So. The Derry Journal and The News Letter are both as of this moment in receivership. Not to mention a number of weekly newspapers. And then there’s The Scotsman and The Yorkshire Post. Johnson Press, the group that owns these newspapers, put itself up for sale a short time back and had no takers. So they’re on the rocks.
It is a truth universally recognized that print journalism is having one helluva time everywhere. Social media is getting as much news as a lot of people need and besides, young people simply don’t buy newspapers any more. There are of course hopeful noises being made. Ben Lowry, deputy editor of the News Letter says his paper is in good health and profitable and he expects it to continue as the world’s oldest newspaper “for a while yet”. On the other hand, Ciarán Ó Maoláin, the secretary of the Belfast branch of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) takes a rather more down-to-earth view:
“We’re seriously concerned about those of our colleagues who work on the News Letter which is the oldest English language newspaper, continuously published newspaper in the world and those in the Derry Journal and the many local titles that Johnston Press has in Northern Ireland. Many of our members work there and our thoughts are with them at this time.”
That’s the kind of sentiment you hear after news of a bereavement.
I was talking to a man who was a central figure at The Derry Journal several decades ago. He made a number of interesting points, two of which are particularly important.
- Having a local owner of the newspaper is good, in that the owner is more likely to understand the community and the newspaper’s needs. On the other hand the local owner can be subject to pressure from local people, whereas a big impersonal, like the Mirror Group or the Johnson Press, is more remote and so unconcerned about parochial pressures. On the other hand, the distant owner group will be focused solely on paper sales, not content. The editor no longer can respond to breaking news and devote more space to a sudden local major story. The advertising department becomes more powerful than the editorial department.
- Aside from the fact that both papers go back decades and even centuries, they both give a voice to a section of the community. The Derry Journal is an unashamedly nationalist paper, and spoke for nationalists over the fifty years of Orange rule. The News Letter gives a voice to unionism in a similar fashion. And even today, with falling sales, The News Letter is important to the unionist community. When radio or TV wants a unionist perspective, they call on The News Letter’s Sam McBride or Ben Lowry. Likewise Alison Morris and Brian Feeney of that Venerable Organ The Irish News are often the voice of nationalism.
Just as we don’t like to see an old building demolished, few would like to see The News Letter or The Derry Journal go out of business. They are historically valuable. Whether they will continue, now that print journalism is nose-diving, remains to be seen. Sentiment tends to get tossed aside when there’s a gaping hole in the money bucket.