Middle England proves elusive ground for Left-leaning press

Rosie Boycott, editor of the Express, has a clear idea of the kind of paper she wants to produce (and, by extension, the kind of reader she hopes to attract): “liberal, feisty, dynamic, forward-looking”, a paper that will “articulate the voice of the new Middle England”.

She wants younger readers and more vibrant and upmarket ones than her principal rival, the Daily Mail – a paper which she disparages by saying it has a tendency to blame single mothers for too many of society’s ills.

Kim Fletcher, her successor at the paper she used to edit, the Independent on Sunday, has a rather similar notion of the kind of readers he’s after. They should be intelligent and upmarket, liberal-left, interested in a serious paper which is not dumbed down.

So what should we conclude from the fact that two of the weakest titles in the national newspaper market are both chasing a leftish readership, while suffering a decline in circulation and readership? Is it that the great political change which saw New Labour swept to power in May 1997 has had precious little effect on newspaper-reading habits?

After all The Guardian, still firmly left of centre and remarkably buoyant throughout the fiercest battles of the newspaper price war, which it steadfastly refused to join, has witnessed its sales fall from almost 412,000 in the six months to October 1997 to 393,000 in the six months to last October. Readership, too, has plummeted from a six-month average of 1.33 million to 1.06 million.

Then again the Daily Mail, for all its moaning about single mothers, has gone from strength to strength. Its six-month average sale to October last year was 2.34 million, up from 2.22 million. Readership too has increased, although by a smaller margin, from 5.24 million to 5.33 million.

The Express, by contrast, has seen circulation decline from 1.22 million to 1.13 million, and readership is down from 2.75 million to 2.66 million.

Middle England may have voted for Tony Blair, but they don’t seem to want to read papers sympathetic to him – and The Express, formerly staunchly Conservative but now owned by the Labour peer Lord Hollick, is now equally staunchly New Labour.

The consolation for Boycott comes in the fact that The Express no longer has a markedly older and more downmarket profile than the Mail. The proportions of ABC1s and 15- to 44-year-olds among the Mail’s readers have declined while in the case of The Express they’ve risen – to the point where the two papers are now more or less level-pegging. The danger is that this simply represents thousands of former Express readers switching over to the Mail, and that this process will continue and perhaps even accelerate as the “Boycottisation” of The Express continues.

The Independent’s problems, and those of its Sunday sister, are well-chronicled. The daily’s average sale in the six months to October was down to 222,000, against 265,000 a year ago. The Sunday, comfortably over 286,000 a year ago, was bouncing along the bottom with only 254,000 in the six months to October.

Kim Fletcher’s strategy for revitalising the Sunday centres in part on giving more space to sport and the arts, partly on finding proper news stories. As the broadsheet Sundays show week after week, that’s easier said than done. A hefty proportion of what passes for news is recycled from the papers’ own feature pages, lifted from other media or recycled from PR hand-outs. (And what’s true of the news pages is doubly true of the business sections.)

Proper news coverage requires proper resources. And proper resources (to spend on both journalism and promotion) have historically been in short supply at both the Express and the Independent titles.

Indeed, so strapped for cash have they been that, one media commentator the other day, Roy Greenslade in The Guardian, implicitly suggested they should be allowed to go out of business, leaving the UK with fewer but better-resourced titles. (That in turn prompted the dyspeptic remark from another media commentator that Greenslade somehow never recommended closure of any of the newspapers he himself works for).

Boycott says she needs two years to turn her paper round. Will she get it? And will she get the money to achieve her ambitions? Perhaps she’ll be able to tell us herself soon. The Express is soon to launch a supplement devoted to New Age issues. That’s not the kind of editorial, one suspects, which is likely to appeal to the paper’s traditional heartland – unless, of course “New Age” turns out to include such “old age” features as a horoscope.

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