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The Vacuum - Issue 14 - Media spacer The Vacuum - Issue 14 - Media
From Alternative Press to Corporate Mainstream: The Case of the Andersonstown News
by Liam O'Rourke
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With almost 60 regional and local titles in circulation which are read by 90% of the population, the press market in Northern Ireland is responsible for circulating more copies per thousand people than any other region in Europe. One of the most significant titles in the local newspaper market is the Andersonstown News (familiarly known as Andytown News). Its Thursday edition is the second biggest selling weekly in Northern Ireland. It is probably the local newspaper best representative of the nationalist community in Belfast. It is an influential newspaper; it outsells and is more widely read than the Irish News in Belfast. It is a source of information and identity for the local community. If you wants to know how the Nationalist community feels, the Andytown News is a good place to start. In his 1998 Damian Walsh lecture, the paper's editor Robin Livingstone declared:
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'Being editor of the Andytown News isn't like being the editor of the Lurgan Mail or the Mourne Observer. The Andytown News punches way above its weight. We're putting two local weekly newspapers out with considerably less resources than other newspapers with perhaps a third of our circulation and yet we find ourselves quoted in Whitehouse briefing papers; discussed in the House of Commons; referred back to as some sort of ultra-reliable barometer of nationalist opinion in lengthy learned pieces in what we please to call the quality press. If West Belfast really is the cockpit of the North, the Andytown News has become its instrument panel.'
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The first Issue of the Andersonstown News came out on 22 November 1972. It was an eight page weekly published by the Andersonstown Central Civil Resistance Committee. As the name of the publisher indicates it was a 'resistance' paper, part of the alternative press which existed then. Other titles included Republican News, The Volunteer, Tatler published by Republicans, or the Unfree Citizen published by the People's Democracy. The paper had similar production and distribution processes to these titles. It relied on volunteers, had little money and a small circulation. Today, things are radically different. It is a real corporate enterprise. From a small eight page publication, the Andersonstown News is now published twice a week, the Thursday edition is a 104-page publication with 36 pages of full colour (circulation of 16,829 copies in 2003), and the Monday edition is 72 pages including 14 pages of weekend sport (circulation of 8,151). It is published by the media group Nuachtáin Teoranta also known as the Andersonstown News Group. The Chief Executive of the group is Mr Mairtin O'Muilleoir and the editor of the Andersonstown News is Robin Livingstone. This fast growing group is made up of the Andersonstown News (gone bi-weekly in 2000), the North Belfast News, an 84 page weekly launched in 1998 which is the most popular paid-for newspaper in North Belfast, and the South Belfast News (weekly), first published in 2001. One of the peculiarities of that paper is that it tries to appeal to both communities across the south of the city, and not just to a Nationalist readership. Finally, the group also owns the Irish language national newspaper La, that it bought in 1999. La (whose model is the Basque language daily Egun Karia) has gone daily since 2002, and has a circulation of about 6,000. The group has had a website since 2000 (www.irelandclick.com). It employs 50 staff full time and about 20 part time.
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In 2004 as much as in 1972, the paper has a strong 'community' orientation. It celebrates the educational, economic and cultural achievements of Nationalist West Belfast (an external observer would note that there is sometimes a certain dose of vanity and self satisfaction). It gives a lot of coverage to all kinds of events happening there, from birthdays to sporting occasions. It is full of adverts from local businesses and classifieds from local residents. There is a popular letters page as well as articles on current events. The Andersonstown News was very much the product of a disenfranchised, disaffected and unofficial subculture, strongly reflecting the socio-political location of the Nationalist underclass. It articulated and contested the various forms of political and social marginalisation experienced by that subordinated group. The very first Issue (22-29 November 1972)'s position on Assembly elections was 'Boycott the Elections' and 'Don't Vote Use Your Head':
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'If by any chance, any of our people allow themselves to be gulled into participating in any shape or form in this farce, then these people shall in the future stand indicted in the eyes of the generations yet unborn. Anyone who believes that by taking part in this election they will possibly change the status quo, are either very politically naïve or else they are blatant place-seekers. [The British] hope that by dragging in the 'reformed' NLF [Official IRA] and their supporters on the safe ground of parliamentary politics and in turn by offering some say in the running of the state to the quisling SDLP, that they will convince the Catholic working class that they will have gained some control over their own affairs. However the great deceit will fail. The people are beginning to realise that any parliamentary assembly under English dominance will not change the situation here in the North. It will only be a façade, which will conceal where the real power lies, with the British capitalists at Westminster who control the economy and the politics No amounts of British assemblies, Stormont or Leinster House politics shall restore that peace and stability.'
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This is very different from the current editorial stance of the paper and its reaction to the recent Assembly elections. Similarly, the original support for 'No Rent' and 'No Rates' wouldn't go down well with the estates agents and landlords advertising in its pages today.
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What has happened is that in the meantime, the Andersonstown News has shifted from being part of the alternative press to become part of the mainstream media. Alternative media are those that 'avowedly reject or challenge established and institutionalised politics, in the sense that they all advocate change in society, or at least a critical assessment of traditional values... Often founded to campaign on one particular issue, alternative media face considerable problems of survival, given their tendency to be under-financed, and unattractive to advertisers and the mass commercial market.' (O'Sullivan ed., Key concepts in Communications and Cultural Studies. London: Routledge, 1994, p.10). The extent to which a publication may be termed 'alternative' is based upon a number of factors orientation, production, distribution, readership and so on (1). On these criteria, the Andersonstown News today can no longer be considered an alternative media. It has a clear corporate orientation and politically is rather mainstream (remember that Sinn Fein was in government in Stormont until it was suspended). Its central aim is to be a profitable venture. Economically, the paper is able to court the commercial mainstream. Although much of its advertising comes from businesses in Catholic areas of West Belfast, it has been able to attract advertising from the likes of recruitment agencies and pharmaceutical companies. Recently, it went as far as to lift the ban on recruitment ads for the PSNI! In terms of production, it uses industry-standard computer software and mainstream printers. The news group prints in-house in new offices and press hall, built in 2000 as part of its £2m investment which included the commissioning of a new web, full-colour press. In terms of scale, production cycles and organisation of work by journalists, the Andersonstown News is similar to mainstream practice. It is not innovative or alternative in design or visual style. Its distribution network is that of the mainstream press. When Mairtin O'Muilleoir bought La in 1999, he declared 'We will be more like the Daily Mail than the Irish Star It will be more akin to European and American tabloids' (Sunday Business Post, 3 November 2002). This illustrates well the extent to which the Andersonstown News has absorbed the dominant values, attitudes and styles of the corporate mainstream. The importance of the coverage given to topics like crime or local sporting celebrities in recent years put the paper more in the league of the Sunday World than the paper in its early years.
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One of the hallmarks of the alternative press is how it is often subject to direct and coercive censorship by those in power. The Andersonstown News, which has complained for years about the censorship that Republicans were victims of, has now itself been accused of trying to marginalize dissenting voices. Eamon Lynch, a columnist for the New York Irish Echo wrote an article sharply critical of the paper, calling it 'the voice of banana republicanism': 'the Andersonstown News serves much the same function for Sinn Fein as Pravda once did for the Soviet politbureau and that Fox News now does for the Bush administration. It is a dependable organ of banana republicanism, promoting Dear Leadership and attacking dissenters with zeal.' (Irish Echo 11 June 2003). Under pressure from Mairtin O'Muilleoir, the column was removed from the Irish Echo website. This was not the first time that the paper tried to silence critics. In 2001, incensed at jabs by Newton Emerson's satirical Portadown News website, Robin Livingstone had the satirist fired by informing his employer that the site was updated during working hours. This contemptible move backfired when Emerson became a regular media presence. Anthony McIntyre, a regular columnist on the Blanket website is frequently criticised in the paper, and claims that he is denied right of reply, even in a letter to the editor. When articles written by McIntyre about the Andersonstown News were linked on Newshound, a popular website of news about Northern Ireland, the paper threatened Newshound founder John Fay with a libel action. Such has been the evolution of the Andersonstown News.
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(1) My discussion of what constitutes 'alternative' or 'mainstream' media is largely based on Lance Pettit's article in the Irish Communications Review 'Ireland's Alternative Press: Writing from the Margins' (http://www.icr.dit.ie/volume7/articles/article01.html)
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