Lowest common denominator

30 May 2010

Now that the revolution in which the public chooses they want to read is well underway, the complaints are popping up about the public avoiding substantial fare in favour of fast-food consumption. Forget stuff that people should be reading to keep abreast of what's happening in the world, they're gagging for garbage on Lady Gaga.

'Twas ever thus. Take this passage from Power Without Responsibility by media researchers James Curran and Jean Seaton, which shows that reading preferences haven't changed all that much in 40 years even though the choices have, in principle, massively expanded:

"The most-read stories in Sunday quality papers during the period between 1969 and 1971 were human-interest stories about ordinary people, followed by human-interest stories about celebrities - precisely the most-read stories in the Sunday People and the Sunday Mirror during the same period."

The sources for the statistics were the Sunday Times' own Marketing Research Studies during that period, according to Curran and Seaton.

Today, Bill Gates looks a little out of place on the cover of the edition I own but Rupert Murdoch far less so - and he is prominent on the cover of the latest. The News International decision to deliberately choke off high readership figures in favour of paid subscriptions also has a mirror in the late 1960s. And it has a lot to do with the way advertisers rather than readers view publications:

"Failure to respect these different market rules could produce bizarre consequences, as was demonstrated when The Times, under a new owner, Lord Thomson, went for promiscuous growth. Between 1966 and 1969 the paper increased its circulation by 60 per cent...However, a significant number of its new readers were indigent students, lower-middle class or even working class. Advertisers objected to paying premium rates for the privilege of attracting readers from outside their advertising target group, many of whom could be reached more cheaply through other publications...Thoroughly chastened, The Times reversed its policy by raising its price, adopting a more austere editorial policy and changing its promotional message in a successful bid to lose 96,000 unwanted circulation between 1969 and 1971..."

The quest to SEO the life out of every headline and standfirst to get page view figures to impress advertisers is not necessarily the way forward. As with the scramble to reclaim the high ground 40 years ago, having a known paid readership can pay dividends with some advertisers. However, there are important structural differences between the advertiser base of the late 1960s and the one we have today, which is far more focused on return on investment even if it does not have the tools to perform sensible analyses of those returns. But whatever the attitude of the advertiser, it subtly alters the way that the new paid-for papers (which are trying to regain an élite position) will function, as it did way back when:

"More far-reaching than advertisers' indirect influence on the market orientation of newspapers was their direct impact on the structure of the press. By 2002, five out of ten national dailies served the top end of the market, and accounted for 20 per cent of circulation...Under this bifurcated system, the only significant minority papers to survive were those that served advertising-rich audiences."

Curran and Seaton argue that this concentration of revenue in the top end of the newspaper business tended to reinforce the position of an élite clique in politics.

"Economic power was thus converted into ideological power. Yet this came about not through blackmailing pressure exerted by advertisers on editorial content - the usual concern of radical critics - but through an impersonal process in which influence was largely unsought."

What gets reinforced this time will be different but there is likely to be a very distinct difference between the mass-market, free publications and those that choose to erect a paywall.


Good post Chris. Thanks!

Thanks Sherrilynne. Glad you liked it.