The Gatekeepers

How a multitude of media titles depend on a handful of intermediaries.

For the most part when we consider concentrations of media power we think about direct ownership of public-facing, content-producing media outlets. In a digital era in particular where so much content appears to flow directly from the media outlet to our screens, it is easy to overlook the less-heralded aspects of the business of media: printing presses, the physical distribution of newspapers and periodicals and the work involved in securing the advertising revenues that remains the lifeblood of the commercial media sector.

On the face of it the Irish regional newspaper market, even after the 2000 – 2007 wave of consolidation and post-2008 closures of approximately 20 titles, remains characterised by some diversity of ownership. lists 76 local paid-for local or regional titles as of 2023 and a further 28 freesheets. 24 of these are owned by Formpress , 11 by Mediahuis and 6 by CMNL but the rest are in the hands of groups with fewer than five titles to their name.

Print: Formpress, Mediaforce, Newspapers and Advertising

Formpress is a subsidiary of Mediaforce, a UK-based company which the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (CCPC) has described as “a national advertising sales agency/conduit for local/regional newspapers and regional digital newspapers in the State”. In effect Mediaforce simplifies the task of buying adspace in local print media for advertisers. Rather than having to deal with a multitude of separate media outlets and media groups, Mediaforce represents a bloc of some 55 Irish local print tiles, facilitating advertiser access to their pages.
However, the majority of these 55 titles are not directly owned by Mediaforce’s subsidiary in Ireland, Formpress. And, given Mediaforce’s status as  - simultaneously - an advertising agency/conduit and media owner, this creates a potential conflict of interest since Mediaforce might give preference to its own titles when placing advertisements.

In their public assessments of Formpress’s acquisition of new titles since 2014 (when Mediaforce originally bought the group from Johnson Press), the CCPC has not always referenced Mediaforce’s dual status in this regard. However in 2019, when Formpress announced its intention to acquire the Midland Tribune group of newspapers from Alpha Newspapers, the CCPC expressed concern that “the Proposed Transaction may impact on competition in markets for goods or services in the State due to Formpress and Mediaforce belonging to the same group of companies.”

The CCPC’s worries and a Chinese Wall 

In the event, the CCPC permitted Formpress’s acquisition of the Midland Tribune group to proceed. However this was made subject to binding conditions erecting Chinese Walls between Mediaforce’s operations in Ireland and those of Formpress. Mediaforce was required to give an undertaking to “direct the advertising business received by it from advertisers and advertising agencies to local/regional newspapers and digital newspapers on a strictly fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory basis and to apply equivalent conditions in equivalent circumstances to all Formpress Titles and Non-Formpress Titles”. Furthermore Mediaforce agreed to the appointment of an independent Monitoring Trustee to ensure compliance with these conditions.

This advertising was sold to you by: Sky and Bauer

This situation whereby media outlets or firms connected to media outlets through ownership also sell advertising space on behalf of competing media outlets is paralleled in television and radio. The Comcast-owned Sky Ireland Limited is the dominant player in the Irish satellite distribution market and Sky Television’s suite of broadcast channels cumulatively account for the third largest group share of viewing in Ireland. Sky sells local opt-out spot advertising on behalf of its own channels in Ireland. However, Sky Media Ireland also sells advertising space on 20-plus other channels included in basic satellite and cable packages. These include the Paramount Global-owned Comedy Central , Dave and Gold (both owned by the BBC via their UKTV subsidiary) and Warner Bros-Discovery’s various Discovery channels.
Finally in radio, in September 2023, Bauer Media Ireland acquired the Media Central sales agency which has long sold advertising space on behalf of Bauer’s own stations but also the Irish Times-owned Beat 102-103 and Choice Broadcasting’s Classic Hits radio.

So what?

None of the above is intended to convey the impression that any of the parties involved are engaged in anything problematic. The media outlets not directly owned by the various conduits/brokers/sales houses referred to clearly would not retain the services of the latter if they weren’t confident that this represents the best way to access much-needed commercial revenues. Nonetheless, it emphasizes how the existence of a multitude of media outlets is dependent on the role of a handful of intermediaries.

How many printing presses does a country need?

The position is reflected in the narrowing options for newspaper printing in Ireland. In 2004, Thomas Crosbie Holdings, then the owner of 14 local and national titles including the Irish Examiner and Sunday Business Post announced that it was closing its printing press after 153 years of operation. The company leased land in the Cork suburb of Mahon to a newly established printer, Webprint (established by a former Independent News and Media executive), to which it outsourced the printing of its titles.

The move appeared to presage a wider shift to outsourcing and contract printing. Contract printing had always been a feature of the Irish newspaper sector (especially for localised versions of UK print titles) but well into the 21st century there remained a degree of vertical integration of newspaper publishing and printing which ensured that newspaper groups didn’t have to rely on their competitors for the physical production of their titles. As recently as 2015 INM still operated three substantial printing plants on the island of Ireland. These were complemented by Smurfit Kappa’s joint venture with News Corporation outside Kells, the Irish Times printing operation in Dublin’s Citywest and smaller operations such as the Celtic Media Group’s Navan facility.

Printing presses go out of fashion

A decade later and the situation looks very different.

  • In 2015 INM shut its Belfast plant  switching its operations – including the printing of the Belfast Telegraph -  to Newry.
  • In September 2019, months after acquiring Independent News and Media, Mediahuis announced that it was closing the landmark Citywest printing print with the loss of 80 jobs.

  • In September 2021, News UK and Ireland Limited, announced the closure of their press in Kells (having acquired it from Smurfit Kappa just two months earlier.) The plant had  printed the Irish Sun and Sunday Times Ireland Edition since 2002 when it had been opened with much fanfare in 2002 by then News Corporation Chairman Rupert Murdoch and Taoiseach NBertie Ahern. 

  • In October 2022, Mediahuis Ireland announced the closure of their last printing press in Newry printing press. A month later, in November 2022, the Celtic Media Group following suit, closing their printing press outside Navan following Reach PLCs  decision to terminate their printing contract for its Irish titles.

The major beneficiary of these closures has been the Irish Times printing operation which now prints the majority of national titles sold into the Irish market. In their 2022 Annual Report, the Irish Times Designated Activity Company reported that third party printing contracts was now its fastest growing revenue stream.
It’s not quite the only player left, however: in March 2021 Cork-based Webprint acquired the former INM plant at Citywest, hugely expanding its capacity and – crucially – giving it a base more geographically proximate to the publishing offices of the main national print titles.

Who reads a paper that was not printed?

It might reasonably be argued that given the shift to digital consumption of newspapers none of this really matters. Even if the last printing press in Ireland suddenly imploded tomorrow, readers could still access their papers online. In an April 2023 interview with RTE, Mediahuis Ireland CEO Peter Vandermeersch stated that he expects the company’s titles to more or less entirely cease their print existence by 2033. And, while the Irish Times may have enjoyed a short term boon from the closure of other printing operations, its annual reports routinely identify an expectation that long term contract printing revenues will decline as a key risk.

Nonetheless it remains the case that cumulative daily print circulation in Ireland still numbers in the hundreds of thousands (even if we cannot know the exact figure). And the increasingly narrow base of printing operations once again means the appearance of a myriad of print titles is dependent on just one or two print institutions.

The last bottleneck: Distribution

Once printed, of course, those newspapers have to be physically distributed to the thousands of retail outlets in every county who directly sell newspaper titles to the public. This leads to the final instance of such concentration: control of distribution. In contrast to printing, this is a sector which has long been dominated by a single company. Newspread, which now operates as an element of Mediahuis’s logistics subsidiary Reach (not to be confused with the UK-based publisher Reach PLC), has long played a dominant role in the distribution market albeit it has never actually monopolised it. Its main competition in the 1980s and 1990s came from Easons which enhanced its position in the market with the establishment of a joint venture – EM Distribution – with UK-based Menzies in 2007. In 2017 Menzies bought out Easons stake for €3.6m and although Newspread still accounts for the majority of national titles in the market, EM Distribution remains an active competitor.

Again, in highlighting this bottleneck at the level of distribution, and in particular, the fact that the leading newspaper publisher and newspaper distributor are owned by a single entity – Mediahuis - we are not asserting that this constitutes a clear and present danger to Newspread’s non-Mediahuis clients (which include the papers of the Irish Times group and Reach PLC). The longer history of media distribution in Ireland does illustrate how such concentration might matter: media historian John Horgan notes how the Independent Group sought to limit the scope of the distribution of the new rival Irish Press newspaper in the 1930s (vetoing the latter’s request for access to special newspaper trains) and again in the 1940s threatening to withhold supplies of the Sunday Independent to retailers who agreed to sell the Sunday Press paper.

Newspread, which was established in 1971, operates in a very different commercial context, however. While newspaper media groups may have limited choices in terms of dedicated media distribution companies, it is clearly not in the interests of a distributor to – overtly or discretely – discriminate against any individual title on the basis of ownership.  

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    Global Media Registry
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    Co-funded by European Union