What does one do with 155 years of history? This was a question posed recently with the bitter news that the Newry Reporter – a regional Irish weekly founded in 1867 – was to publish its final edition this week.
Those archives are roughly five generations’ worth of stories for and about the inhabitants of this town – now city. Newry was “high church, low steeple, dirty streets and proud people,” according to one visitor, the Irish satirist Jonathan Swift.
In 1867, Ireland was still part of the British Empire. In Vienna, The Blue Danube was performed for the first time and, on the other side of the world, the US bought Alaska from Russia for the princely sum of $7.2 million.
The Reporter went on to publish continuously throughout two world wars, the partition of Ireland and the later chaos of the Troubles, stumbling only when Covid-19 forced it to suspend its print operation.
When I stepped through its doors on Margaret Street as a cub reporter in the '90s, I wasn’t thinking about all this heritage. All I knew was that I needed practical experience as I worked my way through a journalism course at a nearby technical college.
I knew the Reporter well though, as did everyone.
It was bought reflexively, year in year out, for its coverage of just about everything: court cases, sports, births, deaths, council meetings and, in those days, the violence of the Troubles.
Importantly, it was also one of the main places to place adverts – from job vacancies to supermarket deals, to used cars and household bric-a-brac. It was also the place where proud families sent in photos of their sons and daughters receiving their university degrees or getting married. The great Irish fascination with needing to know who had died locally that week was catered for by the death notices.
Politically, I remember it trying to take an even-handed approach, covering all sections of the community in a divided society. Every Easter, it would publish news about the town’s Irish republicans marching to commemorate the 1916 Easter Rising against British rule. In July, photos of the district’s Orangemen would be run, as they marched to celebrate the Protestant victory of the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.
The character of the paper and the skills of its staff were impressed upon me as I started at the bottom, helping to file archived editions and typing up the press releases that would snake out of the office fax machine.
The editorial team, led by old-school news man Donal O’Donnell, knew their various beats well. I would shadow them, watching and learning each week as the pages came together, guided by reporters, editors and compositors with years of experience. Some of those journalists are, sadly, no longer with us. Others became lifelong friends. My many mistakes were met with patience and treated as an opportunity to learn.
It was there that I covered my first court case and first council meeting. I got my first front-page byline, covered my first football match, practised my shorthand and generally absorbed as much as I could. It was as good an apprenticeship as a young journalist could wish for.
News that the Reporter was to close was dispiriting but not wholly unsurprising. Local newspapers have been under pressure for years, struggling to adapt to the challenge of turning a profit in the internet era and dealing with the economic hammer blow of Covid-19.
In November, Bob Hughes, executive director of Local Ireland, an industry group, told an Irish parliamentary panel that 17 local titles had closed since 2008. In the UK, a 2015 report by the Press Gazette claimed that more than 300 local newspapers shut in the preceding 10 years. The US is faring little better, with a report last June from Northwestern University claiming that by 2025 a fifth of American newspapers will be gone, leaving 70 million people with “very limited access to critical news and information”.
"Local papers have gone through a torrid time in the past 20 years,” says Paul Anderson, a UK writer and journalism lecturer with more than 30 years’ experience.
“A lot of that is of course down to the internet. Most obviously, people have increasingly read the news online and don't expect to pay for it. But what has most damaged the local press is the impact of the internet on advertising.
“Even after local commercial radio came on the scene in the 1970s, local papers had a near-monopoly on some sorts of local advertising, but that was swept away in the early noughties as it migrated online. That not only deprived the local press of ad revenue – it also hit circulation, because people stopped buying the paper to find a job, somewhere to live, a second-hand car or a sofa.”
This decline in local outlets has also affected routes into journalism for young people keen to get some experience. I was lucky: I had the opportunity to work on the critical skills of sniffing out a story, interviewing different kinds of people, writing tight copy and – importantly – avoiding libelling someone.
For Anderson, the remaining local titles still offer a strong apprenticeship for rookie reporters “paradoxically because they're struggling to survive”.
“Young reporters who are just starting out are cheaper than grizzled old vets, so lots of surviving local papers are eager to employ them. It's still the best way to learn the trade, particularly for reporters,” he says.
For those surviving papers, it’s not all doom and gloom. There is no indication that people have suddenly lost their appetite for reliable news about what’s happening in their area. As Anderson notes:
“There's still a massive demand for local news – local paper websites got record levels of traffic during the pandemic from people wanting to know about infections in their neighbourhoods, and the numbers reading about local sport online are extraordinary.
“The papers are the only place you can really find out what's going on in local politics and in the courts – regional TV and local radio still mostly take their leads from them. I'm sure there are still plenty of closures and mergers to come, but I don't think we've seen the last of local papers.”
As for the Reporter, it seems that the market agrees with Anderson. Last Friday it was reported that publishing firm National World will buy the title, earning an 11th-hour reprieve for the paper’s 10 employees. It seems that 155 years of Irish journalistic history are set to continue.