It's the tabloids wot won't win it anymore
BONG: Trinity Mirror's shares down 81% in a year; BONG: Johnston Press shares down 90%; BONG: Daily Mail and General Trust Shares down 54% - it's all there on the front page of the Guardian Media section. What does it mean?
What it does NOT mean is that newspapers are dying as media businesses: the ad spend figures projected by Group M last month are for a fall in growth - from 6% to 4% - masking a rapid rise in Internet advertising (27% projected next year). What it does mean is newspapers will have to become multiplatform businesses reliant on a multiplatform ad spend and probably lower revenues.
I think it means that tabloid newspapers are going to become less important politically, and that their positive political functions - as a kind of analogue network for the collective emotional feelings of the wider electorate - are already moving into other media. As a result, politicians who understand this will probably spend less cosying up to newspaper proprietors .
Consider this: the most-read stories on the BBC website are nearly always "tabloid": Tindall admits drink drive charge; Alan Sugar "survives plane crash" are currently #2 and #3 with "Musical toilet from Japan" heading both the most watched and most read lists as I write. All that output, all those correspondents in flak jackets, all that research and analysis, and Joe Blow on the internet is only interested in a Bach-playing-khazi!
You may shake your head but that is why tabloids exist: whatever it is, deep within the collective psyche, that Roger Harrabins's report on the remote-controlled toilet has touched, will be instinctively understood in the newsroom of the Sun and Mirror (and for that matter, Nuts). However, go online to the Daily Mail's website and it becomes clear that the BBC is not the only media whose old-skool priorities get morphed online into something more plebeiean.
The Mail's newsprint agenda is well represented by the stories chosen by its online subs: Brown says we throw too much food away; Rail lashed Britain in summer washout; 7/7 bomber's family hold party on his grave; brother of 7/7 bomber gets free holiday to Pakistan. Flip to its "most read" story list and the top is, of course, tennis star Laura Robson, followed by a funny about a bride whose wedding dress fell off her at the altar, followed by a picture story about murder victim Shaki Townsend allegedly "posing with a gun".
You don't need a PhD in media studies to know that two completely different demographics are involved in both these examples (BBC and Mail). But since media outlets cannot, as Brecht once quipped about the East German government, "elect a different population", they have to live with this and adapt. What it means is that, in ad-funded media at least, the politics of the future audience are going to be very different online than in print.
But that's not all. Some of the broader functions of the tabloid are already being usurped by three forms of media: the internet, people's text message networks, and talk radio. If you look at the front page of the Sun - "What a weekend to be British - Lewis and Laura triumph" then that essential mood-catching, euphoria riding headline, whose subtext says "here's two kids with great teeth that make us proud to be alive etc" - already feels old. Why? Because millions of SMS texts have been flying around in the last 24 hours to the same effect, with hundreds of blog posts and many hours of talk radio burbling.
The implications of this go beyond the world of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club. In fact they go right to the heart of the relationship between tabloid newspaper bosses and politicians. If you no longer have a monopoly on the nation's collective heart and soul, why do you have the power to dictate policy and summon prime ministers?
This is not just about the internet: the rise of talk radio - above all Talksport (a favourite secret listen among BBC news execs) - has also captured a political space that was once the monopoly of tabloid editors. However, though much of the language in such radio programmes is demotic and brutal, it is not a simple radio version of the tabloid: for one thing, they have to be broadly impartial - hence the employment of George Galloway to counter and occasionally make jibes against John Gaunt on Talksport. Crucially, at election time, they have to go into purdah - as shock jock James Whale found out when he was sacked for breaching that rule. In addition, radio advertising being thin, returns meagre and the sector more heavily regulated for competition, the barriers to entry for commercial radio are lower. You do not just get multimillionaires owning it. In short, owning a talk radio channel is not going to give you the power to do a "Neil Kinnock plus lightbulb" screamer on election day, nor "It's the Sun wot won it" the day after.
I think there is one startling proof of the concept that tabloids don't matter as much politically as they did, and that one day soon they will hardly matter at all - and that is the rise of David Cameron. There is not a single tabloid that has gone out of its way to back him. In fact the majority of tabloid commentators offer us a daily helping of views that would get you drummed off the Conservative A-list and possibly out of Cameron's party. Above all, the Murdoch tabloids have yet to switch decisively to Cameron, yet he is double digits ahead of Labour in every poll.
He has of course been very canny, employing an ex-tabloid editor as his press man. Yet Andy Coulson seems to have recognised that what the tabloids used to do is now done by this complex distributed network of media: from Youtube to radio talk show and celebrity TV show. What all these things have in common - the blog, the phone-in, the one-to-many text message - are that they take control of the message out of the hands of sub-editors and out of the hands of the owners they are subordinate to.
Crass and crude some of the "new-media" content mix may be, but at least it's the audience's own crass crudity, not completely foisted on them by what we used to know as Fleet Street. They have to feel the message to be genuine, in subtext as well as text, for it to avoid instant ridicule.
Above all, this new interactive media does not respect tradition: it is going to drag newspaper editors of all persuasions into political territory they never dreamed of. Last week I heard Guardian Editor Alan Rusbridger opine on this in public. He said two things which went un(der) reported, both of which were significant:
1) The Guardian's new colour presses may be the last they ever buy (they last about 20 years);
2) He would not rule out the newspaper advocating a vote for the Conservatives (he pointed out they had done so in 1951 on the grounds that Labour had "run out of steam").
There would, it was pointed out in the audience, be rebellion all along London's Farringdon Road where the Guardian is printed. However, the serious - and at the time unbroached - fact behind Rusbridger's point is that, for all that the Guardian's columnists attack Gordon Brown for being too right wing, incompetent, "letting in the Tories etc" the Guardian's readership - if it has anything in common with those who answer opinion polls - are probably not averse to voting Conservative so long as Cameron sticks to the social-liberalism he has espoused.
The internet-reading, talk-show phoning, multiple-texting masses are, in summary, politically volatile and unfaithful. They are the first generation who are getting their news from each other and who can establish a collective "buzz" about what's right and wrong with the world, independent of any newspaper or network TV channel. The canniest execs in newsprint - tabloid, broadsheet and Berliner - already know this; they are triangulating their politics coverage against both the wishes of the proprietor and the mood of the audience - which they always did, but with more control over the latter.
As for the politicians they are getting it much more slowly: only big newspapers and vast TV networks can deliver one big message fast - whether it's about wasting food or "Britishness". When they see this kind of PR message delivered, it tends to blind them to the existence of the user-controlled networks where it is systematically ridiculed and ripped to shreds. The impact of this you can only measure at election time.