How does our press emerge from lockdown? Part three: Regional Sunday Newspapers

I hadn’t planned a third instalment of this series as frankly I have little to no interest in the local Sunday newspaper market these days. Certainly my days of buying five or six Sundays that would see me through to midweek are long gone and, apart from a quick browse of the football sections (usually when I’m in Costa or Nero for an afternoon coffee) there’s not a lot on the front pages of our local Sundays to entice me to the tills these days.

But the treatment of Mike Nesbitt by the Sunday World this week made me think again. There were 2 aspects to the Nesbitt story, one of public interest and one that was none of our business. No one can realistically take issue with any medium reporting an elected representative breaking Assembly emergency laws to travers the province on more than one occasion (though I wonder was the same research done into whether or not any MLAs or councillors attended the recent well attended republican funerals. Or is that a bit too dangerous?). They’re supposed to set an example when it comes to law adherence. So, it’s a fair cop Mike.

The emphasis on the alleged state of Nesbitt’s marriage is a different matter. I’m all for exposing hypocrisy from public figures. For example, I can remember certain now deceased MPs consistently voting against abolition of oppressive legislation relating to gay rights, while it was pretty widely known they were living a gay lifestyle in London. It is firmly in the public interest for such hypocrisy to be exposed when it relates to the way our representatives do their job, rather than just make insinuations through occasional use of “confirmed bachelor” by the broadsheets. Same with any politician who lives a life different from the one they would impose on the rest of us.

In Nesbitt’s case I’m not aware of him supporting socially oppressive legislation, opposing liberalisation of such laws, or lecturing us on how we should conduct our private lives or relationships. So, where’s the legitimacy in that reporting. You can just sense the lip licking zeal with which “a lady friend” was repeatedly typed. Also, all of this before we even consider some of the mental health issues recently attributed to his wife – clearly innocent of any offence. So, reprehensible as let’s face it that’s the bit the Sunday World was interested in. The lockdown offence was just a hook to build it around.

So, what of our two local Sundays? Can they both survive or is there even room for both in a very cluttered market with a rapidly declining customer base?

When the Sunday Life launched in 1988, I was a young sales manager with the brief of rolling out the launch to advertising agencies in London, Manchester and the other GB regions. Launching a new paper was never easy, but the Sunday Life had a lot going for it. At the time the Sunday World was a big seller (around 90,000 in Northern Ireland) but seen as very down market and not a great platform for advertisers and one of those papers many people would have hidden inside a copy of Playboy when leaving the shop, to avoid looking too downmarket. The Belfast Telegraph threw everything at the Sunday Life. It had a great team, bumper marketing budget and they managed to headhunt both the Editor and Chief GAA correspondent from the Irish News. Could you imagine that happening in 2020?

The plan was to publish a broadly middle class, largely cross community brand with traction in Greater Belfast, strong features, great sport, and the best possible advertising platforms. And it worked. Within 3 or 4 years it had overtaken the Sunday World and eventually peaked at around 120,000 sales.

What changed was the ownership of the business. Eventually it came into the hands of Independent News & Media in Dublin. That in itself didn’t need to be a negative but shorn of the management and key editorial figures who launched and grew the paper, there was a very discernible movement downmarket to the point where there is now little to distinguish it from the Sunday World, with its relentless focus on loyalist paramilitaries (replete with nicknames). I remember in my latter days working for that business in the mid-1990s being horrified as it had a run of “exclusives” exposing gay men as gay. Nothing more and nothing less. It was sad but once such a decline in standards starts, it generally becomes inexorable.

So where do they go from here? We have two local Sunday papers owned by the same people, based in the same building. So, you would imagine there would be a clear layer of product differentiation between them. But I can’t see it.

Currently the two papers have a very similar weekly sale. The Life currently sells around 29,000 copies. The World doesn’t publish audited figures but the industry standard readership survey (TGI 2018) indicates a sale in that ballpark. Their readership profiles are broadly similar in terms of gender, age and over two thirds of both readerships being outside Belfast, The only meaningful differences are a slightly (but not as dramatically as in the past) more upmarket readership and the fact that the Life readership in 2018 was 54% Protestant and the World 56% Catholic. Neither of those really present a market sufficiently distinct to safeguard a prosperous future.

Maybe the new Belgian ownership of IN&M will invest in the Sunday Life to attempt to restore the product to the vision of the launch team and help layer the market between the two titles. But its much easier to take a product downmarket than it is to take it back up. So that’s a long shot. Alternatively they are more likely to decide to focus on developing one of the brands into a clear market leader here (currently the Sunday Mirror has a higher local readership than either), If that’s the case then I would assume it will be the Sunday World, an all-Ireland brand with traction across the island, to be the focus of the new owners’ efforts.