Thursday, July 07, 2011

The end of the News of the World and the beginning of...?

You turn away from the news for a while and the big one comes. The News of the World is to close, with this Sunday's edition as the last ever. Given all the ghastly revelations this week and the backlash, especially from advertisers, this move was probably inevitable.

I don't actually buy the News of the World (or indeed any Sunday paper) so I couldn't exactly boycott it myself. I won't miss it much. However I do feel sorry for innocent staff on the paper who have lost their jobs. Many journalists on other sections knew little to nothing about the phone hacking, to say nothing of other staff working on or for the paper - cleaners, layout arrangers, photographers, website managers and so forth. I hope that they will not suffer too greatly for others' sins.

But what does this all mean for the newspaper market? British newspapers are traditionally quite stable and the News of the World had been running since 1843, notably pre-dating the repeal of the Stamp Act in 1855 and the paper duty in 1861 which led to a boom in cheap papers aimed at the working classes. Of the other national Sunday papers only The Observer (est. 1791) and the Sunday Times (est. 1822) are older, but few are that young - the youngest of the major Sunday papers is the Independent on Sunday and that's twenty-one this year. It's a market where a large portion of the readership is hereditary and the sudden disappearance of a paper with such a huge circulation could shake things up seriously.

Of course a new Sunday newspaper could be launched - a lot of people are predicting "The Sun on Sunday" - but just how much of the readership would successfully transfer to a new title? An alternative possibility could be if The Sun is bold enough to challenge the traditional split in newspapers and become a seven day paper. After all the Saturday editions of papers have grown into distinct entities without becoming separate titles, so why should the Sunday papers be different? But I suspect the market isn't yet ready for that even though this is the best opportunity in years.

And what will be the political impact? The News of the World, like the other News International titles, endorsed Labour in the Blair years but switched to the Conservatives in 2009. I've long felt the formal endorsements by newspapers in the last couple of weeks of the election don't actually swing many votes but rather the line their coverage takes in the preceding months and years is the key factor.

If the simple consequence of all this is that the News of the World is merely replaced by another such Sunday paper that picks up virtually all of its readership and maintains the same position on the political spectrum then very little will have changed. But if things are more shaken up then there could be some surprising consequences to come.

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