Dear colleagues at Mediahuis Ireland,
Many positive things happened in the last five years at Mediahuis Ireland. While steering the media organisation through a pandemic, we have also been building an all-Ireland organisation, investing further in our wholesale and packaging business and in the Motion classifieds websites. We have refocused our advertising sales activities, attracted a lot of new talent, closed some of our offices and refurbished many others, closed both of our printing plants (and outsourced printing to colleagues in the Republic and in Northern Ireland), introduced a new HR-culture and, importantly, realised good financial results. Above all, we’ve changed the fundamental nature of this publishing company from a newspaper business to a media business which is managing both print and digital.
Mediahuis Ireland loves, respects and cherishes print. Our printed papers and magazines reach hundreds of thousands of readers on a daily or weekly basis and are still our most important source of revenue. On a weekly basis, we sold on average more than 600,000 copies of our national or regional titles this year. This will continue in the near future: we will publish newspapers as long as there is a demand for them in the Irish market. Let’s not forget that Mediahuis Ireland is, through Reach, the most important distributor of printed news media on the island of Ireland.
We fully embrace the digital present and future
Yet, as I said on RTE radio earlier this year, print is basically disappearing. To be honest, I was amazed that my radio interview appeared to upset people inside and outside our industry, and even inside and outside this country. Let me tell an anecdote: I regularly take the DART from beautiful Greystones, where I live, to our offices in Talbot Street and back. It’s a ride of almost an hour. Every time that I see a newspaper reader in my carriage, I take a note of it. To date this year, I’ve made 122 trips to our office or back home again. In the course of 122 train journeys I counted exactly 19 newspaper readers. Most of these were men older than I am. Not a single one of them was a woman under 50. And yes, I was very happy to see that, in contrast, many people were reading newspapers on their phones!
Print is slowly but surely disappearing. Take the train, look at the shrinking newsstands in supermarkets, but above all: look at your own behaviour and that of your friends and family members. Audiences are not migrating, they have migrated. The chances that we’ll still have print papers during the week in the 2030s, are extremely slim.
That’s why we’ve been fully embracing the digital future. In fact, INM was too late to the party. Five years ago, our digital offering was not good enough. We were too focused on print; not focused enough on our readers and the way in which they liked to consume news. That has changed fundamentally. In the last five years we have developed our digital offering for the Irish Independent, the Sunday Independent, the Belfast Telegraph, the Sunday World and all our regional brands. We tell most of our stories digital first, we’ve launched a series of impressive and award-winning podcasts and, on a weekly basis, we produce many hours of video content.
Look at the results: in February 2020 we had zero digital subscribers, compared to over 80,000 people who are paying for our digital journalism at the end of this year. I am not aware of another example where, in a market of similar size, a brand grew in four years from zero to 80,000 paying digital subscribers. We predict that we will reach the milestone 100,000 in the near future and we have still higher ambitions. By the end of this decade, we will more than double that number. Too ambitious? No: these numbers tell the true story of the future of independent journalism in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
We are part of a strong group
This story would not be possible if we were an isolated news organisation only on this island. Fortunately, we are not alone! Mediahuis Ireland is part of a successful international media organisation with more than 4,500 colleagues in Belgium, The Netherlands, Luxembourg and Germany. With more than 30 news brands, Mediahuis reaches 10 million people every day and the total number of our print and digital subscribers continues to grow to 1.8 million. Last year, Mediahuis notched up more than 77.5 million podcast listens. We have strong marketplace positions in automotive, recruitment, housing and price comparison. Mediahuis Ventures is investing actively in new growth markets, activities and business models.
Mediahuis is profitable. Its shareholders – structured around several Belgian and Dutch families with a long tradition in media ownership – have a long-term strategic vision. Its management is ambitious and forward looking. The colleagues in this dynamic group are constantly exchanging experiences and best practices. The group offers international career perspectives. And, very importantly, together we can invest in the technology of the future.
Back to Ireland. I realise that the company we all are working for has evolved considerably in the last five years and the role or reporting line of almost everyone in this company is different from their previous situation. This change is what has made us successful. Sometimes this evolution has been difficult and painful. Yes, we’ve lost colleagues through various redundancy programmes. Yet I am convinced that we are now in a better position than we were five years ago. This is not only acknowledged by Mediahuis colleagues in Dublin, Belfast and Antwerp, but also by our competitors in the Irish market. Finally, if you want further proof of the success of this organisation, just take a look at the number and the quality of national and international awards that we’ve won in recent years, recognising the value of our regional and national journalism and our outstanding advertising initiatives.
Change will never stop happening
The worst thing we can do now is to believe that the transition to a new organisation and to new ways of working is finished. I’ll tell you a secret: it will never be finished. If we want to be a successful news organisation in the future and play a central role in journalism on the island of Ireland, we will have to adapt constantly to the landscape in which we are functioning and to the changing needs of our customers.
Let’s have a look at the landscape. To start with, there are the big platforms like Alphabet (Google) and Meta (Facebook) which in the last couple of decades succeeded in occupying a dominant position in the news business. Never before have so many people accessed their news from a handful of giant platforms that basically decide, via their algorithms, what kind of ‘content’ people should ‘consume’. As a publisher in the digital world, we no longer own the distribution platform as we used to do. Google and Meta own it. These multinational companies make money on the back of our content, monopolise most of the advertising spend and are very reluctant to pay us a fair share.
It’s clear that a company like Mediahuis has a love-hate relationship with these platforms. Through its search engine Google enables us to reach new readers with our journalism, which in turn can lead many potential subscribers to our sites. While many people see Google as the first place to get their news, the platform doesn’t employ one single journalist and is reluctant to pay for the use of our journalism on its service. Again, this year we have had long discussions with Google about the application of the EU Copyright Directive, which among other measures obliges the tech giants to compensate publishers for use of their journalism. It’s clear we didn’t reach a solution here yet. (To be fair to Google: at least they are engaging in conversations with us. Other players such as Microsoft, X (formerly Twitter), TikTok and Facebook are basically refusing to have any discussion about fair compensation for our content.) It proves an important point about our business model: you cannot build a business on somebody else’s traffic. Yes, we want to have a social presence but we want our readers to enjoy our content on our own platforms.
Public broadcasting needs to be clearly defined
Another player in our landscape is the public broadcaster, RTE. Obviously there is a place for a public broadcaster in every market. However, it’s clear that in Ireland this broadcaster, in print (RTE Guide), online (RTE.ie) and on other platforms (radio and television) is offering services with public money that private players like Mediahuis and others also are providing. A publicly funded organisation should not do what the market is already providing for, since doing so seriously distorts that market. Public players should not act as a “competitor” with a huge unfair financial advantage.
In the wake of the RTE payment and management scandal last summer, I’ve heard many people pleading for a “new culture” at RTE and talking about a new definition of its role. I am still hopeful that out of the ashes of this scandal, a new, serious and responsible public broadcaster will emerge. The plans which have been announced last month seem to be a step in the right direction, but the leadership of the public broadcaster still doesn’t seem to question what the role of RTE should be in a healthy Irish media landscape. I can only hope that the legislator, the Media Minister and the new management will go further. RTE should stimulate and promote the whole media sector, rather than competing against it.
This being said, the Irish audience, as everywhere else in the world, is getting its information less from press, radio and television but often in the first place through social media platforms. Facebook, Instagram, X, YouTube, TikTok and others are crucial channels for news consumption. Here one can find (in many instances for free) good journalism as well as all the conspiracy theories, lies, clickbait and untruths in the world.
Our biggest challenge are those who spread fake news
In the last decade, these powerful, innovative and intriguing platforms have completely changed the way in which the public consumes news, while at the same time altering the way news is being produced. News production is no longer the privilege of a small and closed group of (more or less) professional journalists in traditional media. Every “influencer” with an Instagram, YouTube or TikTok account can produce “content”. Much of it may be untrue, but lots of it is good and interesting, funny and witty, and some of it is excellent, insightful and trustworthy. I’m not only talking about blogs and posts about fashion and lifestyle, travel and smarter living, but also about regional, national and international news. In Greystones I am (reasonably well) informed about the local news by a free website. Last year, the White House organised press briefings about the war in Ukraine for “content creators” on TikTok. It’s clear that the American administration understood where millions of young people are sourcing their news on the Russian invasion.
Not too long ago, many people and institutions – be it politicians, celebrities, athletes, businesses – used to rely on classic media to bring their message to the public. Often they were interrogated, challenged and criticised by the press, radio and television. However imperfect, the legacy media acted in many ways as a watchdog and a filter, an important role in the democratic process. Today, these people and institutions don’t need us anymore. They have their own social channels and ways to reach their audiences directly and to interact with them. There are millions of Donald Trumps in this world who prefer to talk directly to their followers and spread their unfiltered messages.
That’s why the greatest challenge to Mediahuis in Ireland is not The Irish Times in the Republic or The Irish News in Northern Ireland. It’s not even the BBC or RTE, no matter how frustrated we may be about their unfair funding. That is because these organisations, like many others, at least share our journalistic and moral values. Their business and our business is not “content”, it’s journalism. We check facts. We double-check sources. We are looking for nuance. We are giving space to different opinions. We try to correct our errors. We don’t have a political goal. Our only reason to exist is to inform, as well as we can, our readers and in doing so create a stronger democracy.
Our worst competitors are those who spread fake news, who produce misinformation, who launch conspiracy theories. Some of this misinformation is uploaded by the hundreds of millions of individuals using social platforms, much of it is uploaded in a systematic way by organisations and even governments. These actors are weaponising misinformation to undermine democracy. The warning of EU Commission vice-president Vera Jourova, a couple of months ago, that Russia is using social media to “wage a war of ideas against democracy” is quite chilling; and Russia is only one example.
Time to engage Artificial Intelligence
I’ve just realised that I managed to write this letter without mentioning the buzz words of this year: Generative Artificial Intelligence. In September of this year Google CEO, Sundar Pichai, said: “AI will be the biggest technological shift we see in our lifetimes. It’s bigger than the shift from desktop computing to mobile, and it may be bigger than the internet itself. It’s a fundamental rewiring of technology and an incredible accelerant of human ingenuity.”
Most of us realised during the past year that AI will completely change the nature of journalism. You only have to experiment a bit with the powerful ChatGPT programme to see that a bot can produce in many cases very decent, rapid and accurate content. I can only agree with Mathias Döpfner, CEO of the German media company, Axel Springer, when he said a couple of months ago that we should “understand, embrace and shape the opportunities of artificial intelligence in our news organisations”. AI should not be seen as a threat, but as an opportunity. We have to ask ourselves all the time: what can be automated and what requires human creativity?
Of course, as publishers, we must be very conscious of the threat of the big tech companies making money on the basis of our content. Earlier I described how platforms are using our content to make money and how we are trying to get a fair share from them. At least on a platform like Google, you can see what news sites Google is linking to. On the other hand, ChatGPT, the fastest growing app of all time, does not cite its sources when it generates its output, even though we know that this output is based on newspapers like the Irish Independent and the Belfast Telegraph. Like many other Large Language Models (LLMs), it is using our articles to feed and train its algorithms. Many providers of AI systems do this secretly: they do not disclose information about the data used to create their datasets or algorithms. As publishers we need to understand when and how our content is being used by LLMs so we can negotiate a fair deal. European and national authorities urgently need to ensure robust enforcement of the existing EU copyright framework and to mandate full transparency around the use of copyrighted content for the training foundation models in the forthcoming AI Act. That is the only way to ensure that those who create valuable journalism are properly remunerated for their work.
The most exciting opportunities of AI
From my perspective, the most exciting opportunity provided by AI lies in the ability to automate tasks and processes that take time and do not add value. What if AI, using the archives of the Irish Independent, could write short profiles of people in the news? What if AI could propose the best headline or text of a push notification? What if AI could help us with data journalism? What if AI could write the script of a short video? What if AI could summarise the most important moments in the history of Israel in bullet points? What if AI could suggest the most urgent topics for a newsletter? All these tasks need to be done but do not add much value to our journalism.
AI and automation has the power to create efficiencies. Mundane data-driven tasks will be automated in the editorial department, but also in ad sales, finance and other parts of the business. AI technology can help us to create more effective and personalised advertising campaigns. It can assist our agents in the customer care centre to respond to inquiries. It can suggest the right moment to send a renewal email to a subscriber. It can produce financial reports and set ad sale targets. It can help in dozens of other tasks in our company. I struggled to come up with a title for this essay, so I dropped a paragraph of text into ChatGPT and it produced a good title.
Of course, we need to be careful. We certainly need human oversight. We also need to be aware of potential AI-generated “hallucinations”. Yet we have to embrace this new technology… precisely to ensure that we can devote the necessary time to produce real, high-quality journalism. The future of journalism is not about carrying out tasks like the ones I described above. It is about researching and revealing information that is not yet known. AI could never uncover the real story of John Delaney and the FAI. A journalist can. AI could never tell the story of doping in Irish horse racing. A journalist can. AI could never reveal the scandals in the Irish dancing world. A journalist can. AI would never do that insightful and critical interview with that politician, rock star or GAA player. AI will never do local journalism, court reporting or political analysis. We can.
AI doesn’t understand the art of storytelling, doesn’t write that thought-provoking opinion piece, doesn’t produce that insightful podcast. AI reproduces – albeit sometimes in an impressive way – what is already known. True journalism digs for new facts and knowledge, provides context and seeks out diverse opinions. In many cases, true journalism is looking for exactly the information that others would like to hide. The great news is: AI should free up more time in our newsrooms to devote to high-quality and unique journalism and services.
We have to produce great journalism
So what is essential for Mediahuis Ireland in the coming years? It is clear to me that the most important thing of all will be this: to produce great journalism. Journalism is the absolute core of our business. But it’s impossible without the support of our Motion and Reach division, without the support of advertising, marketing, finance, logistics, customer care, human resources, information technology and other functions.
I deliberately use the term “journalism” rather than “content”. We are in the business of journalism, not in the business of spreading content and definitely not in the business of marketing services and products. We are not in the business of quantity, but in the business of quality. We are in the business of trust and truth.
Journalists keep people in power accountable, they fight misinformation, they investigate, they interrogate, they master the art of storytelling. Good journalism is insightful and investigative. Good journalism is local, ethical and accountable. Good journalism distinguishes facts from opinions. It is transparent about methods and sources. Good journalism can be trusted. It concentrates on that which is important for our democratic society. Good journalism is independent. It is more about searching than about knowing. Good journalism gives the facts, leaves room for debate and is open for criticism. Good journalism is produced in a diverse, inclusive and safe newsroom. It corrects mistakes. Good journalism is fair.
Are we producing good journalism at this moment in our national and regional brands? Undoubtedly. Can we do better? Definitely.
Since newspaper sales, worldwide, are declining and other legacy media like television and radio are struggling to reach a (younger) audience, some people talk about a crisis in journalism. They are wrong. There is no crisis in journalism. On the contrary: journalism is alive now more than ever. It is more necessary than ever.
Look at us: we can reach people 24/7 in print and digital, on their mobile phones and laptops, via audio (our great podcasts!) and video, immediately and everywhere and spread our journalism worldwide. We produce breaking news and slow journalism, live reporting and investigative journalism.
Sometimes I am asked by students, or their parents, if I would advise a career in the media. My answer is always very clear: I would do so more than ever. That is because there are so many more possibilities and opportunities available now than when I started out in media. Even more important, we need true journalism more than ever. In an ocean of misinformation, fake news and half-baked truths, real journalism is more necessary now than ever before. Readers are looking to trusted media titles to find true facts, insights and balance.
We have to find a sustainable business model
Contrary to popular belief, there is no crisis in journalism; but there is a crisis in the business model of journalism. The days when, as a Dutch publisher once told me about his newspapers in the Eighties, “the money was streaming through the open doors of our news publishing business”, are far behind us. All over the world media companies are struggling to find a sustainable business model. How can we generate enough revenue to finance our ambition: to produce excellent journalism?
Traditionally, in the Irish market, the largest part of newspaper revenues has come from the hundreds of thousands of buyers of single copy newspapers and from advertisers keen to reach readers with their ads. These two revenue streams are still the most important these days, but both are under pressure. Slowly, they are being replaced by revenue from digital subscribers and advertisers. Mediahuis Group estimates that this year 70 per cent of our revenue will come from “print” and 30 per cent from “digital”. By 2030, we foresee that it will be a 30-70 ratio of print-digital.
This means that we have to boldly develop new initiatives. Let me give you two examples: not so long-ago people who planned to buy a second-hand car looked for that car in our newspapers. No-one is doing that anymore. We all go to dedicated websites. That is why Mediahuis invested in CarsIreland, Carzone and Cartell (together we call it our “Motion” division), where people can search for their next car and even check the history of the vehicle. In the car market, we successfully followed our customers and replaced “print” income by “digital” revenue.
Another example is the development of our Reach division: from a classic distribution organisation, which was delivering newspapers all over the country, it changed into a hugely successful wholesale and packaging business.
Improving our journalism is not enough. We also have to become better at presenting that journalism in the right form, at the right time, on the right platform, to the right reader at the right price. Here lies a crucial role for our colleagues who specialise in marketing, product, customer and technology. We must understand better why, how, where and when the public is consuming what we produce. We must use data in a smarter way and act upon the (user) data we have. The user experience on our apps and sites must be much better. We need a better personalised offer, subscription rates and services. We need to be more effective and more efficient digital business partners for our advertising partners. We have to improve our offers to readers and advertisers. If we want to build that business model and survive, we’ll have to place the bar higher than ever before in terms of the quality of our journalism and our services.
All this means that also in the coming years our organisation will need to keep changing. Our titles in the Republic and Northern Ireland, dailies and Sundays, nationals and regionals are working closer together than ever before to produce the best journalism. This evolution will go on, while at the same time preserving the specific character of the different news brands. In both editorial and advertising “print thinking” is being replaced by “digital thinking” and manual tasks have been taken over by automated solutions (think about our successful self-service portal “Your Ad Now”).
In the past five years, many people have been retrained and assumed new functions, ways of working and responsibilities. Others have left the company and we have also hired new talent. This will undoubtedly continue to happen in the future. All of us working together have made Mediahuis Ireland and its brands more resilient, customer-oriented and attractive for readers and advertisers. We want to drive this change further. We need to continue to make this a leaner, more streamlined organisation, with the most efficient processes and systems possible.
In the almost five years that I’ve worked here, I’ve discovered a wonderful organisation but, above all, many dedicated people. People with a passion for our journalism and our national and local brands; a passion for the thousands of big and small advertisers and the thousands of people who, from Dublin to Dingle, sell our papers; a passion for the man who can’t fire up his iPad to read his news, or for the woman who’s looking for a friend in the pages of Ireland’s Own; a passion for Mediahuis Ireland.
Our highly experienced publishing teams, together with our colleagues in Reach and Motion and our dedicated support functions right across the organisation, all combine to make a valid contribution to our evolving story.
When we look back, we can be proud. On the island of Ireland, the Mediahuis Group is a healthy company and we are in a stronger state than we were five years ago. As I’ve made clear in this letter, the future of media in the whole world is uncertain.
However, I am convinced that our strategy is the right one: in a modern Ireland, we have to produce the highest quality journalism and guide our readers in their lives, using digital tools to become more efficient whilst diversifying our revenues. More importantly, I know that the people who make up “Mediahuis Ireland” are the right people to build a successful future for our company, our brands and our journalism.
Dublin, December 2023
CEO Mediahuis Ireland