State-of-the-art becomes sign of times as Mediahuis closes its last Irish printing plant

Newspaper circulation has plunged since the former INM company opened the Newry plant in 2007 and the VAT cut will only go so far to help

Another Irish printing press is set to be switched off. Less than 16 years after it opened, the plant located on the Carnbane Industrial Estate in Newry will, in early 2023, be shut down by its owners, Mediahuis Ireland, the company formerly known as Independent News & Media (INM). It is the latest in a hat-trick of printing plant decisions by publishers that gives sad new meaning to the exclamation “stop the press”.

Such exits happen annually now. It was in early 2020 that Mediahuis departed its plant in Citywest, Dublin, later selling the presses to the Cork-based company Webprint. The Irish Independent publisher was already in printing-site consolidation mode by this point, having exited its plant in Belfast five years earlier. Last year, meanwhile, it was the turn of News Corp to announce the closure of its plant in Kells, Co Meath, two months after it acquired full control of the press.

INM’s Citywest presses began rolling in 2000, those at News Corp’s Kells plant in 2002. The lifespan of the Noughties-born printing plants — investments made before newspaper circulation went into retreat in 2007 — is now getting shorter still, with Mediahuis’s Newry exit proving that even a 16-year stretch for modern media is an aeon. It is only to non-digital natives — anyone who instinctively feels the Noughties were the day before yesterday — that the trajectory from gleaming new facility to mothball target will seem remarkably quick.

Printing plants described in the jargon of the era as ‘state-of-the-art’ have become assets to be offloaded and replaced with outsourcing arrangements.

One minute Sir Anthony O’Reilly, then INM chief executive, was proudly pretending to read one of his newspapers for a publicity photo shoot to mark the launch, and son Gavin O’Reilly, then chief operating officer, was touting its capabilities for heatset gloss printing. The next minute those tens of millions of investment, made with support from development agency Invest NI, have become nothing more than a historical outlay on a vision of the future since abandoned.

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Printing plants described in the jargon of the era as “state-of-the-art” have become assets to be offloaded and replaced with outsourcing arrangements. Mediahuis’s Irish strategy may not be replicated by all publishers, but its move cannot be seen as anything other than a consequence of print market decline.

The announcement notably coincided with a separate yet related one from Mediahuis, that it was to cease publication of the Fingal Independent, an unprofitable north Dublin weekly. Even more notably still, it came on budget day, mere hours after Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe announced that VAT on print and digital newspapers would be cut from 9 per cent to 0 per cent from January 1st.

The abolition of what industry group Newsbrands Ireland called a “tax on information, learning and democracy” came too late for the Fingal Independent — a title that has covered areas such as Swords, Balbriggan, Lusk, Rush, Skerries, Malahide and Portmarnock since 1983 — and it will publish its final edition later this month.

Elsewhere, the zero-rating provides financial breathing space to many other titles grasping for revenues — struggling even for shelf space — at a time when their energy and newsprint (printing paper) costs are surging. The question now is how long this stay of execution can hope to last.

With the exception of the Fingal Independent, the rest of Mediahuis’s national and local portfolio will continue to appear in physical form, printed by third parties. The Irish Times, which already prints Mediahuis’s Sunday World and Herald titles, will from January print the Irish Independent and the Sunday Independent.

This would have been eyebrow-raising once. If you were to travel back to the decades when The Irish Times had its printing press on Fleet Street and Independent newspapers had its press on Middle Abbey Street and loudly declare that one day The Irish Times will print the Irish Independent, workers would rightly guess that something very serious has happened to their industry.

The executives who signed off on the construction of printing plants for both INM and The Irish Times at Citywest on either side of the millennium — the projects were unveiled within six months of each other — might also be taken aback if informed of the deal.

In more recent times, however, predictions that this would be the outcome have abounded. Really, there was little surprising about it by the time it was confirmed.

Striking a deal with The Irish Times was indeed recommended to management of the former INM company by EY consultants back in 2018, a year before it was acquired by its current Belgian owners. Mediahuis Ireland, a keen mopper-up of print contracts in its INM days, has simply switched to the other side of such subcontracting arrangements.

And yet it can’t help but look as if the company, part of an Antwerp-headquartered publishing empire, is edging closer to the door marked “digital-only”.

In its statement to staff last week, Mediahuis Ireland said its priority was to protect its business as it transitions to a “digital-focused news organisation” and that it remained “fully committed to delivering trusted national and local journalism in a sustainable way”. You don’t have to be Hercule Poirot to surmise that the operative part of this line is “in a sustainable way” or spot that it falls shy of saying it is fully committed to the medium of print for the foreseeable future.

For now, Mediahuis Ireland remains wrapped up in the logistics of print. It is the largest wholesale distributor of newspapers and magazines in the market through Newspread (which distributes The Irish Times). But Newspread is just one unit within a wider distribution subsidiary that has diversified away from publishing, supplying everything from gift bags and pencil cases to cake boxes and bubble wrap.

Amid a plethora of fast-rising expenses, the Government’s VAT cut is a compensatory financial lifeline, not a spur for growth. It won’t be passed on to print’s dwindled customer base, barring perhaps the odd brief promo. Instead, as 2023 beckons, printing is destined to become an increasingly niche activity, pressure on cover prices will only be upward and more titles may still cease.