While a decision by the Independent newspaper to move to online-only has sparked another round of debate about the likes of clickbait and paywalls, thoughts also turn to the health of the main newspapers on sale closer to home.
Not least among those talking about our own most popular titles this weekend are the buyers who continue to support the print versions of newspapers available in Northern Ireland.
Their – often very blunt and at times grim – views about how our newspapers have changed in digital times are provided as a snapshot by Ballymena’s Eugene Diamond, a news aficionado and stalwart of the traditional newsagent trade of over 36 years standing.
Eugene, known for his daily tweets of newspaper headlines (@EDiamond136) and passion for print media, has explained what – in his experience – newspaper readers make of the titles vying for attention on his shop shelf in an changing age for news.
His shop, tucked along the contours of a mammoth shopping centre and one of only the few remaining independent news-sellers in the town, has adapted to the digital era by trying promoting other products online, searching for new trends and trying to use faster footwork than the likes of the Co-op across the road to draw custom.
Eugene’s newsagent being something of a local hub (I used to have two newspapers on daily order – feel free to guess which), while I spoke to Eugene by phone from his shop he would be interrupted every few minutes by a string of people who’d know him by name.
While the announcement by the Independent “simply reminded people they haven’t seen it in a while – it isn’t distributed here”, the disappearance of a major UK title from print (and, as an aside, the loss of liberal option) does give a chance to look again at our main choices on the shop shelf and their future through the eyes of Eugene and his customers.
His own take on the changing popularity of our biggest names in the local newspaper business recalls the heyday of the Troubles played out in daily updates across print pages, death notices on the front page of the Belfast Telegraph North-West edition and the institution of an evening paper breaking news.
“In the earlier days the sad fact was that you were selling newspapers as people were dying. The Belfast Telegraph was a juggernaut – it used to be delivered to our home – and if you’d told me then that it would ever be outsold by the Irish News I’d have thought you were mad”.
“They could break news more easily during the Troubles and then something happened when the newspaper was split into sections many years ago. They thought they were the Manchester Guardian, I think. My customers abandoned it in droves and, even though it was quickly changed back, it never returned to the days when I would deliver 450 papers to homes. It is now, for me, a passing trade paper picked up by people stopping by as opposed to daily customers.
“It is given out free in the town at places like the college but – aside from picking up on a Friday for the jobs section – it doesn’t draw much comment, although it is clearly doing very well online.”
Eugene said his customers had praise for the Irish News, though, as “people feel that they break stories so sales are holding up” and thought the future looks good for the paper.
“I think people find there’s good content and a respected cross-section of columnists. So their outlook? For me it is going to last as a print newspaper a fair while.”
He said it was felt that price rises at the News Letter “have meant higher costs for the reader for what feels like less content” and explained that “people find the death notices can be read elsewhere online and overall I don’t see any take-up of new readers for the newspaper”.
Customers have a fairly steady demand for red top tabloids (“you have to admire the Mirror’s big following online through Belfast Live, the tabloids are doing OK with my customers with the Mirror a bit more popular than The Sun although, of course, you still get Liverpool supporters who won’t buy The Sun at all”) while there’s a very, very different response to the Mail in comparison to the Express.
“The Daily Mail is a very popular paper at all times of the day and sells well to female customers. People like to run it down but it seems to have the right mix of writers and content people want to read. The Express, on the other hand, is talked about as one of the worst newspapers in the country, along with The Star. It tends to promote whatever happens to be the owner’s whim and suits his business interest, people can see that”.
Special mention from Eugene goes to the Dublin broadsheets, however.
“The Irish Times does fairly well, people say it is a good paper and in truth if I didn’t have the shop I would buy it myself, alongside the Irish Independent which is really great stuff, especially on a Saturday”.
He added that The Times is ever-popular, along with Guardian and The Observer as “people can see the quality and value they are getting for their money”.
Closer to home, Eugene lamented that, with the local Ballymena Times office in the town centre closed down and buying habits changing, sales of local papers had reached a low among his customers.
“It is a bad, bad time for local papers. They have been run to the wall by people who don’t care about the newspapers themselves.
“When you see the likes of the Impartial Reporter selling well elsewhere it just shows it can be done. After all, local newspapers keep local news-people in the community finding news and that is good for everyone. The story about the white lines at the Dark Hedges – for example – came from a local news reporter, however I’m told they don’t have the staff which means it is harder for the reporters to mix in the community.”
“ABANDONED NORTHERN IRELAND”
Not overly concerned about the loss of the Independent print version (“they abandoned Northern Ireland anyway, and sure online is OK in big cities but elsewhere people like a newspaper in their hands”) Eugene said his kind of trader had started diversifying long ago and would continue to do so.
“We have to work harder to sell everything else we offer since we had to start to diversify once newspapers went on sale in places like supermarkets. You would even seen people standing reading the local paper in the supermarket when they were doing their shopping, so we were left the remaining trade, lucky to get 20% on a paper”.
Eugene finds many of his customers are also passionate enough about the print newspapers on offer to buy a range of papers instead of sticking to their own first choice.
The image of newspaper purists in a specialist shop buying papers is, hopefully, not a glimpse of an increasingly niche market in the future, even one which dips and recovers as some realise that – like CDs, multiplex cinemas and electronic books – they jumped the gun too soon.
The view from Eugene’s outpost of traditional news-selling remains that, while demand continues overall, without some major changes the disappearance of titles closer to home could be inevitable.