Stephen Glover On the Press: Britain's quality newspapers are still cheap, despite the price rises

Saturday 22 October 2011 23:15

Since September 1993 Britain has enjoyed the cheapest quality newspapers in the world. It was then that Rupert Murdoch cut the price of The Times from 45p to 30p. He later dropped it to 20p. His rivals were dumbstruck. The Independent initially raised its cover price in response before realising that this was not a particularly bright idea. The Daily Telegraph tried to stay aloof, but was eventually forced to follow The Times's lead.

Over the years The Times has increased its cover price in small steps, allowing rivals to do the same. But no quality paper other than the Financial Times, which occupies a different market, has dared to charge significantly more than The Times. So our upmarket titles have been a bargain both by most historic yardsticks and in comparison with Europe. That era now has ended.

Last week The Independent announced it was increasing its cover price from 80p to £1. The Times has recently risen to 80p, The Daily Telegraph to 90p. The Guardian will not be far behind. The reason for these increases is not hard to divine. With advert-ising revenue falling alarmingly fast because of the recession, publishers have to look elsewhere to shore up income. There is really only one lever they can pull – the one marked "cover price".

The trouble is that readers are also affected by economic recession. Some may be counting their pennies, as they don't in times of plenty. The effect of generally higher cover prices is therefore likely to be a small contraction of the market. Publishers hope that increased cover price revenue per copy will more than make up for their losing revenue by selling slightly fewer copies. It probably will, but there is another consideration that has not applied during previous recessions: the internet.

Some readers have been switching from reading newspapers in bundles of newsprint, for which they have to pay, to reading them on the Internet, for which they don't.

Publishers have yet to discover a way of making serious money out of the internet, and perhaps they never will. There must be a danger that raising cover prices at a time of recession will accelerate the drift from newsprint newspapers to internet ones.

Publishers have little choice, though. My hope – though it is probably more of a prayer – is that readers will accept these slight increases, and go on reading quality newspapers in their present numbers. I'm not sure they will.

I happen to believe that newspapers have been unrealistically cheap in this country. People who think nothing of shelling out £1.50 or £2 for a cappuccino, which is consumed in a few minutes, bridle at paying an extra 10p or 20p for a newspaper which can give hours of pleasure. This may be an odd and indefensible response, but, alas, people's odd and indefensible behaviour cannot be easily changed.

So quality newspapers may be heading for even choppier waters. In any event, the quality newspaper price war is well and truly ended. If there has been a winner it is The Times, which has increased its circulation by about three quarters, and closed the gap on The Daily Telegraph. One further thought: with these increases, the middle-market Daily Mail looks cheap at 50p.

Two faces of Britt Ekland confuse 'Daily Mail'

The Daily Mail has a larger proportion of female readers than any other newspaper. Many are in their forties or fifties, and so not as young as they were. You might think they would rather not see former beauties reduced to decrepitude, but the paper believes they do.

Last Monday it was the turn of Britt Ekland, whose picture on page three of the Mail showed a woman much the worse for wear as a result of cosmetic surgery, looking 85 rather than her actual age of 65. A photograph of her as a 1974 Bond Girl, suspenders showing, reminded us of what she had been. These are the horrors that time wreaks, was the message, and cosmetic surgery only makes things worse.

But is it true? The following day the Mail carried a full-page advertisement for a supplement that allegedly nourishes thinning hair. Who was the very attractive older woman whose picture adorned the ad? Britt Ekland.

Change too quick to Digest?

The Wallace Collection in London is becoming the chic venue for media parties. The centre-right monthly Standpoint recently held its launch party there. Tonight it will be the turn of the re-vamped Reader's Digest, edited by Sarah Sands, a former short-lived editor of the Sunday Telegraph.

Apart than the staff (if they are invited) few of the guests will have ever read the Reader's Digest, and probably few of them ever will. I can't remember when I last saw a copy. The magazine has become unfashionable even in dentist's waiting rooms. And yet it still sells some 650,000 copies a month in this country alone, almost entirely via subscription. Admittedly this is less than half its highest ever circulation, but it is still an impressive figure.

Sarah Sands is an old friend of mine, and so anything I say about her should be instantly discounted. She might appear the most unlikely person in the world to edit a dowdy magazine, being smart, metropolitan, and subversive. At the Sunday Telegraph she was accused of upsetting traditional readers by introducing too many changes too quickly. Will she dislodge the even more stick-in-the-mud readers of the Reader's Digest without attracting new ones?

Respecting your core readers is surely the most basic lesson in the business, and one ignored at their peril by many trendy new editors. When I met Sarah last week she seemed to have grasped the point, talking about "a gentle evolutionary approach" and preserving "the feel good" and "inspiring" quality of the magazine's articles. It is true she has hired some very good (and doubtless quite expensive) new writers. Maybe she will keep existing readers happy while luring new ones, who will be able to buy her magazine in newsagents. At this time of gloom and doom let us all wish her enterprise luck.

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