Whatever #1

Here – elliptically illustrated by another nice photo I found from the good old days – is the first Whatever column I ever wrote for Word magazine. It’s about the craze for giveaway wallcharts that was, in October 2006 when I wrote it, sweeping Fleet Street. The specifics may be dated, but many of my worries at the time, and the protectionist warmth I felt for the printed word, seem entirely relevant, and depressingly prescient. I’m not going to reprint all my columns, by the way, but I thought, for old times’ sake, the first one would be OK.

WHATEVER by Andrew Collins [originally published in Word, issue dated December 2006]

Why are newspapers going to the wall?

Back in that faraway age we now call “the 90s”, the newspaper market was still divided along the following time-honoured lines: tabloids generated their revenue through copy sales, broadsheets through advertising. One traded in quantity, the other quality. One played bingo, the other didn’t.

But the times – and the Times – were a-changing. While circulation across the board had been in decline since the 80s, “pagination”, as they say in the print trade over a bun and a roll-up, was up. (Spinal injury units were backed up with paperboys disabled by the Sunday Times, up from 178 pages in 1984 to 362 in 1994. That’s a lot of unread articles about the lost tribes of the Amazon and Zandra Rhodes.)

It couldn’t go on like this. Hence, the great price war. In 1993, a master of the blunt instrument, Rupert Murdoch slashed the 25p cover price of the Sun to 20p (undercutting the Daily Mirror by 7p) and the Times down from 45p to 30p. When the Telegraph responded with a drop from 48p to 30p, the Times plummeted to 20p, and so it went.

Three years of this grubby huckstering only proved that editorial excellence is irrelevant; that most punters will take their news from the lowest bidder (the knockdown Times had doubled its circulation by 1997, the self-anointed TV Quick of Fleet Street). Meanwhile, aggregate newspaper circulation was only up by 0.4 per cent. In other words, for all the deckchair-rearrangement, tabloids and broadsheets were still basically chasing the same bunch of readers.

The Guardian, lest we forget, did not lower its price during the 93-97 conflict, and yet its circulation held steady, proving that some readers are more brand-loyal than others, even those to whom “brand” is a mucky word. Which is why, as a dogged loyalist – and occasional contributor – it pains me ideologically to see “my” paper reduced to giving away CDs and DVDs as free gifts. But since broadsheets went tabloid, creating one big no-man’s land in the newspaper war, there is no room for ideology.

I think we can all apocalyptically agree that these are the last days for traditional electronic software delivery formats. Thanks to their ubiquity in bagged-up national newspapers, silver discs are even more devalued than when AOL used to post them through your letterbox. And just in time, since we’ll all be downloading our music and films next week anyway. It’s the entertainment sector’s closing-down sale. Fact: if the Mirror are giving you Carry On Christmas for free, it’s either old stock or an incentive to buy further titles in a range of reissues, usually advertised off the page as part of the tie-in deal. There’s no such thing as a free Naked Lunch.

If you can put up with the cardboard sleeve and the fact that you’ll never be able to find it again, The Wild Geese is indeed yours to keep for nothing. And if you don’t normally buy the Mail but did so exclusively to add this geriatric war movie to your collection, your custom has been successfully bought.

The irony of this “sampling” exercise (ie. grab for new readers) is that demographic bets are always hedged by the choice of film. Thus, the Independent preaches to the choir by offering its captive metropolitan trendies Roberto Rosselini’s Francesco giullare di Dio; the Sunday Times sums up its readership with Howards End (middle-class aspirational), and Ring Of Bright Water the Mail (would join Countryside Alliance if actually lived in countryside).

Like the arms race, the Great Silver Rush won’t stop until one of them blinks. In May, the Guardian switched tactic, inspired by the “roughage effect” of all those teach-yourself language CDs in rival rags. Its educational wallcharts – birds, sharks, fungi – proved promotional gold: new, dirt-cheap to produce, and no need to bag.

So what if the posters looked a bit murky and were educationally flawed, thanks to being bought in from a Danish company, The Scandinavian Fishing Yearbook. Birds Of Sea And Shore lacked a lapwing, one of our most common waders, pictured a Scandinavian eider and showed the speckled female Pochard rather than the more distinct adult male, with its beautiful chestnut brown head and pale back and flanks. (By the time of the Guardian’s second batch, a pathetic disclaimer was added: “This is a selection of species and not a definitive collection. It may include species that are not or no longer indigenous to Britain.”)

But we birders quibble over detail when cash registers are ringing. The Guardian was the only “quality daily” to increase circulation in May. The wallcharts worked their blu-tack magic, shifting 130,000 extra copies during birds-sharks-fungi week. Scenting money, the Independent did a blatant copycat set: British Trees, The Human Body, A Guide To The Weather – no, really – and a “life size” human skeleton (whose completion depended on you getting all five – clever!). The Mail was next to go to the wall.

Do these wallcharts say anything profound about us as a nation? That learning is the new rock and roll? No. Parents collect them for kids who’d actually rather cheat their GCSE coursework off the Internet. They are simply the spoils of war. But do as I do, and keep buying them, because the actual print apocalypse is being rehearsed in London right now, with two new “freesheets” locked in battle, forcing the Evening Standard to lower its price to … nothing. They can’t *give* it away.

Editorial excellence will count for nothing in a world where the newspapers themselves are the free gifts. Make a wallchart out of that.

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2 thoughts on “Whatever #1

  1. Hello, angel: sorry to hear about the Word going to the wall.
    I remember reading this column at the time of printing and finding my soapbox to say that giveaways were the third major blow to the music industry. (The first? Selling CD’s via the supermarkets, second being the laissez faire attitude characterized by “this wacky craze for downloading will never catch on, lets leave the kids to it, eh?”)

    Sadly, the “wacky downloaders” have seen off a lot of printed media as well.

  2. 2006 – 2012: what a difference six years makes.

    Now, the clear and present danger of covermounted giveaways seems itself a relic: they still happen but no-one cares. No-one is diverted by a Duran Duran not-quite-best-of any more. They’ve already got it. I believe The Word added very few readers due to the covermount. YouTube happened.

    Now: supermarkets will withdraw from CD retail soon. Although there is still a happy and veracious market for the silver disc, it will eventually fail to compete with kitchen towels. Supermarkets will stop selling music mags, too, if something else in that space would be more profitable.

    I’m deeply, deeply sad about today’s news. I don’t have the same personal attachment as Andrew but like many others, the Word universe means, meant, a lot to me. These were our people, I suppose; not hamstrung by nostalgia like Mojo or Uncut; not chasing Muse, Coldplay, or worse U2, like Q, but just catering for its audience – who adored the world of Word. But 29k and little advertising was not enough.

    I expect the key players to crop up again elsewhere. But this assemblage worked, dammit. And now it’s gone.

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