Business before editorial?

It is easy to forget that a newspaper is at heart a business – particularly from the perspective of its journalists and readers.

For a reporter, the primary motive in print may be to convey an opinion, serve the public interest, or even expose iniquity. It is unlikely that a tabloid journalist writing their splash, or a broadsheet reporter publishing the result of months of investigation, have the intention of maximising their publishers’ profits in the forefront of their minds.

Readers, too, tend to be motivated more by the content within a newspaper than the price on its cover. This is proven by the fact that newspaper circulation in Ireland and Britain does not correlate with cost price. The best selling broadsheet in the Republic – the Irish Independent – sells over 30,000 more copies than its rival paper the Irish Times, despite maintaining a similar (or even higher, for weekend editions) cost on the news stands. The Daily Mail remains triumphant among the UK tabloids – almost tripling the circulation of the Daily Express – despite a 500% mark up on its price.

Furthermore, promotional material in the form of advertorials and newspaper-endorsed merchandise tends to provoke the ire of its readers over anything else. After all, the Guardian reader did not buy his weekend supplement to purchase a pair of marked-up espadrilles from the online shop, any more than the Daily Star reader picked up their copy to procure a discount from Georgia Salpa’s bikini range – or one should hope.

Yet it is these marketing ploys – from the publishers’ view, at least – which help bring success to the newspaper as a business. Sales, advertising, promotions – all these equate to the success and longevity of any printed media.

Therefore the key to a successful publication, which is traditionally thought to depend on quality of content, lies primarily with the business-focused outlook of the
publisher. This might be unpalatable to editors, who have become increasingly distanced from the commercial aspect of publishing as the scale of printed media has grown.

Indeed, editorial and advertising, while both equally crucial to a publication’s success, are two outlooks that rarely converge. Take the brand of any well-known national newspaper, be it centrist, left-wing or right-wing. To an editor, its ethos might embody a political and cultural outlook – but to a publisher, this is simply a matter of appealing to a target audience. There are no readers according to this commercially-driven perspective – only consumers.

But this does not mean that a publisher should ignore editorial considerations when promoting their brand. Even the most successful businessperson must take a
publication’s history and culture into account, otherwise their readers will be alienated.

This was a hard lesson learned by business mogul Mohamed Al Fayed in his
relaunch of Britain’s Punch magazine, which had a readership of 175,000 in the mid-twentieth century. The Harrods owner took on the publication to find that a push for commercialisation – Punch was packed with glossy upmarket advertisements – had led its loyal fan base to dwindle to 6,000 by 2002.

The last ever print issue of Punch magazine

Editors are equally responsible. Articles making a desperate push to grab the reader’s attention – particularly when dishonestly sourced – are counterproductive to
producing sales. The drop in circulation for surviving News International publications to prewar levels illustrates the dangers in this respect.

The editorial staff must be mindful of the interests of their advertisers. This newspaper, for instance, has been asked to abstain from reviewing certain products or businesses in the interests of keeping an advertiser on board.

What newspapers need in today’s climate is an affinity between the quantitative perspective of the publisher and a commitment to relevant editorial. Readers will not be fooled by false advertorials and compromised content.

Well-directed marketing in the form of relevant advertisements, paired with ethical and relevant content, should secure the media’s solvency.