Coronavirus has dominated the news in Ireland over the past year, with audiences able to follow live press conferences with government ministers and health and emergency officials on an almost daily basis, along with detailed reporting on every aspect of the crisis. Strong interest in COVID-19 appears to have reinforced the position of the most trusted brands.
Uncertainty in politics caused instability on many fronts in the first half of 2020. A February election resulted in an unprecedented three-way split between the centre-right parties Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael and the Irish republican left-wing party Sinn Féin. Each won an equal share of the vote, but Sinn Féin had the most first-preference votes. The latter’s popularity with young people can partly be explained by a strong social media campaign, particularly on Facebook. In the end, coalition negotiations dragged on until June, when Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, and the Green Party united against Sinn Féin and agreed to form a government.
Interest in public service health announcements was demonstrated in March 2020 by the St Patrick’s Day COVID-19 speech by then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, which was watched by 1.7 million viewers. The subsequent RTÉ nine o’clock television news bulletin was watched by 1.3 million. Throughout the various COVID-19 lockdowns, the nation’s viewers have turned to the public service broadcaster, RTÉ, in high numbers. This is reflected in the weekly reach figures showing RTÉ retaining its place as the top news source in both the offline and online categories, with increases of five and eight percentage points respectively. Nonetheless, more than a quarter of a million people evaded the national licence fee, which cost the corporation €50 million in lost revenue.
In the commercial news sector COVID-19 has created the perfect storm, with a precipitous downfall in advertising and lockdowns restricting people’s ability to buy print newspapers. Companies that sought temporary layoffs, closures, pay cuts, or redundancies included the local and regional newspaper companies Iconic Newspapers Group, Johnston Press Group, Local Ireland, and Journal Media publishers of the digital-born TheJournal.ie. However, in more positive news, our data show TheJournal.ie and the Irish Times increased their weekly online reach by four and seven percentage points respectively, along with a four percentage point increase (to 16%) in people reporting paying for news online. The Irish Times reported subscriptions growing in 2020 at three times the rate of 2019 (when they reached 90,000), while Independent.ie reported more than 30,000 subscribers by the end of 2020.1
To offset the dire situation for local radio stations, the government asked the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) to implement a waiver of the broadcasting levy, a move which saved the sector almost €1 million.
To explore new ways to secure the sustainability of Irish media into the future, the government set up the Future of Media Commission which aired industry and expert testimony in a series of ‘Thematic Dialogues’ in early 2021. Many of the submissions focused on the fact that big tech companies had taken the lion’s share of the digital advertising spend. According to Core’s ‘Outlook 21 – Media Forecasts’ report,2 Google and Facebook ‘accounted for 84.4% of all online advertising investment and 44.6% of the total media market’. NewsBrands Ireland, the industry’s representative organisation, summed up the assorted challenges in its submission: ‘Declining print circulation, draconian defamation laws, changed advertising models, and a fundamental imbalance of power between platforms and publishers have put enormous pressure on news media outlets.’ The Commission recommendations will be published later in 2021.3
The European Union’s 2018 Audiovisual Media Services Directorate (AVMSD) updated the regulatory environment for audiovisual media services and extended some rules to video-sharing platforms. The revised directive has not yet been transposed into national legislation. Similarly, the date for the introduction of the proposed Irish legislation, the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill published in December 2020, remains unclear. This is due in part to the significance of the location of tech giants in Ireland and also because of potential conflicts between aspects of the proposed legislation and the EU Digital Services Act (DSA).
One of the biggest industry stories involved the sale of Denis O’Brien’s Communicorp radio group to Germany’s Bauer Media Audio. Communicorp owned two high-rating national radio stations, Today FM and Newstalk. This follows other international mergers and buy-outs, including Virgin Media merging with O2 (owned by Telefónica), Independent News and Media (INM) being sold to Mediahuis, and the takeover by the Irish Times of the Irish Examiner.
Dublin City University
Online remains the main source of news. While COVID-19 has accelerated the structural decline in print it also seems to have fuelled a slight increase in TV and in the use of the smartphones, in line with trends seen elsewhere.
Pay for online news
Listen to podcast in the last month
Share news via social, messaging or email
Trust in news overall
Trust in news I use
Trust in news in search
Trust in news on social media
COVID-19 seems to have boosted trust over the past year (+5pp) for ‘news overall’ and for ‘news I use’ (+7pp). Public broadcaster RTÉ remains the most trusted brand (78%), closely followed by the Irish Times (77%), with Virgin Media News registering a seven percentage point increase on last year.
1 https://www.irishtimes.com/business/media-and-marketing/operating-profit-at-irish-times-group-up-46-to-3-82m-in-2019-1.4351742; https://www.independent.ie/business/inm-owner-mediahuis-reports-2020-profit-despite-impact-of-covid-40130082.html