Fifty years ago this month, Mayo’s first free newspaper hit the streets. And, in the same month 21 years later, the final issue rolled off the presses.
When it closed in 1992, the Mayo Post had become a part of the county’s social fabric. On the week it closed, the Western People carried the news on its front page, commenting that ‘the paper enjoyed a county wide circulation, and the quality of its editorial content and style of presentation were held in very high regard’. But high quality and reader popularity do not necessarily equate to profitability.
The Mayo Post had been co-launched by printer Aiden Redmond and yours truly, when the idea of a free newspaper was a novelty. The notion that a publication could sustain itself on advertising income alone was against the grain of conventional newspaper economics.
Galway had already launched a successful free paper which enjoyed one signal advantage; free papers need to be located in large towns or cities where distribution costs are lower. By contrast, the Mayo Post found itself tackling the logistical problem of arranging delivery across 12 towns in Mayo, every Saturday, and in weather conditions not always benign.
If these were the anticipated nuts and bolts problems of launching a new publication, less expected was the vigorous hostility of some organs of the local established media. Their reaction to the advent of a free newspaper was close to hysterical, and the battle to root out this obnoxious weed became unrelenting. But, as any gardener knows, noxious weeds are notoriously stubborn and, rather than ignoring the upstart, some of the country’s most respected editors allowed themselves to become apoplectic with fury.
This was at a time when local newspapers ruled the roost; local radio was far into the future, social media unheard of. The local paper was the sole medium of news, and with that came power and influence.
The battle to stifle the free paper at birth took many fronts. Advertisers were reminded that taking space in the Mayo Post would be severely frowned upon; County Councils and Government agencies were leaned on not to utilise the services of this maverick newcomer; the NUJ (National Union of Journalists) itself was dragooned into sending threatening letters; photographer members of the NUJ were warned against supplying pictures to the free paper. To his credit, the reaction of Liam Lyons, doyen of press photography, to this diktat was swift and dismissive. The following week, he provided the Post with an exclusive photo of a society wedding at Holy Trinity Church, Westport.
The war turned up its own ironies. The main protagonist and defender of the purity of the status quo was soon to fall foul of the owners he worked for, setting up a short lived rival newspaper. The NUJ officer who wagged the sternest finger of condemnation became top dog of the country’s leading free newspaper group.
Nor was the Mayo Post entirely without friends. There was always a cohort of advertisers who, supportive of the underdog, could be relied on to take a substantial advert when things were critical. In Ballina, Ronnie Naylor and his Ballina Printing Works often worked through long nights to ensure the Saturday deadline would be met.
But, in truth, the Mayo Post was a shoestring operation, and the string finally reached breaking point. The need for more investment, a downturn in the advertising economy and increased costs forced its closure. And on a May day in 1992, the Mayo Post slid into the annals of Mayo newspaper history.