Media: Who are Dacre's readers?

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Paul Mukherjee

IT IS very strange how owners judge success. Take Kenny Dalglish and Newcastle. He comes in after Keegan, they stop giving away goals, they get into Europe and are runners-up in the most prestigious cup in the country, yet he gets fired for not playing sexy and exciting football.

After reading an interview in The Daily Telegraph given by the late Lord Rothermere, Paul Dacre is probably hunting out the dour Scot for a consolation beer.

It was Lord Rothermere's contention that the Daily Mail had gone downmarket. The paper had become too salacious in its attempts to generate sales and that the battle to overtake the Mirror was being fought at too costly a price in terms of the Mail's position. As with Dalglish's record, this needs a second glance.

The last decade has been very difficult for the printed word. Total circulation of combined national papers has gone from 32 million copies a week in 1989 to 28 million a week by the end of 1997.

This broad trend is the product of a collection of small everyday decisions that consumers make that inevitably ends with a lost newspaper sale. Things such as: "I don't take a tea break; I drive to work; what's to read? I saw it on the telly" etc.

Lord Rothermere's remarks seem somewhat unfair when viewed in this light.

As the Mail's competitors have taken on water and manned the lifeboats with women and shareholders at the front of the queue, Associated has sailed on majestically. Its share of the circulation market has grown from 11 per cent in 1989 to 16 per cent in 1997.

Lord Rothermere's contention that this circulation has been achieved at a cost doesn't seem to bear analysis either. As the circulation of the Mail has grown so has the paper's attraction to those people advertisers are desperate to target.

The Mail has had more ABs and senior businessmen since Paul Dacre took the helm of the paper. It had 1.16 million ABs when he took over and this has risen to just under 1.47 million. Some 20 per cent of all chairmen, chief executive officers and managing directors reading newspapers took the Mail when Dacre took over; this has now risen to 22 per cent.

If the Mail has become the Clapham omnibus it has filled it with more upmarket passengers, and it is this which is supplying the profit of the present.

As all newspaper groups have restructured their companies, cutting workforces from thousands to hundreds, so financial efficiencies have been passed back on to the bottom line. What with the decrease in the cost of paper, distribution and printing, so a greater percentage of the cover price has become profit. The more you sell the more you make.

With the circulation of the Mail having moved from 1.7 million in 1992 to 2.19 million in 1997, you can almost hear the ching of the cash register. Combined with this are the larger issues that are being turned out - 88- page papers in the week, crammed full of mono and colour advertising, start to give you an understanding of why Associated is the strongest media performer in the market.

So why the disquiet over the quality of the paper?

Lord Rothermere was one of the last great paper tigers, a man who was part of the making of mid-market tabloids. He wasn't scared to get his hands dirty as he showed with the Standard's battle with Maxwell in London.

Perhaps for him the success of the Mail actually meant the loss of control for himself.

A big broad paper has to reflect the views, values and tastes of the reader at the expense of those of the owner. It changes the owner's power to just economic power.

Rothermere's contention that Dacre has messed with the core values of the paper and that the Mail has gone "too far down-market" with "too much tabloidy reporting" is probably true. It's what the market and the readers have demanded or, at the very least, feel comfortable with. But this has not cost the paper in terms of the profile of its readership. Another way to ask the question is: how successful would the Mail have been if it hadn't adapted to this changed market?

The bigger issue for the future will not revolve around the success of the Mail. It will probably have more to do with the failure of its competitors.

If the newspaper market carries on deteriorating at its present rate, the loss of overall audience it supplies will mean that more and more advertising money will look to find another home. Radio and posters have had an amazing couple of years driven by the retail, financial and motoring industries. Newspapers have cut their operation to the bone and are now probably as profitable as they are going to get - so advertising revenue will become the life blood of the market.

If this money dissipates to other media, we won't be looking at a market of winners and losers but instead a market that will have lost altogether.

is press buying director of the media buying agency, Mindshare