A serious look into The Mirror

Nice to see Mirror editor Piers Morgan making the news again – this time in a way more calculated to enhance his reputation.

It seems The Mirror is seriously debating whether to grow up. In other words, relinquishing its red-top status in favour of a maturer, considered middle-class punter who demands slightly more grist in his – or, more importantly, her – reading matter.

Trinity Mirror, the title’s owner, has provided a handy peg for the radical repositioning story – by retaining clam-like composure in the face of repeated questioning. The dog, in short, that won’t bark. But if anything comes of this project – and we’ll know more in about a month’s time – it won’t be the Roadto-Damascus conversion it at first sight appears.

Morgan has been banging on about the pursuit of “serious” news for some time. September 11 gave him the perfect tactical opportunity to put the strategy into action. While The Mirror’s principal rival, after a few weeks of righteous indignation, soon reverted to form with a diet of trivial celebrity and rubber ducks in Her Majesty’s bathroom stories, Morgan had other ideas. He believes, or purports to believe, that tabloid culture has changed irrevocably in the wake of the bombings and Afghanistan campaign. Exploiting the higher moral ground of “serious” news values, he has not only been able to browbeat his rival The Sun but give a two-finger salute to the increasingly manipulative Posh ‘n’ Becks set, and their aggressive PR flunkies intent on air-brushing out every less-than-hagiographic character revelation.

Of course, a more important issue lies behind these frivolities; one that all red-top editors are keenly aware of: failing demographics. The type of reader who traditionally provided the backbone of red-top circulations is becoming an anachronism. It’s the self-same story as the decline of trade unionism and Old Labour: card-carrying workers, more typically male, who pick up a paper on the way to the factory are a bit of a rarity these days. The question is – what to do about the resulting chronic circulation decline?

The conspicuous success of the Daily Mail seems to counsel a move upmarket – precisely what Morgan and Trinity Mirror appear to have in mind. But is this strategy going to pay off? Up to a point, Lord Copper. The circulation decline has not been reversed, but recent Mirror figures are holding up a lot better than The Sun’s. The longer-term situation may not be so rosy. If the Mail is having such a whale of a time in the middle market, it’s unlikely to allow predators on to its patch – even to pray on the carcass of the Daily Express – without a formidable struggle.

Besides, there exists another, less competitive, route out of the circulation quagmire: the one being plotted by the highly incorrect, unmetropolitan and unapologetic Star. Which other national newspaper can boast of a year-on-year 13.4 per cent increase in circulation over the last six months of 2001?

Morgan has in many ways taken over the role of Kelvin McKenzie as the Beast of Fleet Street, albeit a very different kind of beast. But should we take him “seriously”? We’ll see.

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