Sad fact: quality alone doesn't sell papers

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The Independent Online
"Content is king," runs the mantra in the media business. But in newspapers, you might say "content doesn't count". That is only a minor exaggeration, to judge by the close connection between newspaper sales on the one hand and price and promotional spend on the other. In fundamental ways, what newspapers actually give readers may not be as important as their price and the amount their backers are prepared to spend on marketing and promotion.

Take a few examples. Most journalists would agree, I think, that the Express titles are better than they were. The Sunday Express, particularly, is sharper and easier on the eye. But circulation is still falling, and there are signs that Lord Hollick, chief executive of the parent company, United News & Media, is becoming impatient.

To date, very little has been spent promoting the newspapers. Richard Addis, editor of the Daily Express, said last week that the title can only be successful if its owners open the spigot this autumn, letting potential readers know through a vigorous promotional campaign about the changes he has introduced. It is not enough to cut costs (seven staff on features, the picture desk and news were told last Friday to begin to look elsewhere) or to introduce new magazines or prettier pages. Until the newspaper's owners begin to spend seriously, there is no way the circulation slide can be reversed.

Consider the experience of Associated, publishers of the mighty Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday, the chief rivals of the Express papers. The mid-market tabloids have been promoted like hell, and the Express can barely get a look in.

Now take the Times (and increasingly, many are). It has put on readers galore, thanks to its aggressive pricing policy and promotional spend, and now averages about 750,000 a day (helped by a 1 million sale on Mondays, when it costs just 10p). Yet is the newspaper any better (or worse) than it was? I cannot see any sign of improved editorial content, although perhaps you can.

Some of the old guard, most recently Andrew Neil, former editor of the Sunday Times, insist that sterling editorial content will always drive sales, and points to his experience at the helm of the Sunday Times in the 1980s. What is too often passed over are the relentless promotions, the sectionalisation craze and the competitive pricing.

The economics of the newspaper industry in the UK were forever changed by Rupert Murdoch, who set out to prove, as he has unquestionably done, that newspapers are commodities - sensitive to price, little differentiated.

There may still be room for issue journalism, of the campaigning sort, if any editor can find a campaign that truly turns readers on. But the content of newspapers doesn't seem much to matter: just look at the sales figures even in the quality broadsheet market.

All of this might suggest that there is little point in owning a newspaper, unless you are content to run it like a commodity. And even then, the gentle, secular decline in newspaper readership means the business will become less and less profitable as time goes by.

The only real future, once you've done all the cost-cutting, shared office and communal printing wheezes, lies in making canny investments in new publishing formats - the Internet, for example. Tailored products for particular audiences (the so-called Daily Me) are an obvious way forward, as early experimentation with electronic newspapers - particularly the Times - have shown. Another route, followed already by the likes of Associated, is to secure advantage by buying judiciously into other media. Local newspapers and local radio are an obvious match, if the regulators allow it.

The radical changes at the BBC have so far been judged almost exclusively on whether they mean an end to the World Service as we know it. Far more important is the effect of restructuring on the mainstream BBC. Consider just one part of the "new" Beeb - BBC Production. This operation is meant to make the programmes that BBC Broadcast commissions. But it must be the logical next step to encourage BBC Production to branch out, making more programmes for other broadcasters, too. The cable and satellite channels, particularly, are likely to commission more domestic programming, reducing their reliance on US and Australian content, while Channel 5 will be in the market for new (if modestly budgeted) shows.

All of this will require a mindset change at the BBC, which has been used to making mass-market fare at heady prices. The burgeoning cable and satellite markets require much less expensive programmes, costing as little as pounds 2,500 an hour. Compare that with the pounds 100,000 an hour the mainstream broadcasters might spend on leading drama.

A useful comparison might be to an ocean liner. Luxury cruises, with topflight food and entertainment, will cost the earth. But stripped down cruises, with few bells and whistles and cheap and cheerful food and drink, can be had for much less. The basic infrastructure is the same, of course: ship, facilities, fuel. But there may be less equipment brought on board and fewer crew.

In the same way, BBC Production will have to get used to providing a range of programming, using flexible work patterns, more or less production equipment depending on the project, and varying qualities of film and video.

If BBC Production gets it right, it could become quite a profit centre for the rest of the BBC, without sacrificing its commitment to providing the core programming for the licence-funded service.

Of course, the controllers at BBC1 and BBC2 might not like the idea of seeing BBC-produced shows going out on competing airwaves. But it must be the inexorable logic of the profound changes wrought by John Birt's restructuring that the two sides of the new BBC, Broadcast and Production, will have to learn to function together and apart.