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British Tabloids - Losing Touch with Readers?

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

British Tabloids - Losing Touch with Readers?

Article excerpt

British tabloids - losing touch with readers?

The British tabloid press, one of the world's odder manifestations of mass culture, is facing difficult times.

Circulation is down, and there are fears within the industry that the tabloids are losing touch with their readers. Explanations range from Britain's current recession, to changing habits and recurring historical patterns.

Roy Greenslade, former editor of the tabloid Daily Mirror, argues that the tabloids have been hurt by declining literacy, competition from television, market saturation, and a reaction by readers against outlandish promotional gimmicks.

"With readers disappearing faster than a reporter's expenses," Greenslade asked recently in an article in The Guardian newspaper, "are Britain's tabloids doomed?"

Over the last 30 years, Greenslade wrote, "the total daily tabloid circulation has fallen from 14.4 million to 12.1 million."

He compared some present-day circulation figures with those of the past: the Daily Express, which sells about 1.56 million copies today, was selling 4.3 million in 1961. The Daily Mirror, which had a circulation of 5.25 million in 1967, now sells just under 3 million. The Sun, Britain's biggest-selling daily, has slipped from 4.3 million in the late 1980s, to around 3.6 million today. The weekly News of the World, Greenslade wrote, has dropped from 8 million in 1950 and more than 6 million in the late 1960s to around 4.8 million today.

The News of the World - once described "as British as roast beef" - is this country's biggest-selling paper and an integral part of Sunday for millions of Britons interested in the sexual activities of royalty and movie stars. Recent victims of this coverage have included Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson.

Greenslade dismissed the idea that the problems of the tabloids are due solely to the recession. The main effect of the economic downturn, he believes, has been to determine the relatively new confidence of the tabloid-buying "aspirant working class." During the 1980s, he wrote, this group bought papers that focoused on "the collapse of union power, the possibilities of home and share ownership, and the chances for retail spending."

The tabloids' decline, Greenslade argued, has continued despite the managerial optimism of recent years that accompanied the introduction of new technology, the end of chronic industrial confrontation, and the exodus of newspapers from cramped Fleet Street in central London and into modern plants. He also rejects the theory that tabloid readers are moving up to the broadsheet "qualities."

S.J. Taylor, a media historian who has just written a book on the British and American tabloid press, said that the recession is cutting into sales by increasing the pass-along factor in tight-knit working-class communities. People out of work, she said, are also less receptive to "smart-alecky" tabloids, and Taylor believes that cautious editors - worried at the threat by the government to launch regulation of the press - are restraining themselves, making for a tamer, less sellable product.

"The tabloids are going down, and they are going down significantly," said Taylor, a native of Oklahoma who has lived in Britain for a decade. Her book is called Shock! Horror! The Tabloids in Action. She holds a doctorate in media studies from the University of Illinois and is also the author of Stalin's Apologist, which deals with the career of Walter Duranty, a New York Times correspondent in Moscow before World War II.

Taylor suggested that the tabloids' problems may be a repetition of patterns that go back hundreds of years. The proliferation of the printing press in the seventeenth century, she said. helped foster an unbridled periodical press, which was eventually curbed by government restriction.

"Suddenly the streets were filled with ephemera," she said. "There was about a 20-year period before the govenment clamped down, and that's always caused by the introduction of new technology. …

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