The Other P O’Neill

This article first appeared in Village magazine, May 2017 edition

When the Irish Times broke the news on Twitter that a new editor was taking over, they accidentally highlighted one of the major problems the newspaper faces.

A photo circulated of Paul O’Neill the new editor, taking over from Kevin O’Sullivan, who was stepping aside to take on the portfolios of agriculture, environment and science, showed the pair standing in the centre of a large circle as other Irish Times staff crowded round and listened to the announcement.  And as Twitter users quickly pointed out, that crowd was overwhelmingly made up of middle-aged men – pale, male and stale.

All quiet on the Twitter front

In contrast to O’Sullivan’s appointment, which came after a lengthy period of speculation over the future direction of the newspaper as several candidates vied for the position, O’Neill’s promotion came on an otherwise unremarkable mid-week afternoon, without fanfare or warning.

“The challenges facing so-called old media companies have been well ventilated,” O’Neill was quoted as saying shortly after the announcement. “But the audience of The Irish Times continues to grow and now includes those who access our journalism via smartphones, iPads and desktops, as well as those who continue to read the newspaper.

“The media landscape is evolving rapidly and the future is not settled. But in a world of alternative facts, falsehoods and hidden agendas, I’m confident that The Irish Times and our independent journalism will continue to thrive.

“As people increasingly question the accuracy of the information presented to them, I believe the standards of quality and fairness associated with The Irish Times will be ever more relevant and valuable to them.”

O’Neill has been deputy editor to both O’Sullivan and Geraldine Kennedy, and before that had crossed over to the Dark Side for a time to work in public relations for a while, having taken a redundancy package from the paper at the turn of the century. He applied for the job last time around after Kennedy’s departure, and was very clearly regarded as the front runner for the post once O’Sullivan departed.

In reported remarks on his departure O’Sullivan said his term as editor – the thirteenth in the paper’s history – “coincided with unprecedented turbulence and uncertainty for media businesses,”

That uncertainty about the future was also acknowledged by O’Neill in an interview with Sean O’Rourke, where he acknowledged the possibility that the Irish times might have to move sooner or later to less frequent print editions, perhaps eventually appearing in hard copy only on Saturdays.

The new editor is, at 52, five years younger than his predecessor, and an enthusiastic cyclist, though as he admits himself, more for health reasons than environmntal concerns about fossil fuels. He cycles competitively with the Orwell Wheelers.

The challenges facing O’Neill are enormous. Circulation has almost halved since its peak in 2008. The Irish Times has managed to encourage readers to subscribe, both to print and digital offerings. Reading through statements both from the paper itself and the Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC), it appears to have attracted 13,000 subscribers for the e-paper (a digital reproduction of the print product), and 12,000 more to access behind the website paywall, with an additional 30,000 paying for a joint web+print subscription.

These numbers allow the paper to claim a combined print+pixel circulation base of over 90,000, though the most recent ABC figure, counting only print sales, is a sobering 66,251.

But even if the paper does manage to convert all of its print readers to digital (or, an even greater challenge, increase its total base by attracting new subscribers), it still faces the hard fact that digital advertising revenues are only a fraction of those it can attract for print. And there are only so many commercial features and “sponsored content” reports the paper can host before it starts to detract from the masthead’s credibility.

To an extent, a new editor’s job is like that of a captain of an oil tanker. Changing direction takes time, and that is assuming that a change of direction is even desired. As such, one month in, it’s not yet clear whether O’Neill will continue along the lines of his predecessor, or strike out in new directions. If it is to change direction, then it needs to cultivate new voices, and avoid the old reliables. It was striking, for example, that after the Citizens’ Assembly built a new paradigm for the Irish abortion debate, the first Inside Politics Podcast turned to Breda O’Brien and Cora Sherlock to explain why the recommendations weren’t a runner, rather than seeking out new voices who might explain how the Assembly arrived at its conclusions.

But perhaps the most unusual aspect of the new regime is the appointment of O’Sullivan to cover environment, agriculture and science beats. Previous editors have moved on to pastures new, giving their successors space to carve out their own paths. Conor Brady went to work for the Garda Ombudsman’s office, while Geraldine Kennedy is now teaching journalism in Limerick. It remains to be seem whether the new arrangement, with both O’Neill and his predecessor still in the same building – described by one observer as “living having two Popes around the place” – will work out in the long term.