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26 May 2023

Newspaper circulations are dropping – but that doesn’t mean they’re dead

Winning their support remains important for political leaders.

By William Turvill

The NS’s left power list, published last week, included just one newspaper editor (the Guardian’s Katharine Viner) and one columnist (Owen Jones of the same title). The other media characters to have made the list – including Gary Lineker, James O’Brien, Alastair Campbell and Ash Sarkar – all exert their influence through broadcast or, more commonly, digital and social media. Print titles, it seems, have ever-less influence.

Take circulations. Since the 2019 election, the Daily Mail’s typical daily print run has fallen by almost a third, from above 1.1 million to less than 800,000; the Daily Mirror’s has dropped 38 per cent to around 280,000; the FT’s is down 32 per cent to 110,000. Many newspapers (including the Sun) no longer publish their print figures, but we can be confident that the general trend – a 30-40 per cent drop since 2019 – is fairly uniform across Fleet Street.

Newspaper editors would no doubt argue that their influence has transferred to their websites. But can a website ever replicate the impact of a newspaper splash? Will millions of readers visit to find out who it is endorsing for the election? Papers have started newsletters and podcasts, but on both fronts they are competing in a deep market, against the BBC, Global, Politico (and the NS).

Giles Kenningham, David Cameron’s former PR chief, told me recently that while newspapers will continue to break stories – “take Suella Braverman this weekend, I think you ignore them at your peril” – newsletters will play a larger role in setting the daily agenda. Politicians increasingly favour social media or podcasts over papers when they have something to sell or promote.

Alastair Campbell pushed back against this when we spoke. Despite now running a leading podcast, he thinks newspapers still set the news agenda. Some right-wing papers, he believes (perhaps unsurprisingly), have overplayed their hands by putting too much “straightforward (Tory) propaganda” on their front pages, which will only dilute the impact of the Mail endorsing the Tories at the next election.

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We know which way the Mail will go. But how about the FT? The Times? The Sun? The latter pair, both owned by Rupert Murdoch, backed the Tories in 2019, while the FT endorsed no one. Not long ago, it would have been unthinkable that all three could swing towards Labour. Now, optimists within Keir Starmer’s party will view all three as key, and winnable, battlegrounds.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe to it on Substack here.

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[See also: Is this the end of newspapers?]

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