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The other P O’Neill

More cost-cutting as the Irish Times’ dominant business side continues to eschew editorial vision

The new editor of the Irish Times, Paul O’Neill, was brought up an only child in Waterford where his late father, Paddy, was editor of the ‘News and Star’. His mother Josie’s family, the Larkins, owned the well-known bar and grocery at The Duffry in Enniscorthy, now Donohoe’s/Pettitt’s. Paul started his career at that newspaper and worked for a while at the Cork Examiner. He is married to Jennifer and has two daughters. He is, at 52, five years younger than his predecessor, and an enthusiastic cyclist, though as he admits himself, more for health reasons than environmental concerns about fossil fuels. He cycles competitively with the Dundrum-based Orwell Wheelers. He has cycled the “Étape du tour’, a leg of the Tour de France – 138km from Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne to La Toussuire-Les Sybelles. “But the challenge wasn’t the distance. The true test lay in the climbs: a total of 61.5km uphill”.

The challenges facing O’Neill are enormous. When the Irish Times broke the news on Twitter that a new editor had been installed, it incidentally highlighted one of the major problems the newspaper faces.

A photo circulated of Paul O’Neill, taking over from Kevin O’Sullivan, who was stepping aside to take on the portfolios of agriculture, environment and science, showed the pair standing in the centre of a large circle as other Irish Times staff crowded round and listened to the announcement Such photos are a tradition in the Irish Times – they bespeak a hive of collegiality led by a winning editor. But as Twitter users quickly pointed out, that crowd was overwhelmingly made up of middle-aged men – pale, male and stale.

In contrast to O’Sullivan’s appointment, which came after a lengthy period of speculation over the future direction of the newspaper as several candidates vied for the position, O’Neill’s promotion came on an otherwise unremarkable mid-week afternoon, without fanfare, or notice.

Paul O’Neill making an uphill ascent, 2015

“The challenges facing so-called old media companies have been well ventilated”, O’Neill was quoted as saying shortly after the announcement.

“But the audience [sic] of The Irish Times continues to grow and now includes those who access our journalism via smartphones, iPads and desktops, as well as those who continue to read the newspaper.

The media landscape is evolving rapidly and the future is not settled. But in a world of alternative facts, falsehoods and hidden agendas, I’m confident that The Irish Times and our independent journalism will continue to thrive.

As people increasingly question the accuracy of the information presented to them, I believe the standards of quality and fairness associated with the Irish Times will be ever more relevant and valuable to them”.

O’Neill was deputy editor (and is replaced by Denis Staunton), not to be confused with assistant editor, which is Fintan O’Toole, to both O’Sullivan and Geraldine Kennedy. He combined this with the title ‘Editorial Director’. Before that he had crossed over to the Dark Side for a time to work in public relations having taken a redundancy package from the paper at the turn of the century. Since he joined initially in 1989, he has been London correspondent, crime and news reporter and finance editor.

He applied for the job last time around after Kennedy’s departure, and was very clearly regarded as the front runner for the post once O’Sullivan departed.

In reported remarks on his departure O’Sullivan said his term as editor – the thirteenth in the paper’s history – “coincided with unprecedented turbulence and uncertainty for media businesses”. It has been rumoured that Dan Flinter, chairman of the board of the Irish Times Limited,and former boss of Enterprise Ireland, leant on O’Sullivan to move on. His removal was a cloak-and-dagger operation and it is indicative of low morale at the newspaper that none of the supposed standards watchdogs at the newspaper, which is guided by a lofty but precarious Trust arrangement and an “editorial committee”, complained about the furtive lack of proper interview procedures.

That uncertainty about the future was also acknowledged by O’Neill in an interview with Sean O’Rourke on RTÉ radio, where he acknowledged the possibility that the Irish Times may eventually have to move to less frequent print editions, perhaps appearing in hard copy only on Saturdays. He had little to say about his editorial vision and nobody in the newspaper’s elevated governance seems to rate this as of much significance in the face of the need to adopt buzz concepts to address the accepted threats of digital, Google and Facebook. Cost-cutting not vision is the order of the day, still.

In June last year the Irish Times announced plans to reduce costs by €3.5m over three years, including a target to cut employment costs in the business by €1.5m.

Remarkably, the paper employs close to 400 staff but is currently completing a voluntary redundancy programme. Circulation has almost halved since its peak in 2008 and is down a third on O’Sullivan’s watch (compared to 28% at the Irish Independent). The Irish Times has managed to encourage readers to subscribe, both to print and digital offerings. Reading through statements both from the paper itself and the Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC), it appears to have attracted 13,000 subscribers for the e-paper (a digital reproduction of the print product), and 12,000 more to access behind the website paywall, with an additional 30,000 paying for a joint web-and-print subscription.

 

Circulation 2000 – 2016.
Source: ilevel.ie – Media and Marketing Consultants

 

These numbers allow the paper to claim a combined print+pixel circulation base of over 90,000, though the most recent ABC figure, counting only print sales, is a sobering 66,251.

But even if the paper does manage to convert all of its print readers to digital (or – an even greater challenge – increase its total base by attracting new subscribers), it still faces the hard fact that digital advertising revenues are only a fraction of those it can attract for print. And there are only so many commercial features and “sponsored content” reports the paper can host before it starts to detract from the masthead’s credibility.

To an extent, a new editor’s job is like that of a captain of an oil tanker. Changing direction takes time and that is assuming that a change of direction is even desired. As such, one month in, it’s not yet clear whether O’Neill will continue along the lines of his predecessor, or strike out in new directions. If it is to change direction, then the Irish Times needs to cultivate new voices, and avoid the old reliables. It was striking, for example, that after the Citizens’ Assembly built a new paradignm for the Irish abortion debate, the first ‘Inside Politics’ Podcast turned to Breda O’Brien and Cora Sherlock to explain why the recommendations weren’t a runner, rather than seeking out new voices who might explain how the Assembly arrived at its conclusions.  It is a long time since the ‘dream line-up’ of Fintan O’Toole, John Waters and Nuala O’Faoláin led the national discourse.

One of the most unusual aspects of the new regime is the appointment of O’Sullivan to cover environment, agriculture and science beats. Previous editors have moved on to pastures new, giving their successors space to carve out their own paths. Conor Brady went to work for the Garda Ombudsman’s office, while Geraldine Kennedy is now teaching journalism in Limerick. It remains to be seem whether the new arrangement, with both O’Neill and his predecessor still in the same building – described by one observer as “like having two Popes around the place” – will work out in the long term. A greater problem for this Vatican is that its congregation no longer seems willing to follow its ex cathedra pronouncements.

 

By Gerard Cunningham

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