan Crosbie once complained the internet and new media had the “capacity to destroy civil society”, and that same suspicion may be behind the dated look and feel of the group’s online presence.

But the newspaper’s identity, despite its name change, has always been much more the Cork Examiner than the Irish Examiner. Online, geography is not a strong identifier, but the Examiner is always going to struggle against the Independent group for a national audience, and is unlikely to pivot quickly against the web natives at Journal Media.

It is the geographic loyalty of its readership base, even in decline, which will provide it with the financial means to navigate its way to a financially secure future.