At the recent annual Newspaper Awards event staged in London’s Hilton Hotel, The Daily Telegraph fought off strong competition from rivals such as The Sun, the Guardian and The Independent to take the national newspaper of the year title. However there were other winners, too, in what the organisers described as a celebration of 'the best in print and digital news media production and innovation'. Amongst these were some Northern Ireland publications that are keeping apace in this rapidly changing industry.
The Irish News picked up its fourth award in ten years as the regional daily newspaper of the year for newspapers with a daily circulation in excess of 25,000 copies, while the Enniskillen based Impartial Reporter beat the field to claim the title in the weekly newspaper category. Recognition, too, came the way of Interpress (NI), named newspaper printer of the year with Farm Week receiving a commendation in the niche market category.
While this news may give the impression that everything is stable within the industry, the reality is that the future remains challenging even for those journals that are embracing change.
'The days of the local paper being the road to a massive fortune for its owners are long since over,' says Stephen Price, head of the media department at the Northern Regional College, 'The UK market has declined 20% in last decade. Nationally, titles have dwindled from around 1300 to 1000. Yet in that time 70 new titles have come along.'
Price, who has more than 30 years experience of working in the sector, believes that the problems faced by the newspaper industry elsewhere in the United Kingdom will make their way to Northern Ireland.
'Competition is much fiercer in the rest of the UK than here,' he explains. 'People in Northern Ireland still like their local newspaper in its present form. Lots of readers have yet to switch to tablet format, mobile or internet coverage. While some are doing this, it is not to the same extent as elsewhere. Inevitably that will happen.'
Price contends that the newspaper industry failed to recognise the huge potential of the online market when it began to emerge in the 1990s.
'They thought they were invincible and untouchable. They didn’t realise that their business model was about to pack in and they have been playing catch up ever since,' says Price. 'All newspapers, international, national and local, still cannot figure out how to make money from it.'
'For too, long they allowed readers to get free content. They thought this would be an add-on way to get people into the paper. However those customers aren’t prepared to pay now.'
And to prove his point Stephen Price, whose career has taken him from newspapers into television and back again during the past three decades, recounts that having once spent £10 a day on papers, he now spends nothing.
'Yet I read more papers than I ever did,' he adds - thanks to the online digital revolution that allows newspapers to remain relevant in the fast moving world of news. 'I get all my news through my computer screen now.'
Among the category winners at the Hilton Hotel were the Financial Times for their FT web app that clips together stories that can be read at a later date and the Guardian’s GuardianWitness platform that allows the public to contribute news stories.
The main publishers of the bulk of Northern Ireland titles include the Alpha Newspaper Group, Johnston Publishing (NI), Trinity Mirror and the Independent News & Media Group. Some of these businesses have diversified their operations into other areas and partnerships including local radio network franchises.
The role of the local paper as the purveyor of news and information in its particular area remains strong. Online editions that also offer a subscription service provide links to local breaking news, family announcements, a downloadable photograph and anything else that emphasizes a connection with the immediate area.
The arrival of the internet has had a major impact on the advertising revenue that has traditionally been regarded as so reliant on.
'A huge slice of the advertising budget has migrated to search engines. Google in particular soaks up approximately 60% of all online advertising,' explains Stephen Price.
And in adapting to this new order, local papers have embedded advertising on their web pages. Some stories can only be read in full by online readers once they have completed a sponsored survey back by a major brand.
New media is playing a significant role as well with a constant stream of Twitter feeds sending followers to the main pages of local titles. Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Google+, Instagram and the blogosphere also provide an outlet for information. Weekly or bi-weekly titles now offer immediate news updates. While the recent take over of the Fivemiletown Creamery by Glanbia Co-op came too late for the printing presses, newspapers in the Tyrone and Fermanagh area were able to give full weight to this significantly important story with online coverage.
The days of newsrooms bustling with the manic sound of typewriters working to imminent deadlines are but an echo of a time past.
'When you look at significantly higher production costs for employees, paper, ink, and distribution and set them beside significantly less digital costs , you can see the difficulty that the industry is facing,' says Stephen Price.
'Newspapers are caught in a trap. Some, like the Times and Sunday Times have a pay wall and hope for online subscriptions. Others like the Guardian give everything away for free in the hope of making money from adverts.'
'The old model of paying your money and taking your paper has gone. A clue for the future maybe in the American model where there is a micropayment system where readers pay a few cents here and few cents there for articles. Subscription costs have been reduced dramatically and readers pay more for additional articles.'
While this might be a model for survival, it has come too late for the Carrickfergus Advertiser. After 130 years in operation, the presses stopped rolling in January when it and sister publication the Ballyclare Gazette shut their doors for good because of economic forces.
The National Union of Journalists described the development as 'another sad chapter in the history of regional journalism' as the established journalist workforce in Northern Ireland was further dwindled.
Ironically its owners, the Alpha News Group has yet to update its web pages and still offers the opportunity to subscribe to both these titles.
By Padraig Coyle