David Bullard gives his opinion on how London’s newspapers have adapted for survival and how that compares to South Africa.
Earlier this year I spent two weeks in London. I mention this because a fortnight spent living like a Londoner after a 32-year absence from my native city inevitably makes more of an impression than would a fleeting visit. Oddly enough, very little has changed. Agreed, the skyline has altered dramatically and where there used to be foreign banks in the City of London there are now sandwich bars and theme pubs with Polish barmaids. But the weather still can’t be relied upon and the trains are just as crowded as they ever were.
Something that superficially looks the same but has changed dramatically is the newspaper industry. To look at the papers laid out at any commuter railway station you would never guess that the newspaper industry is in crisis. Apart from the disappearance last year of the News of the World, all the familiar titles are still around, albeit in tabloid format in many cases. The Daily Telegraph still appears as a broadsheet but its old rival, the Murdoch-owned The Times, has been in easy-to-handle tabloid format for years now (something no reader would ever have imagined possible when The Times didn’t even carry a front page photograph back in the 1960s).
There are the “red tops” all on display with their shouty headlines, page three girls and concentration on really important things like who is shagging who in celebdom. The great thing about British newspapers is that there is a newspaper to suit most political views. If you don’t much like the royalist stance of The Telegraph you can opt for the more republican The Guardian. Unlike South Africa, the UK press don’t hunt as a pack, which is much healthier for democracy.
Here in South Africa, it’s well known that certain voices are banned in our newspapers (mine being only one of many) and that a code of omerta protects senior journalists from scrutiny. In the UK, as the Leveson inquiry has demonstrated, no such arrangement exists and it’s quite common for one newspaper of a particular political hue to attack a rival newspaper and to report on the shenanigans of its top staff. Rebekah Brooks may have been a rich and powerful figure when she was a newspaper editor, but that didn’t stop the Metropolitan Police from arresting her and it certainly didn’t deter other newspapers and TV stations from gleefully reporting her discomfort.
That could never happen in South Africa, which is probably why our print media is increasingly distrusted by the public.
The UK newspaper industry understands more than ever that non-news content is all important, which is why they haven’t shafted some of the old favourites who have been writing for decades. In South Africa they would have been put out to grass long ago as part of a cost cutting exercise.
On commuter trains you see a fair amount of travellers using Kindles and iPads, but there are still many who prefer to buy a newspaper to read on the journey. That may give the newspapers some breathing space, but the real threat to the newspaper industry are the free papers.
Every morning I could pick up a tabloid called The Metro from a distribution bin at a railway station absolutely free. It had all the latest news, some good columns, interesting features, decent sports pages and was perfect for my 30-minute journey to Victoria. Since I hadn’t paid for the paper I had no qualms about leaving it on the train for the next passenger to read.
In the evening I picked up a free copy of the London Evening Standard (a paper that was started back in 1827) from the same distribution bins used for The Metro in the morning and read that on my return journey. Thirty-two years ago I had a choice between the Evening News and the Evening Standard but neither were free. These two free daily London papers are owned by former Russian KGB agent Alexander Lebedev and the Standard claims to reach 2.7 million people living in London and the South East.
The problem with free newspapers in South Africa is you can tell immediately that they have been produced on a shoestring budget. Both The Metro and the London Evening Standard come across as quality products aimed at a captive audience, the commuter.
After two weeks in London I had my daily routine sorted. I would pick up a free newspaper on the way in and on the way out of London and I would then read the other papers on the internet for free at one of the many WiFi hotspots. That, I imagine, is what more and more people are going to be doing in the future…unless the major titles follow Mr Lebedev and decide to rely solely on advertising revenue.
This story was first published in the July 2012 edition of The Media magazine.