Local newspapers are vital to Ireland's communities

I’ve always been a news junkie.  But more than anything else, I’m a local news junkie.  Considering that I live 3,000 miles from where I was born and raised on Boston’s southern fringe, I am lucky to be able to access the local newspapers I grew up reading – the Milton Times, Patriot Ledger and Dorchester Reporter foremost among them – online.  Perusing them regularly and conveying what I glean from them to my father on the phone often leads him to retort that I know more about what’s going on at home than he does.

Local newspapers play a vital role in the communities they are based in.  To a far greater extent than national or even regional newspapers, the reporters who staff them have their “ears to the ground” and understand what is important to local people.

As such, and in addition to writing stories about what would ordinarily be regarded as newsworthy, local newspapers are close enough to communities that they cover important milestones and events in the lives of local people.  These milestones and events – from births to first communions to 50th wedding anniversary celebrations; from sporting triumphs to town elections to unfortunate tragedies – are newsworthy to the people who live through them.  Local newspapers give these milestones and events their pride of place.

It is with this unrepentant bias that I have truly enjoyed this week’s celebration of local newspapers in Ireland.  As An Taoiseach (Irish prime minister) Enda Kenny observed in his remarks to launch Local Newspaper Week, “[W]eek after week, our people depend on their local newspapers to provide an accurate perspective on issues of national interest.  And every week they deliver; fulfilling the responsibility of meeting the highest journalistic standards and breaking stories of public interest.  Anyone who has practised politics in Ireland knows the important role played by local papers and the unique trust and bond Irish communities have with their local papers.”

And the statistics provide ample evidence to support the Taoiseach’s view.  76% of Irish households purchase their local paper at least once a month.  95% of Irish people read the local paper in households where there is one available.  They read local papers for 69 minutes on average, as compared to reading national newspapers for just 29 minutes on average.  What’s more, in excess of 70% of Irish people agree that the local newspaper plays an important role in their community and that it is a tradition to have the local newspaper in the house.

The story of just one local newspaper, the Tuam Herald, is instructive and was featured on an RTÉ (Ireland’s national radio and television broadcaster) programme, Nationwide, highlighting Local Newspaper Week.  The Herald, coincidentally, is celebrating its 175th anniversary this year.  The family-owned and run paper has an extraordinary history with which I am somewhat familiar, given my own north Galway background.  What I wasn’t aware of, however, is that it has been a breeding ground for a number of Ireland’s most high profile and legendary journalists.

RTÉ’s recently retired Western Editor, Jim Fahy, cut his journalistic teeth at the Tuam Herald.  To Irish people, Fahy is synonymous with the West, where he is revered for his common touch and folksy manner.  Additionally, the Herald boasts the distinction of launching the careers of two future editors of Ireland’s two premier broadsheet newspapers: the Irish Times and the Irish Independent.  Kevin O’Sullivan, present editor of the Times, and Gerry O’Regan, former editor of the Independent, both started out in journalism at the Tuam Herald.  They were interviewed for the programme and were lavish in their praise for the on the job training they received while working at the Herald and attribute their subsequent success to their earlier work at this local institution.

As prominent Irish journalists whose careers began at local newspapers, O’Sullivan and O’Regan are the rule, not the exception.  And these journalists’ loyalty to their roots is unflinching.  For instance, Harry McGee of the Irish Times, one of the country’s most respected political writers, remains a weekly contributor on politics in the West of Ireland to the local newspaper that he once worked for, the Connacht Tribune.

Yet in the midst of this week that celebrates all that is great about local newspapers, it would be foolhardy to ignore the significant challenges they face.  Like all newspapers, local papers have struggled to develop a strategy to deal with the reality that so many people, particularly young people, now turn to the internet to get their news.  Experts discussed the undeniable conundrum presented by this irreversible trend at a conference earlier this week.

The discussion centred on two views as to the appropriate model.  One is that local newspapers should make their content freely available online and seek to capitalise on advertising revenue generated by traffic to their websites, especially now that so many young Irish men and women have emigrated, but still want to keep abreast of what’s happening at home.  The other is that local newspapers should install paywalls, and ask visitors to their websites to subscribe to view their content.  The second view banks heavily on the fact that people are now accustomed to shopping and paying for goods and services online.

Each model has its pluses and minuses.  But the fact that newspapers around the world have succeeded using either of the two or a combination of the two is encouraging.  Moreover, the strong and resilient culture of printed newspaper buying in Ireland augurs well for the future.

When I first moved to Ireland, the local newspaper in Galway, the Connacht Tribune, was a valuable source of information about my new home.  All these years later, it still is.  And the local newspapers I read every week online serve as a virtual bridge across the Atlantic to my old home.  Judging by the requests I field before trips back to Boston from Irish emigrant friends, I know that they feel the same way.

In sum, local newspapers help to bind the ties that people have to their communities, no matter if they have never left, or if they are half a world away.  Long may they prosper.