BOB GARFIELD: The Irish Times is a small paper with a big paper budget for foreign coverage. One of the reasons it can pour so much money into overseas bureaus is because bottom line concerns don't matter much, and that's because it is one of the few newspapers in the world run by a private trust. But now Ireland's paper of record is faced with possible bankruptcy, and critics wonder if the trust is wrong for the times, especially the Irish Times. On the Media's Jim Colgan reports.
JIM COLGAN: Thirty years ago Major Thomas B. McDowell set up the Irish Times trust to safeguard what was then a minority voice in Ireland. The paper's editorial views now reflect the modern mainstream, but its management is still out of date. Michael Foley, a lecturer in media studies at the Dublin Institute of Technology says the Irish Times trust, much like the man behind it, is the relic of another era.
MICHAEL FOLEY: There's something strange in the 19th Century about the Irish Times trust, partly because of the Major McDowell -- sort of had a 19th Century air about him -- he wore a monocle for a long time; he, he wore his pin stripe 3 piece suits; used a military title.
JIM COLGAN: The major ensured that he wielded the power for almost 3 decades, and though the trust preserved editorial independence, it jeopardized financial security.
RICHARD CURRAN: There is no shareholder; there is no commercial mandate; so there's no real incentive to keep any control of costs or monitor the future direction or strategy of the business.
JIM COLGAN: Richard Curran is business editor of the rival Irish Independent. Over the last 15 years the papers spent vigorously as revenues rose. They invested heavily in foreign news, posting dozens of reporters throughout the world. They had 240 journalists working for one paper while their main rival had the same number to produce 3. And last August they forked out 69 million dollars on a state of the art printing plant without borrowing a penny. So when the country's economic boom turned to bust last year, Curran says, the cost of the Times' editorial freedom became too high.
RICHARD CURRAN: It was really a, a, a castle in the sky; it was actually built on sand; it wasn't built on solid commercial foundations, and to some extent it's easy to produce a certain type of editorial product if it's costing you so much money that you're almost going out of business.
JIM COLGAN: When the paper confessed to a 2002 loss of 20 million dollars, critics pounced on the trust as a viable means. There was no way, they said, a newspaper could be run without shareholders, and this was the proof. The situation sparked a national debate over commercial versus non-profit newspaper ownership, but media critic Michael Foley says a quality paper like the Times could not exist without the trust.
MICHAEL FOLEY: I think the notion of a paper being run as a commercial entity is there simply because there was no other way. It is not inherent in, in good journalism that it must have -that market forces has to be the way it is run.
JIM COLGAN: Vincent Browne, an Irish broadcaster and columnist with the paper, doesn't think responsible journalism and corporate management are mutually exclusive.
VINCENT BROWNE: If, in extremis, the publishing company went into liquidation and the title had to be sold, and was bought by private interests, it's hard to see that its independence would be much tampered with for the reason that the strength of its franchise is that it is perceived to be independent.
JIM COLGAN: With sales of 120,000 a day, the Irish Times is not a big paper by world standards. In fact, it's not even the most widely read paper in Ireland, but as well as serving the country with one of the only Irish perspectives on foreign views, the paper interests millions of ex-pat readers throughout the world. Its web site rivals most of its British counterparts, accessed at a rate of 24 million pages a month, predominantly by Irish Americans.
WOMEN: Irish Times please.
MAN: Three dollars, please.
WOMEN: Thank you.
MAN: All right.
VINCENT BROWNE: And stories among Irish communities such as this one in Queens, New York sell hundreds of Irish papers a week.
WOMEN: Yeah, there's more information world news in it than there is in the Independent or any other news.
JIM COLGAN: So would you consider the paper a record?
RICARDO MARTINEZ: Honestly, per-- from my own personal experience with the, the Irish - the Irish Times is like the New York Times - the Independent is more like The Daily News or something like that.
JIM COLGAN: Ricardo Martinez says the Times reputation is well known among the Irish American community, even though he sells more copies of the rival Independent. For a small country like Ireland and its diaspora abroad, it's hard to break through with the local perspective on international affairs. Over 25 percent of newspapers sold in Ireland are British, and other world papers crowd out the Irish papers on the newsstand. But media critic Michael Foley says Irish Times coverage of foreign events has kept the small neutral countries' own debate unique.
MICHAEL FOLEY: The Irish Times has shown that you know this small paper in this small country can maintain a reasonable size foreign coverage -independent foreign coverage - in a world where foreign coverage is being cut back, and I think if the turn round and say well that was nice while we could afford it, but we've now got to get rid of it - I think that would be very damaging.
JIM COLGAN: Most of th trust members including the major have stepped down in the face of the crisis, and the staff cuts are under way. Business analysts believe the paper will recover its losses as it modernizes management, but the trust could still be a casualty of the transition. Commentators say the Irish Times' investment in foreign staff sets a standard for foreign reportage throughout the Irish media. Deprived of its trust, the paper's commitment to original foreign coverage would most likely decline. Indigenous media would suffer, and debate in Ireland would die. For On the Media, I'm Jim Colgan. [MUSIC]