Magazine article The Spectator

However Bad Things May Seem, the News for Newspapers Is Good

Magazine article The Spectator

However Bad Things May Seem, the News for Newspapers Is Good

Article excerpt

As another year looms, I cannot remember such despondency in what used to be called Fleet Street. It is not just that several newspaper groups are losing money: it was ever thus. There is talk of a general decline in newspapers. Some even suggest that the written word - as it appears in a bundle of newsprint delivered to your door or picked up at a newsagent - will not last more than ten or 20 years. We are told that the Internet will tempt more and more readers, and that the young do not have the same interest in newspapers as their parents and grandparents did. The sharpest decline in readership has been in London, where almost every title has suffered, and it is adduced as a warning of what will happen in the rest of the country. In the capital, people are more frantically busy, and more drawn to the Internet and other sources of news. Some 20 per cent of the population hail from foreign climes, and seem not to have acquired the newspaper-reading habits of native Britons.

Clearly not everything is rosy, but much of the sense of malaise seems to me misplaced. Not every title has suffered over the past 12 months. Both the Times and the Independent have gained some 10 per cent over this period as a result of going tabloid. I find the tabloid Times very unsatisfactory, and the Independent is far from perfect, but in this instance it does not really matter what I think. Both titles have attracted new readers, not all of them at the expense of other papers. I freely admit I was wrong to suggest earlier in the year that the Times had made a mistake in going tabloid. The paper has plunged further downmarket, and that to me is sad, but one can hardly criticise it from a commercial point of view. The success of the Times and the Independent underlines the truth of the old adage that the market rewards innovation. In the daily quality-newspaper sector little had happened - the debilitating price war aside - since the launch of the Independent in 1986.

If we look back not one year but ten, the picture is certainly not one of unrelieved gloom, though there have been casualties. (In the case of all circulation figures I am including so-called bulk sales. Methods of computing sales may have changed over ten years, but in broad terms we are comparing like with like.) The daily newspaper that has lost the highest proportion of its circulation is the Daily Mirror. A decade ago it was selling almost 2.5 million copies a day. In November 2004 (the last month for which figures are available) it sold 1.75 million copies. This means that it has mislaid getting on for a third of its sales. One could say that the paper's working-class base is shrinking, and in support of this cite the fortunes of the Sun, whose circulation has declined from 4 million to 3.25 million over the same period, an almost equally calamitous drop. One might also add that neither title is, within its own terms, much good at the moment. I certainly wouldn't assume that a brilliant red-top editor such as Kelvin MacKenzie in his prime could not turn either of them around. The management of the Daily Minor plainly does not have the faintest idea of what to do with it, and, looking forward to 2005, it must be the most likely of all titles to be sold. Here the name of Richard Desmond, owner of the Express titles, is sometimes mentioned. He also owns the Daily Star, whose sales have increased by more than 15 per cent over the past decade to some 900,000.

Say what you like about Mr Desmond, he has slowed the sales decline of the Daily Express. …

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