The most recent newspaper circulation figures made grim reading. It may be an old story, but the decline of almost every daily newspaper, as well as their Sunday counterparts, is no less important for it.
Perhaps the most notable case was that of the Daily and Sunday Mirror, two titles conspicuous among the British press for their left-wing politics and tribal loyalty to Labour (the Mirror was the only national paper to back Gordon Brown at the 2010 general election).
After Labour achieved 40 per cent of the vote in the 2017 election, one might have expected those titles closest to the party’s politics to be managing decline better than most. Instead, both Mirror titles endured a sales fall of almost 20 per cent in the year to January 2018.
Some argue that print publications, of any political disposition, will be replaced inevitably by nimbler online competitors with lower overheads. But despite the impressive emergence of the new left media in the last year (including Novara Media, the site I co-founded, as well as Evolve Politics and the Canary), I have my reservations.
Rather than replacing old media genres, digital just as frequently leads to their revival. This is a golden age of television drama, but it is being led by HBO and the BBC as much as by Netflix and Amazon. A similar trend applies to print magazines. Private Eye, the New Statesman, the Spectator, the Economist, Prospect and the London Review of Books have increased sales over the past five years. In book publishing, 2017 was the second successive year of falling e-book sales, while those of printed titles rose.
Regardless of convenience, and to an extent even affordability, it seems that readers still cherish printed products. This is surprisingly true of the young. Immersed as they are in screens and notifications, paperbacks and magazines perhaps offer a welcome reprieve.
Yet those who are happy to buy print titles don’t appear to want daily newspapers. And the Mirror will never do gobby populism as well or as quickly as its online rivals. While the absence of pro-Corbyn columnists at the paper and its general political incuriosity are notable, the primary problem is one of form.
My suspicion is that people are less likely than ever to read a newspaper or magazine in order to shape their political views. Indeed, the remarkable lack of influence that the Guardian had on the 2016 Labour leadership election (it was fiercely critical of Jeremy Corbyn) astonished even me.
Instead, people want personality and community; to be entertained but also informed. The Mirror could be an excellent fit for the digital age, especially if it embraced a truly left-wing populism.
The problem is, it isn’t a digital product: it’s a print-centric one. Ultimately, I suspect the business argument will be for it to become the former, much as the Independent did so successfully after 2016. But this would require decisive leadership, a far greater focus on audio-visual content and the kind of social media “halo” achieved by the website Joe and others.
So, what of weekly and monthly titles? The rising New Statesman sales show that there is an audience for progressive ideas. But the magazine treads a lonely path on the left. In the US, the quarterly socialist magazine Jacobin has made remarkable advances since its print launch in 2011 (its circulation is now 36,000). Over the same period in the UK, however, no comparable title has been created.
I suspect that the future of online media is daily news, low-cost opinion and niche reporting. When people turn to the printed word it will be for entirely different reasons, whether for long-form journalism, aesthetic pleasure or simply a more immersive, tactile experience.
If that is correct, then the likes of the Mirror, and even the Guardian, don’t appear to have much of a future as printed titles. But it would still leave significant space for a weekly print newspaper (perhaps through the merger of the Guardian and the Observer) and a regular magazine. A Monocle of the left? I’d be the first to subscribe.
Aaron Bastani is co-founder of Novara Media
This article appears in the 28 Feb 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the radical left