Supporting Local News

Media chief calls for State support for local ‘watchdog’ journalism

The Government should provide funding for local journalism – “watchdogs of society” – the head of the country’s largest media group suggested during the annual ‘John Cunningham Journalism Lecture’ at the University of Galway last week.

Peter Vandermeersch, Chief Executive Officer with Mediahuis Ireland – which owns the Irish Independent and Belfast Telegraph amongst others – gave the lecture, which was hosted by UG and the Connacht Tribune, where John Cunningham was Group Editor for more than 30 years.

During the lecture, entitled ‘Good Journalism is Bad Business?’, Mr Vandermeersch spoke of the drastically changing landscape of journalism – particularly since 2006/7.

He has carried out extensive research and analysis in his academic career and has also served as Editor-in-Chief of national newspapers in Belgium and the Netherlands.

Mr Vandermeersch spoke of the media waking from a “deep sleep” in 2006/7 when people stopped buying newspapers and advertising revenue also collapsed.

He said that in reaction to people turning to websites and social media, newspapers forgot they were a business and started giving most of their content away for free. Rather than revenues increasing, advertisers flocked to giants like Google and Facebook.

There was massive cost-cutting in journalism worldwide, but since then fake news had become a serious threat to democracy.

He described journalists as the “watchdogs of society” in their role combatting fake news.

“More than ever, we need professional journalism. In international and national news, but more important, local news. We need people who dig for the truth. We need investigative journalism. We need people who are the guardians of the news.

“In a world of fake news, algorithms, PR, the truth is more important now than ever. But what is the truth, where is it? It’s not the influencers of Instagram who are looking for the truth; it’s not the PR team of big companies; it’s not the politicians. It will be, in many cases, professional journalists.

“In a world where there is lots of fake news, where people do not know who to believe or what to believe and looking for sources they can trust, they are more and more – again – willing to pay for trusted news. Good journalism is becoming good business,” he said.

Enda Cunningham, Editor of the Galway City Tribune, asked Mr Vandermeersch if he believed the Government’s ‘Future of Media Commission’ had done anything at all to help the newspaper industry.

He replied: “The Government had a wonderful opportunity to make good choices about how we see journalism in this country in the next ten years, and basically they didn’t do that.

“Yes, as publishers we got 0% VAT, and that’s very important,” he said, but noted that the cost-saving had been cancelled out by the rocketing cost of newsprint paper.

“There were missed chances. The main missed chance is support for local journalism. If we want to keep serious local journalism, we need to support that journalism.

“We should take taxpayers’ money to fund local journalism and also raise the bar in local journalism,” he said, acknowledging that would be “a difficult debate”.

“We [Mediahuis] were annoyed, we were a bit angry, and mainly we were disappointed,” Mr Vandermeersch said of the Commission’s report and its recommendations.

Mr Cunningham spoke of the threats facing local journalism – from decreasing advertising revenues; the internet giants like Google and Meta, and the ‘lifting’ (theft) of hardworking journalists’ work.

“Without journalism, democracy dies. These are the threats that we face and they’re very real,” he said.

Tom Felle, Head of the Discipline of Journalism and Communication at University of Galway said the business model to support local journalism is bust, and local news deserts are growing globally.

“Ireland’s Media Commission report and the Government’s inaction since has been, frankly, disappointing. The proposal to abolish the TV licence fee might best be described as naïve. There are bigger elephants in the room than the licence fee.

“Digital advertising is now largely controlled by a duopoly of big tech companies. This has a distorting impact on the market in Ireland an in Europe.

“There has also been a failure to regulate social media, and its harmful effects. Ireland’s defamation laws have a chilling effect on investigative journalism and need reform.

“Local media are in significant difficulty and for the sake of democracy need to be protected to prevent news deserts; and what we now see in much of America, the rampant spread of disinformation and a lack of any accountability for large swathes of local government,” said Mr Felle.

The annual memorial lecture honours the late John Cunningham, who also taught at the university for 18 years.

Mr Felle said: “John Cunningham was one of Ireland’s best local newspaper editors and he made an indelible impression on the lives of the hundreds of journalists he trained as a lecturer in journalism. We are delighted to be able to honour his memory with this public lecture that has become an important annual event.”

(Photo: Peter Vandermeersch, CEO Mediahuis Ireland, Tom Felle, Associate Professor and Head, Discipline of Journalism and Communication, University of Galway, and Enda Cunningham, Editor, Galway City Tribune, at the John Cunningham Journalism Lecture in the Hardiman Building, University of Galway).

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