Analysis

A tale of two media empires

Ian Kirby

Sharply contrasting stories about two of the world’s most powerful media empires this week threw a light on the comparative strength and optimism of British newspapers today.

The new editor of the Financial Times, Roula Khalaf, used her first interview with Amol Rajan’s Media Show to tell a story of growing confidence and optimism. Fresh from breaking the story about David Cameron’s lobbying on behalf of Greensill Capital, Khalaf has quickly found her feet after taking over from the long serving Lionel Barber.

After almost a decade of being the anti-Brexit newspaper, the FT is now shifting focus, bringing in more investigations, an emphasis on corporate reporting, with more exciting layouts and an increased use of data. Khalaf has established the Climate Hub and is banking on steady and stable growth under the FT subscription and paywall model.

Her next challenge, she says, is diversity. It’s a challenge: the latest research shows the average FT reader is 51 and works in finance. Khalaf believes the only way to reach a young and more diverse audience is by ensuring also its journalism reflects their world. The FT still does not have a black columnist, so diversity of the staff is also a priority for the Lebanese-born editor.

Several news groups held serious discussions about whether now was the time to begin seriously considering an end to newsprint because of the huge fall in physical sales of newspapers. However, after an initial fall the FT recovered, with its glossier FT Weekend recording double digit sales growth. For now, the group remains committed to printing its pink papers although, interestingly, the main reason cited by Khalaf was that the paper was ‘the best marketing tool’ for its journalism

This optimistic outlook is in sharp contrast to developments at News UK, home of The Sun and The Times. In an email to staff, CEO Rebekah Brooks revealed Rupert Murdoch has abandoned plans for a right-of-centre ’Fox News-lite’ here in the UK. Mrs Brooks said, “While there is consumer demand for alternative news provision, the costs of running a rolling news channel are considerable, and it is our assessment that the payback for our shareholders wouldn’t be sufficient. We need to launch the right products for the digital age.”

This is certainly true, and the global Murdoch business is enjoying success with streamed news programmes such as Fox Nation and Fox News International. But there is another reason behind this decision. Five years ago, News UK was set a challenge by Brooks and her deputy, the popular and capable David Dinsmore, to properly monetise all their brands. New revenue streams were urgently needed to stem the flow of cash from the decline of the value of adverts in their newspapers.

There have been some notable successes – subscriptions to The Times, the Sun’s Dream Team and Times Radio in particular. But the decline in ad revenue has not been stemmed and the company is having to make increasingly deep cuts to spending.

News UK is nowhere near the crisis at Reach plc, the Daily Mirror’s parent company. But it has an increasingly aggressive opponent in the campaign Stop Funding Hate, which grew out of the telephone hacking scandal in 2011. Then campaigners targeted the supermarkets, fashion brands, DIY stores and betting companies who spent millions on advertising at the News of the World. It was the threat of losing advertising revenue, rather than the reputational damage of hacking, that led to the closure of the News of the World.

In February, Stop Funding Hate announced it would campaign for an advertising boycott of the right-wing news network GB News, which launches soon. The News UK product would expect similar attention. I’m told there was a warning that incendiary content on the new television network would also lead to campaigns against advertisers in The Times and The Sun. This would be a devastating blow for a business that has spent a year fighting to preserve their print editions in lockdown.

Instead, it’s been decided a reduced streaming platform will be much safer, with personalised adverts aimed at online viewers. The test version, News to Me, will stay far away from politics and focus on entertainment. Sports shows are also in the pipeline, I hear.

For Rupert Murdoch, forty years after he bought The Times and the Sunday Times, the time has come to take the safer option.