Magazine article The Spectator

1998 May Be the Year in Which the 'Red Tops' Have Their Sales Skimmed

Magazine article The Spectator

1998 May Be the Year in Which the 'Red Tops' Have Their Sales Skimmed

Article excerpt

In one respect newspapers have never had it so good. Advertising revenue has been booming because of strong economic growth. For a paper such as the Daily Mail, whose sales are close to an all-time high, the consequences are untold riches. But even as Lord Rothermere counts his rapidly increasing fortune, a surprisingly large number of titles are selling fewer copies than ever before and losing money. For some of these 1998 could be a dicy year.

The Independent is the most vulnerable, its September relaunch having been an abject failure. Sales are as bad as ever. The paper has too many suitors for closure to be a conceivable option, but one wonders how long its present owners, Mirror Group and the Irish Independent, will soldier on. The Mirror appears anxious to sell but the Irish aren't. Waiting in the wings are the Barclay twins and, less plausibly, our old friend Mohamed Al Fayed.

The Barclays may get the loss-making paper, either alone or, more likely, as new partners for the Irish. A big test comes in February when `the brothers', as they are called, relaunch Sunday Business. In itself this is not an incredibly significant event. But Andrew Neil, the brothers' editor-in chief, has made much of the high quality of their new Sunday paper. He has also said that the Barclays would push the Independent upmarket. If Sunday Business is as elevated as Neil and Co. crack it up to be, they will go a long way towards convincing a sceptical world that they could make an equally good job of the Independent. If not, not.

There are other possible developments at the Independent. Some Mirror Group executives are anxious to dump the paper's editor, Andrew Marr, and install Rosie Boycott, editor of the rather fizzier Independent on Sunday. I can't see that she could make an awful lot of difference. Mr Marr has struggled with ever decreasing budgets, and has lacked the support and inspiration of a proper publisher. How could Ms Boycott fare better? Possibly she might be able to cajole a little more money out of Mirror Group. But more radical measures are needed, and these will not be implemented by the paper's existing owners.

Mr Neil has said that the Barclays would try to merge the Independent on Sunday with the Observer. One way or another such an outcome has seemed likely for a long time, though not necessarily desirable. Yet the Sindie has undeniably strengthened a little in relation to the Observer, whose November sales were not far from an all-time low. Ironically, the Observer has distinguished itself recently, making the running against Geoffrey Robinson, the Labour Minister who is a beneficiary of an offshore trust, and producing a scoop about Mr Al Fayed. But in general the paper is a bit of a dog's breakfast and, despite cutting costs, is still losing a lot of money.

This is not greatly appreciated by its sister paper, the Guardian, which doubtless will have a successful 1998. There may, however, be a fascinating falling-out between Mr Al Fayed and the paper he has helped so much. Mr Al Fayed reportedly did not appreciate the Observer's recent story, and held Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian and editor-in-chief of the Observer, ultimately responsible. Oddly enough, Mr Rusbridger has never met Mr Al Fayed - though his predecessor, Peter Preston, did so on numerous occasions - and he doesn't seem anxious to repair the omission. …

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