The old and the new
A sharp decline in newspaper print circulation raises questions about the power of the media, argues William Kane
There are many industries struggling at the moment, and it is hardly surprising to find the print media among them.
What seems to be the last ever monthly report from the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC), which keeps track of print newspaper numbers, makes grim reading for those who like the feel of ink on their fingers. Sunday tabloids and ‘quality’ mid-market papers suffered relatively modest declines of 12%-14% month on month. Most other paid-for papers saw falls of 15%-20%, with the Financial Times a big outlier at 39%, and the i at 38%.
The immediate cause of this bloodbath barely needs to be stated. The Covid-19 pandemic has shut many shops and caused people to go out less frequently, meaning that fewer daily papers are sold. It has plunged millions into acute economic uncertainty - they may no longer have a couple of quid to spare for a newspaper. It has also massively reduced commuting, which may account for the more eye-catching declines. The i is typically reliant on extended, quasi-free distribution in public places, and possibly a related problem exists for the FT, which is very expensive, but typically shipped to offices in the City and the like. It is no surprise at all, then, that the big losers are the free sheets - London’s Evening Standard and Metro suffered declines of 47% and 70% respectively. In theory, these are existentially threatening - we shall see if that is how things pan out.
The latest ABC reports, the organisation blithely admits, have been shelved in their current form to “address publisher concerns that [they] provide a stimulus to write a negative narrative of circulation decline” - as opposed to a positive narrative of decline, we suppose. Henceforth, news organisations may still report their numbers to be published by ABC, but may not. Rupert Murdoch is the first press mogul to tire of the exercise, meaning that The Sun, The Times and their Sunday sisters are no longer easily comparable to their competitors.
To a certain extent, the decline narrative is misleading. We could take The Guardian as an example: its print circulation is in danger of falling into five figures, but its actual readership has grown enormously and numbers many millions who read it on the internet. Its print readership largely consists of those who have been reading it for decades - stereotypically retired public-sector workers of one sort or another (these sorts of demographic details matter to advertisers, of course). This is not a growing segment, and its business ‘people’ will be far more enthused at the international reach of the paper among the cosmopolitan young. It even turned a profit last year, for the first time in decades, thanks to a ‘subscription’ drive (in effect, given that all the content is free anyway, a drive for recurring donations from its readership). Mail Online remains the most visited English-language news website in the world.
So there are two rather more important questions than the bare print readership figures - revenue and influence. It so happens that revenue had been tracking the decline of print circulation, at least until recently. This is, in the end, a contingent feature of the structure of the newspaper industry. It has always been funded by some combination of advertising and cover-price; and in the 1980s, price wars launched by Murdoch in the tabloid and broadsheet markets tipped the balance dramatically towards advertising. Ad rates were high, since there were few enough other means to reach so many people.
In theory, the advent of the internet ought to have been good for the traditional media, considerably reducing the necessary capital and operational expenditure necessary to reach the same number of readers. There would, of course, be increased competition from independent publishers, but the existing competition had hardly made a difference (Socialist Worker has never succeeded in taking large numbers of readers from the Mirror and never will, in its current form at least).
The poison in the chalice was a steep decline, from the publishers’ point of view, in the value of advertising. Online ads effectively require publishers to accept a far smaller piece of the pie, in a market in which they are dominated by the largest internet companies - Google and Facebook - in whose hands control over what people look at is effectively concentrated. The traditional media organisations were eviscerated by this pressure - newsrooms shrank and journalism was aggressively proletarianised, with the result that more and more (and necessarily worse) content is produced by ever fewer, worse-paid writers and editors. This is the phenomenon Nick Davies called ‘churnalism’ in his seminal polemic, Flat earth news.
The major print media in this country have avoided the usual fate of declining economic sectors (in this day and age, that means falling prey to asset-stripping vulture capitalists), principally because newspaper proprietorship confers extra-economic benefits. Unlike in the United States, broadcast news media are heavily regulated in terms of overt political bias, which introduces real limits to broadcasters’ ability to create stories. They are - with apologies to the Brexiteers - story takers, not story makers.
The business end of framing the news must be done by media organisations with a freer hand, which are not afraid of accusations of bias, or subject to fines from the government regulator, Ofcom, on that basis. There is an important structural role fulfilled here, which has to do with the constraining of political choices within the bourgeois political regimes. ‘Story making’ mediates the other parts of the ruling class - be they the collective power of capital in the form of advertisers, professional politicians or even state-core operatives - to the disadvantage of plebeian opposition.
What is interesting about the new internet media is that, though they have had a catastrophic effect on the revenues of the traditional media, they cannot - or cannot yet - supplant the ‘story making’ role in a sufficiently organised way to replace the old press. The monopolistic forces in the new media are platforms, rather than publishers; that is, they get rich not off their own content, but that of others. This means that they relinquish the kind of direct political control enjoyed by Rupert Murdoch - even though they possess it in theory - to preserve the illusion of a transparent public sphere which discriminates against nobody. This is necessary for the same reason that letters to the editor of the Daily Mail tend to reflect the petty-bourgeois enragé outlook of the paper: people must feel that the platform is ‘theirs’, or at least as much theirs as anyone else’s.
This game has always been good business, but today it is more urgent. Though their operations are only very unsystematically regulated at present, the social media barons are politically cautious, since their businesses are plainly anti-competitive and only protected from anti-trust action by 40 years of judicial sabotage of the relevant legislation in the USA. It will not take much to bring serious enforcement back on the agenda, and indeed Google and Facebook are especially vulnerable at this point: they are blamed both by Donald Trump and the far right for allegedly promoting ‘cultural Marxism’, and by the liberals for allegedly allowing Putin’s trolls to hand the White House to Trump in the first place.
Thus, they must tread very carefully. (Usually the explicit statements of tech barons are liberal, but the discreet political donations by their companies conservative.) For example, Google eagerly complies with local censorship in its various markets. Its YouTube video platform is vulnerable to political pressure; at present, it bans content that undermines Covid-19 messaging from the World Health Organisation, from conspiracy theorists and suchlike.
The power of the traditional media, then, is not based fundamentally on technology, or else it would already be gone. It is based on politics and ideology, the hazardous processes by which society comes to be governed in the interests of the capitalist class. The traditional media have been forced onto foreign terrain - a world in which, economically, media baron Jonathan Harmsworth is to Google what a gnat is to god; but, still, it is Harmsworth who has 11 million digital readers, and not a web-native competitor.
The fact that this influence has not been destroyed, however, does not mean it has escaped unscathed. A period in which the ‘Overton window’ narrowed significantly has given way to one in which far-right kooks walk the corridors of power, and the exclusion of socialism from the political vocabulary in the Anglophone world has become - let us say - rather fraught. The problem with the transition from old to new media is that the old media are - as noted - getting worse under economic pressure, but the new cannot replace them politically, precisely because the monopolistic structure of the platforms prevents a powerful-enough ‘story making’ apparatus emerging to challenge the Murdochs and Harmsworths.
This presents opportunities for the left, of course, though not in the way usually supposed. It is not - or not only - the vastly greater leverage offered by digital publishing methods over print and broadcast media that makes the difference, but the fact that the bourgeois media is in the middle of an awkward transition from one paradigm to another, and thus its organisational consistency is at a low ebb (a problem exacerbated by a wider political crisis).
For the left to make real, lasting inroads, however, it needs its own organisational consistency, which means it needs parties that organise in a healthy manner, and thus can fruitfully use the talents at their disposal - journalistic talents very much included.