Can UK newspapers regain their bite in the face of falling circulations?

Newspapers’ influence is often measured by the number of people its articles reach. You see it in everything from the prominence given to circulation figures, or the raw addressable audience that is afforded by the platforms on which they exist. But the purpose of the fourth estate has to been to hold power in check – and arguably it has been failing in that mission over the past two years. Journalism is reaching more people than ever before, but it’s having less impact than ever.

It’s an issue that’s felt more acutely in local media. The director of local news group the Bureau Local Megan Lucera said: “We’re not hearing stories on the ground. Issues were not being raised at a national level. It came down to a wider identity crisis for news… and local journalism has taken a particular hit.”

More in hope than expectation…

However, it’s also true at a national level. Two stories that broke about the purpose of journalism this week brought that dichotomy into stark focus. The first – the left-leaning Observer publishing an op-ed from the UK prime minster Theresa May – was

something of a storm in a teacup, while the other – Alan Rusbridger decrying the column inches dedicated to a reality TV incident compared to the space given to an incredibly scary climate report – received less attention but arguably says more about why journalism’s power is limited at the moment. Let’s take a look at each, to determine why the newspapers made the decisions they did, and what it says about the current state of news publishing.

On Sunday October 7th the Observer, sister title to the Guardian and the oldest Sunday newspaper in the world, published an 0p-ed written by the UK Prime Minister. The piece itself was a barebones rewrite of her speech at the Conservative Party conference the previous week, and was probably an attempt by the PM’s comms team to reassert some control over a party that is increasingly fractured. However, the decision by the Observer to publish an op-ed from someone who is ideologically against much of what the Observer stands for was seen as a betrayal by some on the left, who asked why the paper would choose to promote views they find distasteful.

There are many reasons why the Observer might not have run the piece, or to run it differently. It had little news value, for one thing. The paper could have chosen to frame the story in a way that added context, or rightly questioned some of the claims made in it. It could even, as my Media Voices co-host Peter argued, have opened the comments up. But to argue that a national newspaper should effectively no-platform the country’s chief political figure on the grounds that, effectively, its audience might not have liked what it read is spurious and misses the point. Newspapers are supposed to challenge their audiences’ beliefs, and not to run the piece would have been an admission that May’s rhetoric on some key issues was stronger than the Observer’s. In that sense, it rose to her challenge.

There were a number of mini-thought experiments run on Twitter in the immediate aftermath of publication. People asked if there would have been such an outcry if the Observer had run a similar piece from the opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn (no). The reality, though, is that you don’t need to run a thought experiment to see what newspapers that don’t challenge their readers’ beliefs look like. The Sun, the Mail and the Express’ business models all rely on doing exactly that, providing populist news bites that feed their audiences’ confirmation bias.

It was that appeal to populism, too, that led most of the tabloids to lead with interchangeable accounts of romance on the set of reality dance competition Strictly Come Dancing, instead of a genuinely scary look at the effects of climate change.

That appeal to salacious gossip isn’t anything new – it’s been the basis of the tabloid journalism industry for as long as it’s existed. But at a time when journalism is failing to affect major changes – when the same prime minister whose op-ed was published in a Sunday national can dismiss a journalist in front of Donald Trump with a derisory comment of “it’s just the press” – it’s beginning to look a lot like most of them aren’t even bothering to try any more. So the Observer shouldn’t be castigated for engaging with Theresa May, for trying to remain a vital and important source of news and comment – it should be celebrated for continuing to challenge assumptions and beliefs.


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Martin Tripp Associates is a London-based executive search consultancy. While we are best-known for our work across the media, information, technology, communications and entertainment sectors, we have also worked with some of the world’s biggest brands on challenging senior positions. Feel free to contact us to discuss any of the issues raised in this blog.