Lesson number one: don't sack your readers
The new team at `The Express' need look no further than their rival the `Daily Mail' to see that successful newspapers put people before politics.
Monday 18 May 1998
National newspaper editorship is a high risk (though well-rewarded) occupation; the greater the plight of the newspaper, the greater the risk. Ultimately proprietors have two cards to play: the easy one - to change the editor - and the harder one - to sell the problem. Both approaches have been employed by The Express in recent years, but the problems remain, under new management and new editorship. Now what?
The Express has taken its gamble. Every appointment of every new editorial team is a gamble, and the latest one appears greater than many. Put to one side the likeability factor. The new editor of The Express, Rosie Boycott, is said to be well-liked by those who have worked with her. The outgoing editor, Richard Addis, was popular among his staff, which in the end did neither him nor his circulation figures much good. No, it's results, not popularity, which make editors, and The Express has been short of results for a long time.
Thirty five years is not a long time in the history of a newspaper. In 1963 the Daily Express was selling 4.3 million copies each day. That figure has fallen year by year, through 2.8 million in 1975, 1.9 million in 1985, 1.3 million in 1995, to the 1.2 million it is selling today. Equally significantly, its only rival in the mid-market sector, the Daily Mail, sold fewer copies than the Express in 1985 and today sells nearly 2.3 million copies daily. That is a story of failure and success, of free-fall and spectacular growth. In its era of market domination the old broadsheet Daily Express reflected the certainties of Britain at the time. Today, like Britain itself, it is more parochial, more meritocratic and, most importantly, more uncertain.
The recipe for the new Express, as far as one can identify it, is to tune in to new Britain (New Labour?), cool Britannia. It is a frail foundation on which to build a newspaper for the next century. Boycott, first woman editor of a "quality" broadsheet (about time too), now first woman editor of a mid-market tabloid, The Express (about time too), has a track record and a reputation. Inevitably, her campaign on the Independent for the legalisation of cannabis and her plans for a gay section in The Independent have drawn much attention, as have her previous editorships of Spare Rib, the influential feminist magazine of the Seventies, and of Esquire, the magazine for the sophisticated modern male. She has declared her intention to make The Express more campaigning, and has cited class sizes in schools and hospital waiting lists as suitable cases for treatment. She has already dropped the pull-out sports supplement - a curious decision when such sections are proliferating in other papers.
Another quote from her is much more important: "I think a newspaper has to go out and become itself, not keep saying it's a bit like this and a bit like that, but something new. The Express will be passionate, campaigning, intelligent." First half of quote, absolutely right. Second half, much more contentious, depending on what she means by "new".
And here party politics comes in. Lord Hollick, the owner of The Express, is a New Labour peer and Boycott herself makes no secret of her left-of- centre politics. Does this mean The Express moving left? It is far more important for a newspaper to be in tune with its readers than with the prevailing national politics. New Labour has been in power for a year, and remains popular with the electorate. The present Opposition are a risible side-show. Neither situation will endure. Think back just a short time, to the period where Thatcherism had the nation in its grip and Labour was "unelectable". Turning round that party meant changing fundamentally what it stood for.
But different rules apply to a newspaper. Far more important than the party it supports is the set of values, prejudices, lifestyles, interests it represents. Did The Guardian fall into decline when 18 years of Conservative government dominated politics? Has the Daily Mail suffered since Labour's May Day landslide? The Sun may have advocated supporting Labour last year but it has not fundamentally changed its character. Its success is based on its clear understanding of its readers, and knowing that for all readers of all newspapers, and particularly tabloid newspapers, the party political standpoint of the newspaper is a relatively minor factor in the decision to purchase.
In all the discussion of the "new" Express, far too little attention has been paid to the Daily Mail. It is simply foolish for Lord Hollick to dismiss the Mail as old-fashioned, past its sell-by date, ill-equipped to succeed in the next century. The Mail succeeds because it is certain, confident and understands its readers. It realises that a number of them may have voted Labour out of exasperation with a spent Conservative government. But it knows that deep down they have not changed, that their range of prejudices - against welfare "scroungers" and "greedy" boardroom directors, "trendy" teachers and "soft" penal policies, against those who would undermine family life - remain the same. It also knows that its readers are fascinated by the activities of celebrities, by sex and relationships, and by health. All these topics are covered with flair, and the readership continues to rise.
I was invited by Sir David English to contribute to a brainstormer on the Mail on Sunday. What struck me most about that day was the lack of complacency. Then, as now, the Mail on Sunday was on a roll, circulation and profits rising. But you could be forgiven for thinking it was in crisis. The paper was pulled apart, analysed and critiqued as though the future was bleak. All under the chairmanship of English.
Three points arise from that, all of great relevance to The Express. The Mail seeks constantly to reinvent itself for the readers it has, and then add to them. It is never satisfied with present success. And the driving force behind it is a person with great and proven editorial flair. Look at newspapers which have enjoyed recent sustained success. The Mail has had two long-serving editors - David English and Paul Dacre. The Telegraph underwent its necessary subtle but radical modernisation under a long editorship by Max Hastings. The Guardian established its present secure and successful position under nearly 20 years of Peter Preston. The Sun soared away under the inspirational editorship of Kelvin Mackenzie.
Good editors require time, flair, certainty (even if wrong), the support of their proprietors and, most importantly, deep knowledge of their present and potential readers. They cannot succeed by sacking their readers and finding new ones, because the new ones live and read somewhere else. That is the danger facing The Express at present, one underlined by the arrival of many key players as well as Boycott herself from The Independent. No newspaper in trouble can afford to become a different newspaper to the extent that the readers it still has decide it is no longer relevant for them.
Boycott is right that The Express has to go out and become itself, but it has to discover and achieve that for its present as well as future readers. One of The Express's strengths is that it has strong readership in the north of England. That should be developed rather than cast aside in favour of new metropolitan chic which is well catered for elsewhere. A defect is said to be that is has an "older" readership - 63 per cent over 45, as opposed to the Mail's 56 per cent. Again, these should not be lightly discarded in favour of relentless "young reader" emphasis. Both reading habits and demographics argue in favour of taking the older readers seriously.
Of course it's all much harder than that, and the editor, as far too many ex-Express editors have found, is always the fall-person. And it is worth remembering that those who offer gratuitous analysis and advice fall into two categories: those who will never be editors, and those who have been.
Peter Cole is Professor of Journalism at the University of Central Lancashire.
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