Newspaper ownership remains a puzzlingly popular ambition

Nick Higham is currently BBC radio’s media correspondent

This magazine has produced its first Fleet Street editor. It was already close – Georgina Henry, the deputy editor of The Guardian, was once Marketing Week’s media editor. Now Richard Addis, another ex-Marketing Week journalist, has come to rest on what must currently be the worst bed of nails in national newspapers – the editorship of the Daily Express.

It says something about the changing nature of journalism, that a background in trade papers rather than local newspapers the traditional first rung on the ladder for the ambitious hack now qualifies people for top jobs in the national press.

However, I suspect it was not Addis’s stint as a Marketing Week diarist which persuaded Express Newspapers’ chairman, Lord Stevens, that he was the man to halt the decline at the company’s flagship title. Rather it was his years of experience at the Sunday Telegraph and, especially, at Associated Newspapers’ Evening Standard and Daily Mail, the Express’s hugely successful rivals.

Likewise, the new editor of the Sunday Express Sue Douglas, cut her teeth at the Mail on Sunday before moving to the Sunday Times. Their task now is to inject a touch of Associated magic into the Express titles, which have been been sliding steadily towards oblivion for as long as most people can recall.

Both titles were once mouthpieces for middle England. Decades ago, the Daily Express sold 4 million copies a day. But sales have declined to around 1.25 million, significantly below the Mail’s 1.85 million. The paper’s readership profile has aged and, though their profits until recently have been healthy, rivals accuse Lord Stevens of starving them of resources for marketing and promotion, and for the product itself.

Although Express Newspapers’ parent company, United News and Media, says publicly that it remains committed to the papers, it has retained a small merchant bank to search out possible purchasers.

There now appear to be two serious bidders in the frame – Andrew Lloyd Webber, who is prepared to contribute 100m of his fortune to a consortium bid, and Andrew Neil, the former editor of the Sunday Times, who is reportedly willing to pay up to 250m for the titles (rather less than the 300m it is said Lord Stevens wants).

I can see why Andrew Neil, a professional journalist under whose editorship the Sunday Times was commercially highly successful, should be interested in taking over the Express. I am less clear why rich outsiders like Andrew Lloyd Webber or Mohammed Al-Fayed, who tried to buy Today from News International, should be interested in an expensive stake in a dying industry.

Clearly, owning a newspaper is still thought to confer kudos. A newspaper proprietor is important, in a way that the owner of Harrods or the composer of Cats apparently isn’t. But the lure of status must be pretty strong when weighed against newspapers’ questionable future.

It’s not just the Express whose sales are down. All national newspapers are suffering from declining circulation. In the 30 years up to 1993, total sales fell 30 per cent. In June 1993, before the price war started, average daily circulations stood at 13.8 million, Sunday circulations at 15.6 million.

Price-cutting in the daily market reversed that trend, sending circulation up to 14.4 million in the six months to October 1994, but for the next 12 months that’s where it stuck – despite continued price cuts.

There is no reason to suppose that now the price war is over, the gradual decline won’t resume. In the Sunday market, where prices weren’t cut, circulations slid from 15.6 million in 1993 to 15.5 million now.

It’s a similar story in the regional newspaper market. In 1981, local newspapers had a combined circulation of 32.7 million. In 1994 that had gone up to 46.7 million, though if you strip out the weekly freesheets whose growth was such a feature of the 1980s, circulations actually fell, from 17.4 million to 13.3 million. And even the freesheets’ circulation of 33.4 million is well down on the peak figure of 42 million in 1989.

Newspapers have remained a good commercial bet because advertising demand, particularly for colour, has remained strong. But the closure of Today is a reminder that newspapers are not capable of defying commercial gravity indefinitely.

In the City they say Express Newspapers would fetch more money if the Daily Star were shut down. Among the daily tabloids, it’s a distant third in a field of three, and its original rationale – spreading Express Newspapers’ overheads and using up surplus printing capacity – no longer holds good.

If one national newspaper can vanish, it is by no means impossible that another may follow it. That’s bad news for journalists, readers and advertisers – who will find themselves dealing with fewer buying points, each with a more powerful market position. But, there would be little surprise if it happens.

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