Buy a Newspaper, or the Planet Dies…

Posted by Ben Pile on January 18, 2014
Jan 182014

Over at the Guardian, Professor of Journalism and former editor of the Daily Mirror, Roy Greenslade observes that…

The Independent is up for sale. The paper’s founder, and current chairman of its publishing company, Andreas Whittam Smith, has been authorised to seek out a buyer.

The owners, Alexander Lebedev and his son, Evgeny, have been indicating for some time that they would be happy to dispose of the paper and its sister titles, i, and the Independent on Sunday.

They have made various cryptic statements over the last six months about their willingness to offload loss-making papers that they see no prospect of turning into profit.

The decline of the Independent’s circulation was something observed on this blog back in 2009.

The post was moved by comments around this particularly alarmist headline, which epitomised the Independent’s coverage of the climate story. (With a couple of exceptions).

As alluded to in the blog post, three years earlier an article on the BBC about ‘climate porn’ by none other than Richard Black, had interrogated, albeit sympathetically, the Independent’s deputy editor on the noisy line the newspaper had taken with respect to climate change. The answers were candid, to say the least:

No British newspaper has taken climate change to its core agenda quite like the Independent, which regularly publishes graphic-laden front pages threatening global meltdown, with articles inside continuing the theme.

A recent leader, commenting on the heatwave then affecting Britain, said: “Climate change is an 18-rated horror film. This is its PG-rated trailer.

“The awesome truth is that we are the last generation to enjoy the kind of climate that allowed civilisation to germinate, grow and flourish since the start of settled agriculture 11,000 years ago.”

Ian Birrell, the newspaper’s deputy editor, said climate change was serious enough to merit this kind of linguistic treatment.

“The Independent led the way on campaigning on climate change and global warming because clearly it’s a crucial issue facing the world,” he said.

“You can see the success of our campaign in the way that the issue has risen up the political agenda.”

“If our readers thought we put climate change on our front pages for the same reason that porn mags put naked women on their front pages, they would stop reading us.

“And I disagree that there’s an implicit ‘counsel of despair’, because while we’re campaigning on big issues such as ice caps, we also do a large amount on how people can change their own lives, through cycling, installing energy-efficient lighting, recycling, food miles; we’ve been equally committed on these issues.”

But it seemed, even then, that the Independent’s readers really did think that the editors were using catastrophic images to titillate an audience. Hence, I argued, the decline in the newspaper’s readership figures, 2006 to 2009.

Thus, the newspaper would go into ‘negative circulation in Summer 2018′:

I thought I’d update my graphs. It seems things haven’t got any better for the poor old Independent.

And things aren’t getting any better for the Guardian, either.

There are of course a number of reasons for the decline of ‘dead tree media’, one of which is the rise of Internet-based media. However, the internet had been around for a decade before the series above begins, during which time sales were stable, or possibly even showed an improvement.

However, I prefer a different explanation. All newspapers have lost sales. But the Independent and Guardian have suffered more than average, and I don’t believe their catastrophism is coincidental.

This blog has long observed that the more an institution embraces the climate issue, the surer we can be that the embrace signifies a crisis of some kind, analogous to an existential or identity crisis. Political parties, trade unions, and even giant corporations have sought to attach themselves to the image of planet-saving.  The newspaper resorts to climate catastrophism, not simply as some kind of pornography in order to sell copies, but to attempt to identify itself in a world it has trouble making sense of. (That’s why people buy newspapers, after all.)

This is demonstrated by taking a look back at Ian Birrell’s words. In 2006, his brief history of… erm… history was that a benign climate had ‘allowed civilisation to germinate, grow and flourish since the start of settled agriculture 11,000 years ago’, which we would be the last generation to enjoy. Equally blandly, the world might be repaired by ‘cycling, installing energy-efficient lighting, recycling’. The allusion to Nature’s Providence rules out humans as the agents in their own development: civilisation only exists because the weather was nice. The reality, of course, is precisely the opposite: civilisation exists because nature is indifferent to our discomfort, thus humans worked together to improve their condition.

Vapid accounts of human history and the forces which shape it underpin vapid accounts of the contemporary world. Such analyses become less convincing. Hence the newspapers remain on the shelf.

The shrill histrionics that pass as ‘journalism’ today reflect the authors’ own inner experiences, not a sharp focus on the world. Birrel’s naturalistic account of the world is an internal monologue, shared only by a small number of people, most of whom work in institutions that suffer the same kind of crisis. The newspaper epitomises that ideology. It is read by an increasing narrow class of people, whose ideas are shared by fewer and fewer people. The crises this causes appears to them as the End of the World, not as their own inability to make sense of it.


UPDATE

Environmentalists are keen on projections and predictions based on existing trends. In 2009, I ‘projected’ that, on the basis of the trend seen in the decline of the Independent’s circulation, it would reach only a negative number of people by 2018. What does the new data say about when the Independent and Guardian will close?

According to the linear trend, I may have been a little pessimistic about the Independent’s future.

However, the fit isn’t very neat. The polynomial trend suggests a different future…

Of course, this is fun, not science. The Guardian and Independent are no more obliged to projections based on polynomial trend lines than they are obliged to follow the Climate Resistance blog’s advice that they should relax their alarmist outlooks.

  30 Responses to “Buy a Newspaper, or the Planet Dies…”

  1. Up until mid 2011 the circulation of the Independent seemed to be stabilizing, then it fell off a cliff. Can any one give an explanation for that.

  2. So we should sell green shares and companies when they start faltering then? Seems to make sense.
    Eddy the AL Gore effect they prophesied catastrophe which did not eventuate.

  3. [...] climate. But were they given a helping hand by the antics of Wikipedian editors?This graph from Climate Resistance today was a bit of an eye opener. Both the Independent and the Guardian circulation figures are in [...]

  4. I’m sure it’s true that the internet and the growth of climate sceptic blogs have hit those newspapers which pushed environmentalism most, but in a more profound way than simply leaking readers to a competing source.
    For me, and I suspect many other people, the climate issue was the beginning of my completely losing trust in mainstream news sources and particularly papers like The Guardian. Naively I once thought that, while it obviously had its point of view (as with any news source) and I would disagree with its conclusions sometimes, I assumed that such disagreements were honest and based on a fair appraisal of all the available facts. It never occurred to me that the paper would would deliberately and repeatedly lie, both by commission and omission. I hadn’t believed that it would completely slander honest opponents and bury major news stories entirely just because they didn’t fit an agenda..
    Once I realised that this was exactly what was happening then I stopped buying it. If it was lying to me on this issue, what issue was it not lying to me about?
    The possibility of being able to consult many other news sources on the internet alone may not have dented my use of The Guardian as a main news source if that access to other sources hadn’t exposed its narrow and often crooked bias.

  5. This is rather sad, isn’t it? I remember the founding of The Independent, with such high hopes and aspirations. Nick Garland’s book – Not Many Dead – is an honest and fascinating account. But all too soon it became a Guardian clone and now it seems doomed.

  6. @artwest says: January 19, 2014 at 3:05

    The Guardian, specifically Monbiot, are responsible for this default warmer (scientists wouldn’t lie, would they?) becoming a full-blown sceptic. His determination to link scepticism about CAGW to holocaust denial seemed to me to be very shrill and very extreme. Why the need for such language? So I started to poke around, read, find the sceptical blogs, and changed my mind.

    I used to comment at CiF but after having my ID banned some five or more times, I gave up. Any hint of scepticism awarded you with pre-moderation, and then banning. What I do know is that in the time I was able to post there – some 18 months maybe – the volume of sceptical commenters rose exponentially.

    We should thank the Guardian for doing such a good job on behalf of true science. That they feel compelled to foist such charlatans as Dana Nuccitelli on us only confirms their commitment to the cause. I guess we should at least applaud La Toynbee for not weighing in with her views on climate.

  7. Eddy. – Up until mid 2011 the circulation of the Independent seemed to be stabilizing, then it fell off a cliff. Can any one give an explanation for that.

    A change of slogan – http://order-order.com/2011/09/30/indys-independence-whacked/ A new design in Oct 2011. And my favourite — Johann Hari’s explosion, perhaps?

  8. Can you plot The Times and Telegraph too, for comparison?

  9. Artwest:
    “Naively I once thought that, while it obviously had its point of view (as with any news source) and I would disagree with its conclusions sometimes, I assumed that such disagreements were honest and based on a fair appraisal of all the available facts. It never occurred to me that the paper would deliberately and repeatedly lie..”

    That was my feeling too, though I now realise that I’d known for years that the Guardian was lying systematically – usually defending a centre-left consensus against left and right deviationism on a host of subjects – and I had refused to face the fact.
    The Guardian has recently been fighting a valiant and sometimes lonely campaign against the state’s invasion of our privacy. When it disappears, as it surely will, there will be no-one to do this. Monbiot and his groupies will have destroyed a 200 year tradition of radical liberalism in defence of a hypothetical reduction in global temperature of a few hundredths of a degree. They deserve to disappear. Do we deserve to lose what they once represented?

  10. Ah, Johann Hari. Reading his OTT articles used to be one of my guilty pleasures – I miss him. Here’s an item of his in the HuffPo almost 5 years ago. “Is It Time For a Newspaper Bail-Out?”:
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/johann-hari/is-it-time-for-a-newspape_b_177787.html

    For those who appreciate irony on more than one level, it’s worth a read (especially, I think, as the following might have a grain of truth in it):

    As inky news-gatherers vanish, there is a vacuum that on-line journalists are not able to fill. With less advertising cash and no upfront payments from the readers at all, they have far less money to send out foreign correspondents, assign people to tricky investigations, or do the long slog that journalism so often requires. As a reader and as a writer, i love The Huffington Post — but as they are the first to admit, HufPo pays nothing to its contributors, and – with the exception of some citizen journalism — it knows what is happening in the world only because newspapers send out correspondents. If they vanish, blogs will be left in an airless cabin, talking only about themselves.

    In the article, Hari is critical of advertising-funded newspapers who are “unconsciously under-reporting anything that threatens the interests of their paymasters” and suggests that is why almost all newspapers are failing when it comes to the “climate crisis”. Presumably, he was not including the Independent in that category – Hari’s HuffPo article was written in March 2009, when the Independent ran climate stories with the following titles:

    “Revenge of the rainforest – The Amazon has long been the lungs of the world. But now comes dramatic evidence that we cannot rely on it in the fight against climate change. By Steve Connor”

    “Carbon cuts ‘only give 50/50 chance of saving planet’ – As states negotiate Kyoto’s successor, simulations show catastrophe just years away”

    “The challenge facing the world’s biggest polluters – The clock is ticking in the race to agree a new treaty to cut the emissions that cause global warming. Michael McCarthy names and shames the offenders who must mend their ways”

    “When the ice melts, it is too late”

    “Lord Stern on global warming: It’s even worse than I thought – Author of definitive report on climate change sounds ominous new warning”

    “The outlook for our climate is dark – but hope remains – A global deal in Copenhagen can still pull us back from the brink”

    “10 ways to save the World – We get the message. The planet’s doomed unless we get our act together PDQ. We even know some of the measures needed to give ourselves a chance. But which less orthodox proposals could stave off disastrous climate change? Environment editor Geoffrey Lean has a cunning plan”

    (NB. Yes, Geoffrey Lean was still with the Indy at that point. How time flies!)

  11. “No British newspaper has taken climate change to its core agenda quite like the Independent…”

    Oh dear, what a blunder! Why would the public buy a paper which preaches to them – like a flock of jehovah’s witnesses – about stuff that is of NO interest to them?

    The Independent and The Guardian have failed to take note of their underlying error of judgment – that most people don’t care that much about the environment.

    There are two nice graphs which also make this point [see slide 3 and 4 link below]

    http://projects.exeter.ac.uk/igov/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/ML-Is-the-CCA-safe-Sussex-Nov-2013.pdf

    Slide 3 states “environment salience” is very low. And slide 4 tells us that: “Even at peak, salience was far lower than that of other issues…” We can see that most people, about 70%, put the economy above environmental concerns.

    This must be well known by the press, so why do journalists from these papers continue to churn out the climate-eco-drivel? Perhaps they are all just members of the WWF.

  12. Paul M – Can you plot The Times and Telegraph too, for comparison?

    I will, but it takes ages to copy and paste the data.

    FWIW, I don’t claim that the phenomenon doesn’t apply too all newspapers, just that it’s most pronounced in certain papers. The point is that the institution of the newspaper in general in as much crisis as other institutions, such as political parties.

  13. Ben, you’d also have to plot the circulation of Indie offshoot i (annoying name or wot?) for a complete picture of broadsheet circulation histories. The Indie’s seemingly catastrophic collapse in late 2011 was, in part, caused by efforts to improve i’s official circulation figures: Indie ‘bulks’ (hotel etc freebies that are included in official circs) were cut in favour of i ‘bulks’.

    The Indie also stopped sending thousands of copies abroad ‘on spec’ (rather than to the few hundred expat chatterati from Greater Islington and North Oxford who subscribed to it) but I’m not sure whether unsold foreign copies (almost all of them) were/are included in the official circs of the Indie and other papers.

    (About a year after your 2009 blog on the Indie’s possible extinction I tried to get bets on whether Belgium would pip the Indie to the post. I can’t remember which extinction I thought was most likely to win but the Indie must now have the edge.)

  14. Vinny – you’d also have to plot the circulation of Indie offshoot i

    I don’t think that’s true — ‘I’ is a different thing. It’s not a broadsheet, and doesn’t have the same room for editorialising/hectoring on climate change. Which may be why it’s more popular.

    The graph shows circulation ‘with bulks’. The actual circulation figures for the Independent at the leftmost edge without bulks would be under the 50,000 line. The Guardian’s are the same.

  15. READING WITHOUT A PURPOSE

    According to the House of Common Library research “Only about one per cent of the electorate is a member of one of the three main parties. Labour has about 193,000 members, the Conservatives between 130,000 and 170,000 and the Liberal Democrats 49,000.”

    Reported Conservative Party membership peaked at almost 3 million in the early 1950s, when Labour membership reached a peak of 1 million. Membership of the three main parties as a percentage of the total UK electorate decreased from 3.8% in 1983 to 1.0% in 2010.

    “The decline in party membership has been attributed both to a shortage of potential party
    members and to parties’ decreasing NEED for members.”
    (A summary of explanations for decreasing party membership can be found in: Patrick Seyd and Paul Whiteley (2004), “British Party Members: An Overview”, Party Politics Vol 10 No 4, pp355-366)

    “parties are less reliant on a wide membership network as mass communications allow them to reach voters directly. Funds gathered from wealthy donors … make them less dependent on individual members’ subscriptions…Parties may even see a vocal membership as an electoral liability.” (Membership of UK Political Parties, House of Commons Library)

    One could argue, with policy being drafted by Think Tanks, and decided upon by 4 or 5 leading MPs in each party, with no opportunity for rank-and-file members to change or vote on policy – why would anyone need to read a newspaper full of politics? Because, it would be reading without a purpose.

  16. Thus, the newspaper would go into ‘negative circulation in Summer 2018′:

    Well, at least they got the timing right. Isn’t 2018 the year we reach Farenheit 451?

  17. I would suspect that the abrupt fall in the circulation of the Independent in 2011 was related to the launch of the i, a cut-down tabloid version of the paper at one fifth of the price. This now far outsells the main title. The launch of the i, though, was in automn 2010, so it looks like it took a while to catch on. Interestingly, the circulation of the Guardian took a dive at the same time, but then recovered, in the short term at least. So my guess is that a number of Guardian readers tried the i, didn’t take to it, and went back to the Guardian. The Independent, on the other hand, lost a lot of people for good.

  18. I like ‘linguistic’ in the above cited article – can we say ‘cunni-linguistic’ or would that be to rude! Better than ‘civilisation to germinate, grow and flourish’ as if we were some kind of bacteria! These people spit out the word ‘Civilisation’ as if it were a disease, the kind of consumption that the homeless they pass in the street suffer from (indeed, ‘the homeless’ are what they picture when they use that term, as they pass from there comfortable offices to there comfortable homes and there comfortable ‘Others’). We are all canaille! as far as their concerned. And yet their vanity is aghast when they discover our contempt for them! And they have such vanity!

    (PS Ben, I replied to your email – don’t let be caught as spam!)

  19. Geoff, You say

    The Guardian has recently been fighting a valiant and sometimes lonely campaign against the state’s invasion of our privacy

    Oh come on – only the invasion of it’s privacy, surely. It defends ‘privacy’ because it wants to defend it’s publishing of Snowden – a kind of NSA porn, like the wikileaks telling nothing we didn’t already know but, perhaps, boosting it’s circulation. Like it’s defense of ‘free speech’, opportunistic and bogus, the Guardians Editor being all for the closing down of the NOTW and Levine.

  20. “That’s why people buy newspapers, after all.”

    Really? I thought people bought newspapers because they were stupid, and because they believed any bullshit printed in them. The opposite of why people *don’t* buy newspapers anymore.

  21. Really, David, UK, are people really ‘stupid’. It seems to me sad that you have such contempt for so called ‘people’s. And, indeed, ironic, since the whole point of the article is that ‘people’ are not buying the mentioned papers! Think and think again.

  22. Eddy, first comment on Jan 18th. 2011 is when they launched their 20p edition the “i”. This contains much less comment and sticks more to factual news. If you can get your alarmist doom mongering at a discount why pay over a quid for the full version?

    When it first came out I bought the Indy as it was a genuinely fresh view on the world. It has gradually slipped into an anti-american, anti-western stance that fundamentally just insults and criticises the policies of the government of the country it is based in, particularly foreign and environmental policies. As that government is elected by, and reflects the views of, the population of that same country is it any wonder their circulation has been sliding?

  23. David, UK – I thought people bought newspapers because they were stupid, and because they believed any bullshit printed in them.

    I agree with Lewis here that the comment seems to be somewhat hasty. Right or wrong, people buy newspapers because they are actively interested in the world. The point being here that the institution of the newspaper is less able to meet this role. I think we see in many newspapers a shift into lifestyle handbooks, and some curious crossover in the climate debate. For instance, Leo Hickman’s 16 year stint as ‘ethical’ correspondent, which offered answers to questions like ‘how green is your TV’ — lifestyle guidance for the ‘responsible consumer’, not news, and not really critical reflection on current affairs.

    A number of comments here and elsewhere have suggested that the launch of the ‘i’ explains the falling circulation of the Independent. E.g.

    Richard B -I would suspect that the abrupt fall in the circulation of the Independent in 2011 was related to the launch of the i,

    This does not challenge the points made in the blog post above as much as it helps to make it. If the point about the migration is true, it is not that the Independent was unwieldy, but that its readership didn’t want the narrative the Independent offered. It may well even be that the choice to change reflects a desire to take a broadly left/liberal slanted paper, or even a greenish one, but it nonetheless is a rejection of the Independent.

  24. It is more than ‘hasty’, Ben, it is viscous! For what are ‘people’ except ourselves. ‘We’ are what their contempt condensed. Ben, sometimes, I talk nonsense and I hope you forgive. me for it but, at least, I have given up this predolescent contempt for the ‘people’. For, strangely enough, I became one

  25. ‘We are what their contempt condemns’. Sorry.

  26. For sadness, can it be contained, wept in a bucket, forgotten and kicked over? You laugh but if you look in the mirror your face has forgotten what laughter is. I gave up laughing at people a long time ago. I laugh but I laugh at the ironies, the misalliance of cowardice, my own most especially.

  27. Approaching this city
    One smiles a smile of fear.
    One is never alone.
    One is haunted by aloneness.

    Each voice crying for love.
    Ones heart is a stone…
    Wrapped around ones feet,
    Drowning, not being.

  28. Remember though that in Guardian land we only have 35 months left to save the world.
    http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2008/aug/01/climatechange.carbonemissions

    So what happens to the Guardian after then is, presumably, immaterial because the world is doomed. Doomed!

    (I’m really enjoying the countdown to their silly Doomsday. I want to see how they back out of it if, as looks likely, the temperature hasn’t changed a jot in the whole 100 months.)

  29. No wonder The Independent is going down the plug hole. They put info graphics and pie charts on their from covers. What moron thinks that’s going to shift newspapers? You don’t have to have sensationalist headlines but you’ve got to engage with the reader – quickly.

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