Sun editor Rebekah Wade used her first major public speech in six years as editor of the red-top to insist that, despite the recession, newspaper owners must invest in journalism if they wish to survive the crisis currently facing the industry.
In recent months, hundreds of journalism jobs have been cut in the face of the recession and changing readership trends.
But Wade used the Cudlipp Lecture at the London College of Communications to say: “Cost-cutting in this business only works if the savings are reinvested in journalism.
“The death knell is already ringing for publishers who have forgotten our reason for being.”
She added: “The quality of our journalism will make or break our industry, not the recession.”
Wade used a chart to show how national newspaper circulations fared in 2008 – with The Sun at the top as the only newspaper to have an average sale over the whole year which was slightly higher than 2007, thanks largely to a price-cutting strategy.
She said: “If you look at this chart – is it a coincidence that the biggest losses are where we’ve seen the biggest cuts in journalism?”
The Daily Mirror and the Daily Star were at the bottom of Wade’s table.
She added that the huge amount of cash spent on circulation promotion was one of the national newspaper industry’s problems,
She noted that last year 163 million bulk copies were given away, there were 270 million foreign sales and: “We gave away 120 million free CDs and DVDs – of questionable quality and at enormous cost – just to rent readers.”
She added: “We paid our retailers and wholesalers over £800m in margins that have outstripped RPI. And while 1,400 corner shops closed, it’s been years since we developed alternative new routes to market.”
‘Digital growth doesn’t pay for journalism’
Wade said that the “huge growth in digital still doesn’t pay for high quality journalism”.
“We give away our expensive editorial content free online without an economic model that compensates for the loss in traditional revenues.”
But she added that “espite all these challenges, there are huge positives” – pointing out that last year 3.5 billion daily newspapers were sold in the UK attracting £1.8bn in advertising revenue.
And she said: “Ten years ago, 30 TV programmes delivered a larger audience than The Sun. Now there are only three or four on commercial channels that can consistently deliver that scale.”
Wade spoke up about the importance of campaigning journalism across the press and cited The Sun’s recent campaign to “expose the lack of accountability and responsibility for Baby P’s brutal death”.
And in one of several digs at The Guardian made throughout her speech, she quoted from a Guardian article which condemned The Sun for its “fury and repellant hysteria” and “manipulation”.
“This knee-jerk tabloid kicking reaction is just dull. But total disregard and respect for public opinion never ceases to amaze me,” she said.
Condemning what she sees as growing legal restraints on freedom of the press, Wade said: “This country is full of regulators, lawyers and politicians eager to frame and implement legislation that would constrain freedoms hard won over centuries.
“We are already losing those freedoms. Privacy legislation is being created by the drip, drip of case law in the High Court without any reference to parliament.”
And she condemned media commentators for what she sees as their negativity about the future of journalism.
“Sometimes I suspect most of the media commentariat are suffering from Munchausen syndrome. They are certainly making us suffer unnecessarily. Only journalism allows us to exist. Yet they often decry its existence.
“And it’s the epitome of self-flagellation when The Guardian publishes Max Mosley’s views on press freedom.
“The relentless negativity, this almost morbid fascination with our own demise, must stop.
“But we need the rest of the industry to win this fight. The silence is sometimes deafening.”
Urging journalism students to be positive about their future career, she said: “There’s a great reason to be a journalist – you can make a difference and that’s the reason you should go into it.”
Regrets Yasser Arafat coverage
Wade admitted in questions that the she was “thrown” when a Sun reader on one of the paper’s office away-days criticised her decision to devote more space to Wayne Rooney being involved in a minor car accident than it did to the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in 2004.
She said: “I felt embarassed that we didn’t have enough on Yasser Arrafat and there was a spread on Wayne Rooney who had only grazed his eyebrow.”
In response to a question about whether Sun journalists get paid more for doing more work online, she said: “Cost cutting is neccessary, every business is going to have to do that in 2009 with this recession.
“But [at The Sun] we are very fortunate in having a company that believes in reinvesting that on the page.”
She used the example of veteran Sun royals photographer Arthur Edwards as an example of the way Sun journalists have embraced multiskilling.
“Arthur Edwards is 67, he does podcasts, vodcasts, he has is own website with all his pictures on it. He’s constantly updating his website 24/7 and he’s never asked for a pay rise,” Wade said.