These are changing times for the newspaper industry worldwide but I'm keeping an eagle eye on new trends closer to home.
The Belfast Telegraph has ended its legendary newspaper boy/girl home delivery service, replacing it with contract labour from eastern-Europe. However, do the math, as the Yanks say, and it doesn't add up.
You have 20 subscribers in Cultra and you dispatch a van from central Belfast to Cultra, make your way down those winding driveways to deliver the Bel Tel and, including the journey to and from base, you have four hours work. Even at minimum wage that's £24, which means it costs more than a pound to deliver a paper which costs 60p. Of course you need to add to that the cost of the manager of our delivery man. Transfer the same logistics to Poleglass where you have, say, another 10 subscribers and the madness of the new system results in implosion.
That said, in the US, the norm is that adults deliver the paper every morning for a subscribers' rate which is about half the cover price of the newspaper — so it works for them because the advertisers like to row in behind high subscriber figures. But even that model is under pressure: Sam Zell's Los Angeles Times is letting another 250 jobs go.
The Times editor blames the internet. I'm not sure if the News Letter, perhaps the illest of them all, can blame the internet for its continuing decline in sales figures. The fact is that the Orange supporters who turned out yesterday (500,000 according to UTV's Citybeat radio and the Belfast Telegraph which is basically every Protestant with a pulse in the North, if you accept that figure) don't read the News Letter. They are unionists, for heaven's aake, so they read the newspapers from the 'mainland': tabloids if they're working class, the broadsheets if they're better-off.
If the News Letter is selling more than 20,000 copies a day, champagne corks will pop at its new city centre offices in Belfast. And of course the government review of advertising trudges along. Once already, the guys in the suits have decreed that government ad spend should be cut in the Irish News and News Letter. That decision didn't go down well and the number-crunchers were sent away to come up with a better solution. However, they cut it, it's hard to see any cogent argument being made which can justify a continuation of the cracked policy whereby EVERY government ad goes into the News Letter (and Irish News and Bel Tel). In which case, it's time to call in the undertakers at the oldest newspaper in these islands.
Let's hope things don't get to that.
And meanwhile, let's do something we don't do very often on the balcony: raise a glass to Sir Tony O'Reilly. Under Independent News and Media ownership, more and more copy originating in the Irish Independent is finding its way into the Belfast Telegraph; including a half-page piece last week on the late Nuala O'Faolain. This was the sort of stuff never allowed in the Bel Tel but with continuing pressure on costs, there is a pressing need to share as much copy as possible. That means, more stuff originating from South of the Border. What a strange thought that the most pro-unionist newspaper publisher in Ireland is actually doing more to educate unionists about the rest of the island than any of us. An Aisling award, anyone?
In the meantime, the legions turning out to cheer on the bands making their way to the field return home to the realisation that all is changed, changed utterly from the days when they could rest easy secure in the knowledge that they had two newspapers in unionist hands, and each selling over 100,000 copies.