Newspaper watch: (Non) intellectual property

  • 22 November 2006
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By far the greatest part of the revenue generated by newspapers comes from advertising and this proportion is steadily increasing. For example, in 2005, Independent News and Media's advertising revenue rose €100m to €1.047bn, while sales increased by just €19m to €316m. Therefore, publishers' primary product is not the paper itself – they are in the business of selling eyeballs to advertisers.

However, newspaper circulation figures are in longterm decline and it seems unlikely this trend will be reversed; many commentators are predicting the demise of the traditional newspaper in the face of online news sources. Thus, in order to maintain their revenues in a shrinking marketplace, newspapers have focused on cutting production costs and increasing the advertising revenue per issue.

Supplements and magazines are the principal tools by which advertising revenue is targeted. Focused on a particular market, they generally carry a much higher proportion of advertising than the main section of the newspaper and their editorial content is relatively cheap to produce and, moreover, can be tailored to attract advertisers.

The advertising-driven focus of newspaper supplements can be clearly seen in their choice of subjects. For example, in the 1990s, the Irish Times introduced a "computimes" technology supplement. It persisted through the dot-com boom before being merged into their business supplement in 2001, where it is now a two-page "technology in business" section. Although technology has not become less important since 2001, the amount of money being spent by advertisers, particularly on posting technology jobs, declined sharply in the aftermath of the dot-com crash – hence the supplement's raison d'être disappeared.

The current boom in the property market is, predictably, reflected in the fact that the Irish Times now publishes two separate property supplements – a shorter commercial property supplement on a Wednesday, introduced in 2004, and a longer residential property supplement on a Thursday.

These supplements are both predominantly devoted to advertising. Furthermore, their editorial content is virtually indistinguishable from advertising. The property section on Thursday 16 November contained 31 articles. 12 of these articles described properties currently on the market in Ireland. They were replete with "magnificent" adjectives and none of them had a single bad thing to say about any of the properties covered. Six articles advertised investment opportunities in foreign markets, once again in entirely positive terms, helpfully providing contact details of the relevant property agencies. Reports about planning appeals, recent house sales and articles advertising other property-related products made up the bulk of the remainder. The few articles to attempt some analysis managed to be upbeat and optimistic despite the recent collapse in the auction market.

Considering the importance of the revenue generated by these supplements – six pages of property ads bring in as much revenue as a day's newspaper sales – it is not surprising that the editorial content is so sympathetic to the advertisers, but it certainly isn't news.