March 9, 2021

Media Cache: Making Newspapers, Not Plastic Buckets

“It is shocking that some of the board members should want to run a media institution like a company producing plastic buckets, with purely commercial considerations and unethical practices overwhelming editorial interests and values, thereby damaging the credibility of the newspaper,” the letter continues. Those conditions, the writer declares, have “made my continuance as editor untenable.”

Another departure from News Corp., following revelations of phone hacking by one of the company’s newspapers?

No. The letter was written last spring by N. Ravi, former editor of The Hindu newspaper of India, to announce his resignation. As the News Corp. scandal unfolds, his florid prose has been circulating on the Internet, his concerns seemingly of broader relevance to a troubled newspaper industry, even if the proximate cause — a boardroom feud — is different.

The unethical practices at the News Corp. tabloid, The News of the World, are an extreme example of what can happen when newspapers go the way of plastic buckets.

Glenn Mulcaire, the private investigator who intercepted voice mail messages for The News of the World, has said he was under “relentless pressure” from the paper to deliver headline-worthy information. There are also growing suggestions — though no hard evidence, yet — that The News of the World was not the only British paper to hire phone hackers like Mr. Mulcaire.

Journalistic competition is mostly a good thing. But in Britain, newspapers may be suffering from too much of a good thing.

Few Fleet Street papers make any money, and times are especially tough on the high-quality end of the market. The Times of London, which is also owned by News Corp., loses tens of millions of pounds a year. The Guardian, which has led the way in uncovering the phone-hacking scandal, reported an operating loss of £33 million, or $53.8 million, for its most recent financial year.

The Guardian survives because it is owned by a well-endowed charitable foundation. The Times survives largely because Rupert Murdoch, chief executive of News Corp., loves newspapers.

In a publicly traded company like News Corp., these kinds of losses have to be balanced out with earnings from other operations. So The News of the World was expected to deliver sizable profits — and did. The Sun, a News Corp. tabloid, is also a big moneymaker.

With a sudden void of more than 2.6 million newspapers — the circulation of The News of the World — in the British market, it is not surprising that no one seems to be talking about filling it with unprofitable broadsheets.

Instead, all expectations are that, once the dust settles, News Corp. will move toward seven-day publishing of The Sun. Associated Newspapers, which produces The Daily Mail and The Mail on Sunday — “middle-market” tabloids with no Page 3 girls but lots of scare stories about immigrants — may introduce a lower-end tabloid to try to mop up leftover News of the World readers.

In the short term, the biggest beneficiary of the scandal was The Sunday Mirror, another tabloid, which reportedly added more than 700,000 sales on the first Sunday without a News of the World. The demise of The News of the World has also given a lift to The Mail on Sunday, as well as two papers whose journalistic contributions are especially meager: The Sunday Express and The Daily Star Sunday.

In other words, if anyone was expecting the demise of The News of the World to result in a new commitment to editorial quality over commercial considerations, forget it.

In the longer term, if British tabloids are no longer able to engage in phone hacking and other unsavory practices to generate scoops, the tabloids might fall out of favor. For now, the plastic buckets could come in handy.

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