Buying into Northern Ireland

Buying into Northern Ireland

The main players in the press in Northern Ireland have shifted slightly during the past few years, with new media owners arriving in the province and signing major deals with the publishers already there.

The largest deal to take place in the Northern Irish press in recent history was Independent News & Media's acquisition last year of The Belfast Telegraph from Mirror Group in a deal worth £300m. The paper has historically been one the most popular - its circulation in the January to July 2001 ABCs was 111,329,
making it the top paid-for regional newspaper in
Northern Ireland.

And its Sunday edition, Sunday Life, currently comes second in this category, with a circulation of 96,072.

However, these are traditional strengths and IN&M has not had an easy time since taking on the paper. Its redesign of The Belfast Telegraph was problematic, with popular opinion condemning the new look and the publisher retreating  to something closer to the original format.

The region's media community is now united in wondering what IN&M is going to do to ensure the continuing success of The Belfast Telegraph, which is vital to them all as the paper remains one of the top press advertising opportunities in Northern Ireland.

"Locally, the future of The Belfast Telegraph has become a hot issue for agencies and advertisers," says Tony Axon, media director of the agency Navigator Blue and media committee chairman for the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising in Northern Ireland.

Another regional player is the Scottish Radio Holdings-owned Morton Newspapers Group, which has a group audit of 78,126 according to the latest ABC figures. Its portfolio of some 25 regional titles - notably
The Portadown Times, The Ulster Star and the East Antrim series of newspapers - is a strong proposition in a region in which 90.1% of the population read a regional newspaper compared to 64% who read
a national newspaper, according to BMRB TGI data for 2000.

The fact that Scottish Radio Holdings paid £11.2m for Morton Newspapers in 1995 also testifies to this.

Another recent instance of a player from mainland UK expanding its operations to include Northern Ireland was Amra's appointment in August as the sales house for The Irish News, The News Letter and the Derry Journal. Amra, which poached the business from
Mediaforce, now represents 30% of the regional press and covers all key conurbations across the UK.  

The Irish News and The News Letter are a great package for Amra to represent, says the sales house's chief executive Mike McCormack, as each represents opposite ends of the political and religious spectrum in Northern Ireland. The News Letter tends to be read by the Protestant community, while The Irish News attracts Catholic readers, and there is obviously little duplication of readership between the two.

This issue is another reason why the future of The Belfast Telegraph is a burning issue for all of Northern Ireland's media community - the paper is one of the best ways to reach both Protestants and Catholics.

McCormack has also been struck by the differences in attitude and behaviour between consumers in Northern Ireland and in mainland Great Britain.

"There are differences in brand loyalty compared with mainland UK - supermarkets' own label products don't do well there," he says.

The experience of The Belfast Telegraph also bears testament to how consumers in Northern Ireland can be a tricky proposition for the media owner - they have strong beliefs and can be conservative in their views.

Having said that, The Irish News got it right in March 2000 when it relaunched in "Euro" format - reducing its size by 28% to resemble some continental papers. Its circulation rose from 50,300 to 51,738 in the last  ABCs.

In terms of the general health of the media industry in Northern Ireland, it hasn't suffered from the recession that has gripped London this year. There are signs that this might be about to change - UTV released interim results last month that showed its TV revenues had fallen by 4.9% from £19.7m to £18.8m - but Northern Ireland's media community feels confident that the region's nature means it will not be affected too severely by London trends.

"We didn't have the dotcom boom but we didn't have the bust either, so it's pretty steady and there are no signs of a huge recession," says Axon.

And the economic boom that has famously bolstered Dublin and the south during the past two years has had a knock-on effect on the north, says Institute of Advertising Practitioners of Ireland chief executive, Steve Shanahan.

The boom in recruitment advertising in Belfast titles on the back of the many IT vacancies springing up in "Celtic Tiger" Dublin has slowed down, but it hasn't stopped, says Shanahan. Furthermore, the new peace that seems shakily in place has brought more confidence to invest in Northern Ireland, exemplified by property developments such as the D5 harbour development, and these can only mean more ad revenues for the local press.

And ad revenues are generally less essential to Irish newspapers as they can depend on the support of a loyal readership, says managing director of The Derry Journal and Century Newspapers, Martin Gower.

"Regional papers in Northern Ireland sustain higher cover prices and their editorial content is very important," he says. "Regional press here runs with lower ad quotas and is less dependent on advertising than in Great Britain generally."   

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