The fight for survival

The subject of a Media Society debate held last week, just days before the centenary of one of our most renowned newspapers, was “The Mirror Crack’d – does the Daily Mirror have a future?”. The title was about as inspiring, someone remarked, as a centenarian receiving from the Queen a congratulatory telegram that read: “You haven’t got much longer, have you?” Former Mirror editor Roy Greenslade, who chaired a debate in which I was one of the speakers, broadened the discussion to “Do newspapers have a future?” The answer clearly was “yes”, the panel decided, but there could be no doubt that some of those staggering along at present might end up being wheelchaired into the emergency ward and then, radical surgery having failed several times, proceeding to the cemetery with barely a pause to cough farewell.

With most circulations slipping consistently, the market looks overcrowded with 10 national papers appearing each weekday and the same number crowding on to newsagents’ shelves on Sundays. Then there are such rogue titles as the Sunday Sport and The Business, which ensure the Sunday circulation jam is spread even thinner, plus the London Evening Standard – its monopoly soon to be challenged if Richard Desmond’s new launch goes ahead – and the successful free Metro series. In Scotland, the struggle for readers is even keener, with two extra national dailies and one more Sunday tabloid joining the fray.

So who is destined for the knacker’s yard? Only Sir Tony O’Reilly’s chutzpah and deep pockets keep The Independent and its Sunday sister in business, despite brave editorial initiatives such as the alternative tabloid version of the Monday to Friday paper.

The Daily Express will survive as long as Desmond can turn a decent profit, but as a mid-market challenger to the Daily Mail, it retired on grounds of ill health years ago.

The situation is as bad on Sundays.

Again, the Express would be vulnerable should Desmond decide the thriving Daily Star and Daily Sport on Sunday, the latter produced on a budget so slim you wouldn’t see it if it was turned sideways, fully answered his newspaper proprietorial needs. The poor old People is in such decline it may have died already without anybody noticing and Trinity Mirror has problems, too, with its other fading Sundays, the Mirror and the Sunday Mail in Scotland, as well as the flagship Daily Mirror and the Scottish Daily Record.

Trinity Mirror probably faces the biggest challenge of all, hence the Media Society debate and the absence from it of anyone from the company’s hierarchy, all of whom were presumably busy back at the office trying to develop a strategy that will ensure the long-term safety of these onceseemingly omnipotent titles.

It is hardly a secret within the trade that morale at the Trinity Mirror titles is not just on the floor, but practically at the bottom of the Canary Wharf lift shaft. The recent redundancies required by Sly Bailey have convinced many that the chief executive has no more imaginative a survival plan than the cost-cutting that saw former boss, David Montgomery, boost the share price while shredding circulation and market share.

Slashing staff and editorial expenditure has worked so far for Desmond, but as sole owner of the Express group, he is in a position to take whatever radical steps he thinks necessary without institutional shareholders tut-tutting in the background. Bailey is at the disadvantage suffered by all newspapers not run by press barons or chief executives or chairpersons with the hubris to behave as if they were proprietors – Harry Guy Bartholomew and Cecil Harmsworth King had no more real clout than Bailey, but behaved so imperiously that the shareholders were rarely seen or heard.

The fact remains that number crunching has never yet produced a big Fleet Street winner. The Mirror’s investment in its journalism on its way to a sale of more than five million bordered on the profligate. Even under Robert Maxwell, there was money to enhance the editorial quality and the paper briefly became once more properly competitive. The Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday have bucked the downward circulation trend because of editorial investment and added value projects that don’t come cheap. Result: when the doubtful future of newspapers is discussed, you’ll never hear the Mail mentioned.

Every member of the panel at the Media Society agreed that the Mirror would survive. “In a diminished form,” added Felicity Green, a former executive and board member at the paper. “I’m optimistic – just,” said exassistant editor Geoffrey Goodman. “It will limp along,” conceded author Chris Horrie.

That should cheer them up at Canary Wharf.

Writing in his Mirror column about the sexcapades and drug-taking allegations that once again saw the tawdry world of football dominating front pages, Brian Reade homed in on the root cause of these and similar social ills. “The reflection from their [the footballers’] goldfish bowl is a mirror to the ugliness all around us.” Their behaviour, he wrote, is no different to “what hordes of young British men and women were doing in Corfu, Ibiza and Rhodes every night this summer. And don’t we know it.” Reade then went on to decry our “amoral, hedonistic society”.

Powerful stuff from one of the most trenchant columnists in the business.

A shame, therefore, that towards the back of that day’s Mirror, its “Scorer” soccer strip cartoon – presumably something that younger readers turn to – was continuing to develop a storyline featuring naked women frolicking in a swimming pool in what looked like the overture to a lesbian fling and the suggestion from one of them that the other’s boyfriend might enjoy a sexual threesome.

“It is our future we fear for, not football’s,” wrote Reade. Quite right. It might be an idea, then, for the Mirror to lead the way by cleaning up its own act.

It is disturbing not to have heard of any recent outbreaks of fisticuffs at The Observer. As students of such generally considered anachronistic Fleet Street pastimes are aware, Observer hacks are known on occasion to take a drink or two and then attempt to give one another a good pasting. These occasions include office think tanks and wakes – well, things being how they are these days, one has to grab opportunities when they come along.

It was not always thus. In his Daily Mail column, Andrew Alexander harked back to his days at The Daily Telegraph, when it “was known as the journalists’ newspaper” because it was “packed with news”. It might also have been known as Dodge City if Alexander’s evidence can be relied upon. “Drinking on the old DT was notorious,” he recalled, and went on to describe the “amazing scenes” that used to go on in the pub next door, the King and Keys.

“I once witnessed the features editor throwing a punch at the diplomatic editor,” he wrote, “missing and knocking the deputy editor off his bar stool, who lay on the floor puzzled at his sudden view of the ceiling.”

Knocking people off stools at The Daily Telegraph! Come on, Observer – you can’t take that lying down.  Bill Hagerty is editor of British Journalism Review.


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