Here’s an interesting insight into the way newspaper editors think, in this week’s Sunday Times, which you may have missed if you were out enjoying the UK Bank Holiday. In its leader column the News International title, available as an iPad edition and online via a paywall, supported its sister title The Sun in its “brave lone stand for press freedom” in printing pictures of a naked Prince Harry.
Nothing unusual there – many papers backed the red-top’s decision to print the pictures despite not having the guts to do the same. But the ST, edited by one of Fleet Street’s longest-surviving editors, John Witherow, took things one step further by linking the story to the very existence of newsprint:
“Critics said The Sun’s public interest arguments were a convenient mask for commercial motives. It is a spurious criticism. Newspapers are fighting for their lives in the toughest of economic climates combined with technological changes that weigh heavily against traditional print. If they are not commercial they will die and they cannot let the internet become the prime forum for communication.” (Emphasis is mine)
That's curious line from a paper that itself has invested millions in its own website and mobile products, winning awards in the process. But the ST sees the iPad edition as just that: an edition – a digital extension of the newspaper.
This rather chilling warning goes to the heart of mass print media’s Big Worry: that readers will bypass paid-for papers altogether and get their titillation and information from free sources online. In this case, to make things worse, Fleet Street’s finest were scooped by an American site, TMZ.
(More than one British piece about that site, such as this in the Scotsman, has referred to TMZ as being “sleazy”, but I’ve no doubt the same titles would be chalking it up as “quality journalism” if they got the pictures first.)
Is the ST right to be worried? Newspaper sites and print editions alike had a welcome boost from the Olympics, as shown by YouGov research from Newsworks (formerly the Newspaper Marketing Association). But the longer term trends show a different picture.
-- The Sunday Times lost 7.4 percent of its circulation in the year to July, down to just over 900,000, according to ABC.
-- The National Readership Survey, the best-guess guide to actual reading habits, shows that from January to June this year, 29 percent of people aged over 65 bought a national Sunday and daily newspaper each week.
-- For the 15-24 age bracket, just 11 percent read a daily morning paper and 10 percent read a Sunday. In the next age bracket, things are only slightly better with 13 percent and 12 percent respectively.
Will youngsters suddenly be interested in newsprint when they have cars and jobs and mortgages, as editors hope?
The argument about press freedom is a red herring: the Harry debacle only serves to prove that the real issue is newspapers' right to make money somehow and stay in business.
Daily Mail editor and self-styled enemy of liberal Britain Paul Dacre put it in no uncertain terms in a speech to the Society of Editors in 2008:
"...If mass-circulation newspapers, which also devote considerable space to reporting and analysis of public affairs, don’t have the freedom to write about scandal, I doubt whether they will retain their mass circulations with the obvious worrying implications for the democratic process."
Or look to former Sun editor Kelvin Mackenzie who told BBC Newsnight: "I'm unsure why the establishment hate newspapers so much but what I'd like to see is editors get off their knees and start pushing back against these curtailments in what will eventually, I promise you, lead to the closure of newspapers".
So when choosing whether or not to publish pictures of a naked prince, the Leveson-era press is dealing not just in the complexities of media freedom but its own existence.