Newspaper ad revenue falls back to the 1950s

Downwards curve.

Rumour has it the newspaper industry is not doing too well. How do you know when you're not doing too well? According to this graph by economics professor Mark Perry, it's when you regress 60 years.

The graph shows revenue from US newspaper advertising adjusted for inflation, and it's in a bit of a downwards curve. In fact, it's gone back to the '50s:

It's not a great place to be in, although the clothes are arguably better there. But perhaps the most interesting information on this graph is the online revenue line - after all, putting papers online for free has stolen ad revenue from print, right?

Jay Rosen seems to think so - pointing out that that newspaper advertising peaked the year blogging became an option. But Techdirt argues that the problem is not the fact that paper content became available for free. If this was the case online ad revenue would have increased over the last few years - and as we can see from the graph it declined almost from conception, and just as rapidly as print. Instead, it's the thousands of online communities that have sprung up, replacing any role print newspapers had here. Techdirt says:

The problem that newspapers came up against wasn't that they were suddenly giving out content online for free, but that there were very, very quickly millions of other "communities" that people could join online, such that the community of folks reading the newspaper started to go down, and with it, the attention went away.

But the argument seems a little flawed. After all, newspapers have never been able to act as "community centres" in the same way online forums can: the readership don't meet each other, and the only form of interaction is writing in to the paper itself - an effort not always rewarded in print. While they may have diverted some attention, online forums don't provide direct competition with newspapers.

What's the key cause of the decline? For the moment I'll go with a quote from Perry:

It's another one of those huge Schumpeterian gales of creative destruction.

A 1950s advert. Photograph: Getty Images.
Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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