A free press – but only in the confines of marketing

The marketing adage that brands should be tailor-made to give punters exactly what they want is paralysing editorial freedom in the nationals, says Sean Brierley

Five years ago I worked some shifts on a national newspaper. While I was there the paper carried a special report on low-cost airlines that revealed how they were ripping off customers with hidden surcharges. The story was written, subbed, laid out and had gone through an initial read by the section editor. At the last minute the feature was pulled after it emerged that the newspaper’s marketing department was carrying a major reader promotion with, you guessed it, a low-cost airline.

Though there was disquiet among some “old school” journalists that such interference was damaging to the reputation of the paper, the matter was quietly brushed aside. This scenario has become all-too familiar in national newspapers, where the needs of the marketing department now take precedence over the editorial. Nationals are no longer led by editors but by readership data and demographic research.

Marketing departments gained power in the Eighties and Nineties when they helped to make lots of money for newspaper groups with targeted promotions and supplements pushing “soft” editorial about cars, entertainment and leisure. Newspapers got hooked on a form of marketing popularised by General Electric after the war but is best summed up in the Eighties by management guru Peter Drucker when he said that “True marketing… does not ask, ‘What do we want to sell?’ It asks, ‘What does the consumer want to buy?”

The concept assumes that buyers are rational and choose and prefer those brands that best meet their wants. It means that businesses should identify wants and then satisfy them, and that consumers have the power to shape their own wants without influence or persuasion. A more recent manifestation of this when Web-gurus prattled on about the “daily me”.

But while everyone else has since rejected the constraints of the marketing concept and are busy trying to change consumer attitudes and behaviour, newspapers are still busily trying to find out what their consumers want.

They have become victims of the marketing concept, over-researching the consumer market with their demographic and lifestyle profiles and tailoring editorial to match consumer expectations. The result is that rather than challenging and stimulating their readers, newspapers have become obsessed with reflecting the prejudices of their readers.

A good example of this is The Daily Telegraph. For 30 years the paper, which has just experienced a massive restructure of its management and appointed a new editor, Martin Newland, has continued to fashion nearly every aspect of its coverage towards an older readership. By tailoring its editorial products to focus group opinions, it offers a “daily me” that panders to its elderly middle-class readership.

In 1990 ex-Telegraph editor Max Hastings told me that every evening he thought about his reader in the Home Counties with his sons at university and his caravan in the front garden. From lifestyle features aimed the over-50s through to news stories that attack asylum seekers and obsess with the internal problems of the Tory party, the Telegraph always appears to give the punters what they want.

The result has been uninspiring journalism. It has made content dull and lifeless and created a demographic time bomb as elderly readers die away – in 1995 its 45-plus readership was 59 per cent, by 2000 it had increased to 69 per cent.

Recognising the problem, it has recently tried to attract a younger readership by “sexing up” the product, employing Smack-Lit novelist Irvine Welsh and launching the “bestseller” ad campaign through Clemmow Hornby Inge. But such attempts are doomed to go the same way as the ill-fated “Hitchhikers” campaign of the late Eighties. It too was intended to change middle-class and mid-market readers’ attitudes and perceptions of the paper as conservative and reactionary. Of course, when would-be new recruits read the paper, surprise, surprise, they found that it was just that. The campaign failed to add sales and was ditched.

The Telegraph is not unique. All of the newspapers appear to have lost their direction because of their obsession with appealing to the right kind of readers, rather than producing good agenda-setting journalism. The knock-on effect for the brands is that they are now in one of the most price-sensitive markets in the UK and are too scared to produce challenging journalism or to innovate for fear of the effect that it might have on sales.

The Independent provided the most shocking manifestation of this when it decided to go tabloid. Not only did the Indy stick with exactly the same design for its tabloid format, but its fear of not satisfying consumer wants led it to offering consumers a choice between the old and new versions.

The heart of the problem is that editors have become emasculated by the marketing departments. A good example of an editor, rather than the marketing department, calling the shots can be seen in Alan Rusbridger of The Guardian during the Nineties. He lifted the game by producing agenda-setting, campaigning journalism centred on government corruption which reached its height during Jonathan Aitken’s infamous Sword of Truth trial. Its campaigns led opinion, rather than responded to it.

But the sad truth is that even The Guardian is not immune to the malaise created by over-marketing. It was the paper that pulled the low-cost airline feature. The sword of truth indeed.

Sean Brierley is a former deputy editor of Marketing Week and author of the Advertising Handbook

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