Stating the obvious: Theresa May’s press review

By Matt Gray

13th February 2018

“State intervention” is not a concept we naturally associate with a Conservative government.  Usually, we expect to see a firm belief in natural selection through free market economics: the businesses that provide the best services, and are most adaptable to change, will survive. Those that don’t will fail.

But not, it appears, when it comes to the UK’s newspaper industry. The Prime Minister’s newly announced review into the health and funding of the UK newspaper industry could well see the government play an interventionist role in the preservation of both national and local papers.

It’s certainly a surprising development, but is it necessary one? There’s no doubt that local newspapers have had – to put it mildly – a rough ride of it since the digital advertising explosion, as Jack goes into here, but what of the nationals?

A cursory glance at circulation numbers and advertising revenue makes for grim reading. Over the period December 2016 to December 2017, only two (the London Evening Standard and The Times) of the 25 daily or weekly publications considered national newspapers grew their print audiences, and even then only fractionally—The Times adding to its circulation by 0.01%. Some have suffered quite monumental downturns. The Sunday Mirror has lost over 20% of its readers, the equivalent of almost 128,000 people.

This decline in readership has clear ramifications for revenue. A 2017 report by Enders Analysis predicted that by 2019 total print advertising revenue will have fallen to £533 million, from £1.5 billion in 2011. Advertisers are abandoning print for greener digital pastures at an alarming rate.

There have been casualties. The closure of the Independent’s print arm in 2016 was, according to director of the Polis journalism think-tank, Charlie Beckett, “a recognition of the harsh realities of the UK national newspaper market”.

The effort to survive these “realities” is also creating strange bedfellows. With the long rumoured purchase of Northern & Shell by the Trinity Mirror Group finally confirmed, the Mirror and Express titles – with famously adversarial political leanings – have been united under one roof. The pooling of advertising power makes sense from a business perspective, but the impact on the day-to-day reporting at each title remains to be seen.

Simon Fox, Trinity Mirror chief executive, has stressed that the titles will remain editorially independent from one another, yet he’s already set a precedent for future assimilation by suggesting the sports desks may merge to save costs—which will do little to settle the nerves of his editorial staff.

It’s not an over-exaggeration to say that journalists are suffering an existential crisis. Not only are their employers downsizing or closing, but the entire concept of their profession is under threat. A new study from the University of Amsterdam makes a damning assessment of financial journalism in particular, arguing that journalists are no longer the “watchdogs” they like to portray themselves as, but mere “information disseminators”. Why not, as the Press Association is currently experimenting with, create “robo-journalists” to fulfil this role?

Simon English, Senior City Correspondent for the London Evening Standard, had a typically forthright defence: “We don’t just disseminate information, we have to digest it, understand it, turn it into English. It’s not that easy.”

With the industry under more pressure than ever before, it is encouraging to see the government at least attempt to understand what is happening to the national press. However, one question remains: will the investigation reveal anything we don’t already know?

We know that papers are losing their revenue to digital platforms.

We know that journalists are forced to write more stories in less time.

We know that, at some publications, writers are encouraged to write clickbait articles to win web traffic.

We know that the political stances of our papers have become so extreme, so deeply entrenched, that they are having a toxic effect on public discourse.

We know all this already, but do not be surprised to see these “revelations” re-printed at length when the findings of the review are published in 2019.

Solutions are needed now, not next year. The answer is not state intervention in the press, which raises connotations with propaganda channels such as the Soviet Union’s Pravda or modern-day China’s CCTV; this would only exacerbate the “danger to our democracy” that May has identified. Instead, the exploration of new advertising models, following the example of the European Broadcaster Exchange, should be the first port of call.