An edited version of this article appeared in the February-March edition of Village magazine.
When Kevin O’Sullivan took over from Geraldine Kennedy on 23 June 2011, the 13th editor of the Irish Times, he knew the task he faced was no easy one.
The Sunday Tribune and the Irish Star on Sunday closed their doors a few months earlier, and newspapers at home and abroad were reeling as advertising budgets sank, or moved to the internet. By the end of the year, one US study reported, over 150 newspapers had gone under worldwide. The Irish Times 2011 accounts, six months after O’Sullivan took over the reins, showed the newspaper operating at a €2m loss.
One year into his new position, O’Sullivan was well aware of the parlous situation. “News as we know is under threat from an inferior product where one eye is always trained on traffic numbers,” he told a conference hosted by the Institute for International and European Affairs.
O’Sullivan also speculated on possible innovations in the media market, including “opening up RTE broadcast content to other media interests” and “philanthropic support of good journalism, particularly from non-profit organisations”.
But he hoped the paper would be “the trusted source of information whether it’s in print, on web, mobile, iphone, iPad or tablet device”, led by “sharp editors to help people navigate information overload, to filter the ‘blog fog’.
A makeover for the newspaper — repackaged with new fonts and a reduced size — and a baffling new advertising campaign, “The Story of Why” (dubbed “The Story of WTF” on twitter) , are the most visible changes to date, while a redesign of the paper’s website is also planned.
But there are internal tensions between traditional and modern elements within the newspaper, says NUI Maynooth media lecturer Gavin Titley.
“One thing that is clear is that there is a bit of a divide in the paper,” says Titley. “This has come out in the comment pieces, between those who realise that survival strategies include having a serious digital presence and not expecting an immediate return, if any return on that, but attempting to develop the paper as a new kind of media entity, and those who flat refuse to acknowledge it.”
“So the question is whether there’s no leadership, or whether this is something that is happening as a process under his leadership. I really don’t know, but there are lots of different signals coming out, how people think about a very basic thing, the survival and identity of the newspaper in a digital context.”
“There seems to be clear institutional, strong differences of opinion about newspapers in the digital age, from columnists who say “Let’s just pretend it’s not happening”, and “Everything online is bull anyway”, and those who are clearly trying to do something with it.”
“At least when Geraldine Kennedy was there, there seemed to be a sense of, “could you write about something else as well?” That seems to be gone. Looking at it as an outsider, it’s almost as if there are more obvious fiefdoms now, which are either not subject to or have resisted or have bypassed strong editorial oversight and strong editorial agreement as to what their role is.”
“Those questions, what are we editorially in the digital age, how do we arrest falling circulation, how do we develop something which we know we need to develop but which we financially will see very little return on, all of that is obviously preoccupying most newspapers. It obviously preoccupies the Irish Times, and as a consequence they find themselves embroiled in controversies over things like fees for links. They see themselves at the forefront of these digital faux pas, and the ethical questions that go with it.”
“Obviously that occupies a certain amount of energy, but what’s been very clear, in this political crisis is, there is more senior political correspondents and columnists who are very overt in their political line, very overt in their own editorial and ideological line. ”
“It seems a lot of senior political and opinion writers have no editorial oversight or brakes on them whatsoever. There is a more obvious agenda-pursuing among some of the writers than previously, Stephen Collins being the most obvious, but also the repetitiveness with which certain writers just return to their own political themes week in week out.
“It shouldn’t be the case, no matter how pressing the issue it is, that two senior columnists are writing about abortion, almost every week for several months. It shouldn’t be the case that a senior political correspondents is writing a column every Saturday simply to say “The government are right, there is no choice and everybody else just needs to grow up”. It’s that kind of wild abandon says something about the editorial set-up.”
“One thing they have done which is good is the investment in good serious foreign reporting has stayed reasonably constant,” he adds.” Some of their better journalists are really working in foreign affairs reporting. Given the financial pressures which come with that, given how expensive it is to keep Mary Fitzgerald going back to Libya or Syria and elsewhere, that’s pretty good stuff in a small market, given most other newspapers are taking it off the wire exclusively.”
How long the Times can afford to maintain such expensive coverage is a live question. At the end of 2008, as the Celtic Tiger bubble burst, circulation stood at 115,462 according to ABC figures. By the time O’Sullivan took over in June 2011, it had fallen to 100,951. The decline continues, with circulation down to 92,565 by June 2012. Readership figures measured by the Joint National Readership Survey shrank from 364,000 in 2008-09 to 287,000 for 2011-12.
“Obviously the print media is going through difficult times, the Irish Times has slipped below 100,000 circulation,” says John Martin, author of “Irish Times:Past and Present”.
Martin believes that O’Sullivan is “slightly more balanced” as an editor than his predecessors, Geraldine Kennedy and Conor Brady, “but I’m not doing cartwheels. I don’t think there’s any dramatic improvement.”
“But I think the key think is the IT is not run by the editor, I think that’s important. It’s run by a trust, which is a self-perpetuating element, and that controls the paper, and so the editor has some influence but he doesn’t have a determining influence.”
“So Kevin O’Sullivan, with the best will in the world, with the best of intentions, is not totally responsible for what goes into the paper, that would be my view.”
“Conor Brady in his book said he was on a rolling one-year contract. I don’t know what O’Sullivan’s position is, but Brady actually said that he, very year his contract was up for renewal, and he went before the trust like a little schoolboy.”
The newspaper has scored some triumphs in 2012, most notably breaking the story of Savita Halappanavar, who died in Galway University hospital in October. The story, which brought more web page hits than any other in the history of the paper, arguably changed the course of the abortion debate in Ireland.
The title has also brought troubles on itself, as when it found itself embroiled in an online row over attempts by National Newspapers of Ireland to charge for web links. Although the newspaper came out against the NNI position on links, paradoxically it attracted much ire because of its willingness to engage with the online community, while other titles kept silent.
That delicate balancing act, between old media distance and new media demands for social engagement, is clearly on O’Sullivan’s mind in what he calls “this exciting, chaotic, and occasionally exasperating digital age”.
“I think that people who complain about newspapers don’t really understand what they’re for and bring all kinds of extraneous agendas to the discussion,” says Jason Walsh, Ireland correspondent of the Boston-based Christian Science Monitor is currently researching a PhD in philosophy centred on the newspaper.
“So, you get people who demand newspapers perfectly reflect their interests and their politics, including some seriously quixotic interests and obscure politics. Why would a national newspaper be a vehicle for anarchism, for instance?”
“Newspapers are not broadsides, they’re not magazines, they’re not niche products, they are universal in tone. The word news is simply an archaic plural of new and that is what newspapers are for: to tell me something I don’t know already. They are supposed to allow readers to navigate the world they live in. The fact that this world is now shrunken, personalised, individuated, is not the fault of the press.”