The death knell must surely ring out for the UK Independent before too long. But with some British papers still apparently in alright health, can newspapers survive after all?
“Independent for sale”, the headlines in the media section say, so it must be a Monday. The near-30-year-old newspaper is the Rasputin of British dailies, having survived almost everything thrown at it. It has been owned by its journalists, by Tony O’Reilly, and latterly by the Lebedevs, the former KGB agent and son turned London-grad billionaire. It has seen its fortunes go from the high-point of its founding — when, as a centrist newspaper in the ideologically charged Thatcher years, it scored a circulation of 300,000, refugees from partisan dailies — to its current low, wherein it sells less than 50,000 copies a day, in a country of 60 million people.
In that time it has been a wilfully serious broadsheet — according royal births, marriages and divorces, etc, no more than a column seven paragraph — to an uber-designed high-image daily, specialising in striking front-cover photos, to a slightly Dada “campaignper” picking out non-newsy issues to run with. (“What, be like the Independent and put a photo of a rabbit on the cover and the word ‘suffering’? That’s cheating!” in the immortal words of The Thick of It). Then it was a “viewspaper”, collecting together more opinionation than anyone could want in one place, and for a while it seemed to be wandering rudderless with no character at all.
It was the first broadsheet to go tabloid and, in 2010, it introduced the i, a 20p eight-pager which had all the news from the main paper in it, in summary form. People said i would cannibalise its sales and … i cannibalised its sales. Most recently, Lebedev appointed 29-year-old Amol Rajan as its editor to kick it into shape, the young journalist previously having acted as a sort of media consigliere to Lebedev. Rajan was once in the orbit of my good friends the Spiked/Rev.Comm.Party group, though there seems to be no connection now. He’s returned the paper to hard news, with an agenda-setting story last week about the practice of sex-selective abortions among the British-Asian community.
How it would now be sold has had people scratching their heads — with i (which now sells 200,000)? Since its newsroom is shared with The Evening Standard, which the Lebedevs also own, it seems the Russians are looking for a partner to share the flood-loss of money the paper represents. The paper fascinates; like a small-town tyre fire, it seems to keep burning and never go out.
But its survival is a measure of the health of the UK media scene, where it is still viable to make a profit from an actual ink-and-pulp newspaper, as does The Telegraph, the last broadsheet (aside from The Sunday Times and the Financial Times) in town. The Telegraph Group recently announced a profit of 60 million pounds, capping similar profits for the past three years, a testament to the age-shifted nature of its readership, who still want a folded, if not ironed, paper at breakfast. Furthermore, one suspects such an age-shift assists the Torygraph in having a high rate of conversions for their paywalled online edition — these people expect to pay for news and have the money to do so.
For all that, the Torygraph has attempted from time to time to build a base among younger readers, i.e. those in their 40s. For a long time it made a point of shoehorning in popular culture stories that would hit its demographic — of the Kajagoogoo where are they now? type — a phase which included a more or less male-menopausal obsession with Kylie, or more particularly her butt. That seems to have diminished somewhat — although today’s editor’s choice stories are, from bottom upwards: “Lord McAlpine — he built Thatcher’s Britain”; “Royal Mansour spa a lavish experience”; and at No. 1, “Sinitta: I’m going to be godmother to Simon [Cowell’s] child”. Its other innovation was a blog ladder in which its 15-or-so bloggers were paid according to how many readers they got. That’s included James “smart” Delingpole, Spiked’s Brendan O’Neill and John McTernan, the Ed Wood Jnr of Labor spin-doctors, all outcrazying each other to get to the top.
“The question the London/UK media market poses is this: does the appearance of rude health indicate longevity?”
The great fear for The Telegraph is that the conveyer belt will stop — that at some point there will be no more 45-year-olds who fling away The Guardian special issue why women novelists are taking their husbands’ second names these days, and decide to read a paper with obituaries of a colonel “shot twice by his own men in the Falklands before reviving the Martian canals hypothesis”.
The Telegraph’s sister mail, the tabloid Daily Mail and associated newspapers, does rather better, contributing around 80 million pounds in profit to its larger media group. The only paper to have a 50%-plus female readership, due to a relentlessly domestic focus — “New cancer cure may affect house prices” being the standard-joke headline. The Mail is not merely conservative but reactionary; its rota of columnists convinced that Britain has gone to the dogs gives the feeling of being shouted at by a red-faced colonel in a stalled lift. Which sells apparently. For decades the typical Tory household took the Torygraph for the man, and the Mail for the lady.
The Mail believes itself to be on a mission — its foul-mouthed editor Paul Dacre said as such in a recent and revealing New Statesman profile — against the barbarian liberal horde. But the conduct of its separately run online operation gives the lie to that, since it has staked its future — only 41 million pounds in revenue, but jumping 33% in a year — on a recipe of unmitigated celeb gossip. The content has made it the most viewed news website in the world, but it’s an acknowledgement that the world the Mail was made on — the snooty-prim middle class — is dying fast.
Over in Murdoch-land, The Times is not in the same rude health — losing 24 million pounds in the last year — because its readership … well, I have no idea who would read The Times. Its news gathering is average and its op-ed pages — predictable centre-Right types like Oliver Kamm, Danny Finkelstein and David Aaronovitch — have an air of such blithering establishmentism that they seem pre-read, as if your brain has already generated them from some time-to-get-tough-with-Iran-single-mothers-must-share-the-burden centre near the hippocampus. The Times has never found an identity, while other papers have; it gives the lie to the idea of a Murdoch magic touch. The paper is of course cross-subsidised by The Sun; all three red tops — The Sun, The Mirror and the great Daily Star — all making a motza.
And then … there’s The Guardian. The most addictive, most annoying paper in the world is engaged in the sort of bare-knuckle manoeuvre last seen in Flight -- diving the plane so fast to try and put out the fires in the engines. In June last year it trumpeted rather proudly that it had lost only 30 million pounds last year, a 30% cut in its losses. This has seen it rack up rather more than 100 million pounds in losses in the last three years, the slide halted by a rise in online ad revenues and a cut in newspaper sections and pages, until the purchase of it, at 1.40 pounds, is on the verge of being a charity donation. The corporate/editorial group around editor Alan Rusbridger is blamed by journos for this state of affairs, and fought out fortnightly in the columns of Private Eye. The Guardian, now a global brand, won’t die — but it may be prey to being bought out by some 23-year-old libertarian app billionaire at some point in the future.
The question the London/UK media market poses is this: does the appearance of rude health indicate longevity? Or is it the swan’s last summer, preceding a collapse as the ranks of the under-50s fills out with people who have either never read a newspaper or paid for a paywalled site — or had found it easy to give up? And how the hell does The Independent survive?