Like him or loathe him, many people believe Rupert Murdoch is a journalistic genius. He bought The Sun for a song and turned it into a mass-market paper. He doubled the circulation of The Times by cutting its cover price, giving a lot of grief to other titles. He saw off a rival, and established Sky as a highly profitable satellite channel. In Australia and America he has done much else.
Who can doubt that he is an extraordinary person? And yet even supermen are mortal. Famously, just over 15 years ago, he was allegedly one telephone call away from going bust. His problems today are not of that order, but that he has some difficulties can hardly be disputed.
Three of his four British national newspapers are losing circulation uncomfortably fast. The fourth, The Times, appears to be treading water, and is losing a great deal of money. There are different reasons behind the decline of his three titles, which only makes the remedy more complex.
Last month The Sunday Times had nearly 9 per cent fewer paid-for sales than a year previously. There is no obvious evidence that it has deteriorated editorially. It remains a sprawling "supermarket" newspaper from which readers pick and choose what they want and discard the rest. Much of its circulation decline can be attributed to its recent cover price increase to £2. This was too steep for some punters. Those of us who argue that newspapers in this country are too cheap, and that readers can be persuaded to pay more, are scratching our heads.
Of course, it is still easily the leader in the so-called quality market on a Sunday, and presumably very profitable, though the actual figures cannot be disentangled from the losses which The Times racks up. I don't say Mr Murdoch has a big problem with the paper, but its circulation decline cannot easily be blamed on the market, since The Independent on Sunday and The Observer have been putting on sales, albeit from a much lower base, and The Sunday Telegraph is holding pretty steady.
Mr Murdoch's other somewhat troubled titles, The Sun and the News of the World, have slowly been losing sales for many years. This is generally attributed to what in an unlovely phrase is called "demographic shrinkage". This means that more and more working-class people are becoming middle-class, and they or their children are sometimes less happy with their traditional newspapers. The fear is that those who are left behind in the underclass will be less interested in reading newspapers than any other group in society.
In the daily market the Daily Mirror has been the chief casualty of this gradual trend, but The Sun has been suffering too. All the Sunday red-tops are in long-term decline, and the once mighty People looks close to death. The News of the World, though it still has a circulation of nearly three and a half million copies, last month dropped 8.7 per cent in paid-for sales over the year, which represents an amazing 328,146 copies.
The Sun is potentially a more serious problem because it is a larger concern. It makes more than £150m a year, which means that it is still the most profitable title in Britain, the Daily Mail being the second. And yet it is dipping uncomfortably close to three million sales a day, which largely explains why its management has been selling the paper at a discount in Scotland, where it has been stealing circulation from the Daily Record. Mr Murdoch does not want it to crash through the three million mark, but that could happen within the next couple of years.
Newspapers may lose sales for so-called structural reasons - in the case of The Sun and the News of the World because of the slow contraction of the working-class. But no newspaper management worth its salt can simply roll over and accept the inevitable. Might the News of the World be doing better if it were producing more solid scoops and not quite so many trashy sex stories? Could a Kelvin MacKenzie, who was the most successful editor of The Sun, breathe new purpose into the paper, and where might such a person be found?
Rupert Murdoch's difficulties are merely worrying at the moment, but if they run over several years they will become serious. (Remember, too, that he is 75 years old, and won't be around for ever to deal with these problems.) It is a measure of the man's daring that he should have chosen this moment to launch an afternoon freesheet in London, and engage in a battle with the Mail group, which has produced its own by way of retaliation. In the great scheme of things, the losses Mr Murdoch incurs in the freesheet war will not hurt him very much, and more pain will probably be felt by the smaller Mail group.
Of course, The London Paper may eventually turn out to be a financial success. Even so, neither it nor any clones which may be launched outside London are ever going to make up for a collapse in Mr Murdoch's paid-for national titles. As the main cash-cow, The Sun is crucial, and must not fail.
I lament the way the 'Telegraph' is plunging downmarket
For several years, The Daily Telegraph has been slowly dumbing down. The process has accelerated since the paper was bought by Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay in 2004. In the past week there has been another lurch downmarket.
In its selection of stories, the prominence it gives to them, and their presentation, the Telegraph increasingly resembles the Daily Mail. One headline last week was: "Held in a tiny cage for 10 hours, thrown into a van with screaming drug-addicts, then strip-searched... all for refusing to pay his council tax." Another was simply "Shameless", which is perhaps more Sun than Mail.
The comment and obituary pages are so far unaffected, but elsewhere the paper feels eerily like the Mail. (I should again remind readers that I write a column for that paper.) How much this is a matter of policy, one can only guess. The Telegraph's news operation is now run by two former Mail group journalists, Ian MacGregor and Tony Gallagher.
The French writer François Mauriac said: "I love Germany so much that I want there to be two of them." I feel the same, in reverse, about the Daily Mail. One is just perfect. Two would be too much. Why The Daily Telegraph should feel that its readers want an ersatz Mail is a mystery. Incidentally, a number of prominent Telegraph journalists have recently joined the Mail, but the paper shows no signs of becoming more like the old Telegraph. Perhaps it knows its readers.Reuse content