Readers of this column may not be very familiar with the Daily Star. They may even be unaware of it. The paper is nonetheless read by more of our fellow countrymen than The Times.
It has also recently enjoyed an extraordinary rise in circulation. While the sales of virtually every other newspaper follow what looks like an unstoppable downward path, the Daily Star soars upward. In the year to June it increased its circulation by nearly 19 per cent to 870,457 copies a day. This is an amazing achievement. So far as I am aware, it has very little to do with its "tit 'n' bum count," but a great deal to do with price cutting.
Last November the paper's publisher, Richard Desmond, reduced its cover price from 35p to 20p. It began to put on sales. In May The Sun – which for most of its life has scarcely deigned to notice its more salacious rival – reduced its cover price from 30p to 20p in London, and last Monday did the same in the north of England, a Daily Star stronghold. So far it has made very modest circulation gains, and its sales hover around three million copies a day.
The biggest victim of the Daily Star's price cutting has been the Daily Mirror, which lost nearly 10 per cent of its sales in the year to June to 1,330,301 copies. As recently as 2002 the Mirror sold over two million copies a day; in 1995 its daily sales were two and a half million. No other national title has lost circulation so precipitately as the Mirror has in recent years.
One can easily produce an argument to do with the shrinking Labour-voting working class to explain the Mirror's amazing descent. But actually almost nothing about the decline of newspapers is inevitable. The Daily Star's readership is almost entirely working class, and yet its sales are shooting up. It is possible to carve a larger slice of a diminishing cake, and that is exactly what Mr Desmond is doing. Of course, the price cut is costing him heavily, but if he ends up with a significantly larger market share it will be money well spent.
The Mirror's immediate problem is not so much ineluctable decline as its high cover price of 45p in what is the most price-sensitive sector of the market. The paper's owners, Trinity Mirror, have terrible problems with its large stable of regional newspapers, and earlier in the year its share price almost literally fell through the floor. The company's shell-shocked and uninspired management evidently feels it cannot afford to join Desmond's price war.
The trouble is that, if it continues to stand aside, the sales of the Mirror will undoubtedly go on falling. The point may not be far distant when it will be too weak to turn around. And yet it is by any reasonable measure a much better newspaper than the Daily Star, with an editor in Richard Wallace who is respected by many. Greater flair and seriousness of intent mean little or nothing if your rival – or rivals, if we include The Sun – are selling for less than half your price.
Whatever we may think of him, Richard Desmond is a formidable publisher. I am sure he dreams of the day when The Sun and the Daily Star share the bottom end of the market. As things stand, I would not bet on a timid and paralysed Trinity Mirror being able to stop him.
Give non-politicians a chance to earn some 'chicken feed'
How convenient it must be for leading politicians to be able to dash off a weekly newspaper column for a large fee.
Michael Gove, the Shadow schools secretary, has admitted he spent "an hour or so" writing his weekly column for The Times, for which he is paid £1,250 a pop.
Last week, Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, described the £250,000 a year he receives for writing a column for the Daily Telegraph as "chicken feed". Taking holidays into account, that works out at significantly more than £5,000 per column. Fortunately, it takes virtually no time at all, according to Boris. He says: "I happen to write extremely fast. I don't see why on a Sunday morning I shouldn't knock off an article."
I have always thought that major politicians should generally be discouraged from writing regular columns since they are liable to produce self-serving party propaganda. This country's two leading politicians-cum-columnists have provided a further reason for being wary of their activities. Neither of them really tries.
The BBC's web content makes online charging seem ridiculous
Lionel Barber, editor of the Financial Times, has predicted that "almost all" news organisations will be charging for online content within a year. Rupert Murdoch suggested in May that his British newspapers will start charging within 12 months. It is thought that the New York Times may do so in a few weeks.
I hope Mr Barber is right. It is obviously crazy to give away newspapers free on the net while charging someone who bothers to pop down to the corner shop. They are literally impoverishing themselves. Mr Barber seems to envisage a system, already employed by his newspaper, whereby readers would continue to have free online access to some articles, but would be charged for reading the more interesting stuff.
Would it work? The problem he does not consider is the BBC website. This provides only limited competition to FT.com, which supplies specialist financial information and commentary not freely available elsewhere. But the BBC's increasingly ramifying website, which now includes blogs offering analysis and commentary, competes directly with mainstream newspapers that do not offer "must have" financial articles.
I find it difficult to see how most titles can successfully apply even a modest charge as long as the BBC offers so much content online free of charge. In effect, the publicly-funded broadcaster is pointing a dagger at the heart of the free Press. If this sounds like special pleading, I cheerfully own up to being guilty.
The BBC was not set up to produce a newspaper, which is what the BBC website is, in an online form. Without Parliament having had any say, the Corporation has become a major competitor to newspapers in their own medium. The next government must review this covert extension of BBC power. If the BBC website were entirely audio-visual, newspapers would not be forced to compete with the publicly-subsidized written word.