Is a lack of trust really what ails newspapers? Not the British tabloids

I’m going to mix apples and oranges here a bit, mixing the US newspaper industry and the British industry. If you think that isn’t fair, then you can click away now.

Some have argued that the decline of newspapers has been down to a loss of trust. A couple of examples of that point of view. James O’Shea, a former editor of the Los Angeles Times said in 2008:

“(the) main problem journalism now faces is the lack of public trust in journalists.”

O’Shea feels that for newspapers to thrive and prosper they “have to figure out how to deliver journalism that makes the public believe we once again are a public trust, something of value and something they won’t hesitate to pay for.

When The Economist asked Jay Rosen last August what the biggest problem was with the news media in the US, he said:

Another example is the decline of trust. In the mid-1970s over 70% of Americans told Gallup they had a great deal or fair amount of confidence in the press. Today: 47%. Clearly, something isn’t working. But revisions to the code of conduct that has led to this decline would be seen by most journalists as increasing the risk of mistrust. I’ve tried to argue that the View from Nowhere—also called objectivity—should be replaced by “here’s where we’re coming from.”

The other problem he identified was that the bulk of revenues still came from print “but cannot provide a future”.

For those who argue that the decline of the newspaper industry is down to a loss of trust, I’ve never been convinced that this is the fundamental issue. It might be coincidental, but I’m not entirely convinced that it is causal. To me, the decline of newspapers is down to competition from other media for attention, disruption of display and classified advertising and changing media consumption habits. Did they move to other platforms for news because they had more trust or were those other platforms simply more convenient? Do people in the US trust TV news anymore than they trust print?

Roy Greenslade at The Guardian makes the point forcefully today that trust and reading a tabloid in the UK have little to do with each other. “Trust and the red-tops? It’s irrelevant to the millions who read them“, pretty much sums up his point. At the risk of quoting a bit too much from Roy, in terms of the trust=readership argument, at least in terms of print circulation in the UK, that doesn’t really match reality.

Yet, as the print sales figures show, those red-tops – The Sun, Daily Mirror and Daily Star – together sold 4.2m copies even in the dismal sales month of December (with a probable readership of 12m plus readers).
To put that in perspective, sales of the other seven national titles – the middle market pair and five quality titles – collectively totalled roughly the same as the three red-tops.
In other words, though we might think trust plays a crucial role in the decision about media consumption, it is not the defining factor for the regular red-top reader.

To put this in stark terms, Rupert Murdoch’s Sun had a circulation of 2.5m, -6.85% YoY, -3.56 MoM, compared to The Guardian which had a circ of 230,108, -13.11 YoY but fortunately up 1.61% MoM. The Sun has more than ten times the circulation of The Guardian.

I’m not saying that I like this reality. Frankly, I’d rather that trust guaranteed financial success for newspapers, but sadly, the world doesn’t seem to work quite that way. The tabs are easily digestible entertainment, and they show their readers the world they want rather than an accurate picture of reality. However, to argue that a decline in trust is the cause of declining readership and the decline in fortunes for newspapers, doesn’t quite square with reality.

I’m not saying that trust and credibility aren’t important. They are core to my professional identity. However, when it comes to answering the business problems of newspapers, it’s probably down to a collapse in traditional sources or revenue rather than simply collapse in trust.

3 thoughts on “Is a lack of trust really what ails newspapers? Not the British tabloids

  1. I don’t think it’s about trust. I think it’s about convenience.

    On a superficial level, tabloids are more convenient to read than broadsheets. They can be read more easily, stuffed into bags, and dumped on desks without taking up too much space. I think that has been part of the reason that the Guardian (and others) adopted a smaller format. It’s a basic usability issue.

    But now we’re faced with the enormous convenience of the web and mobile. Here are my choices to get news…
    Walk to a shop.
    Hand over money.
    Read news that’s at least 24 hours out of date.

    Click a button.
    Instant news either in the palm of my hand or on my screen. For free.

    The huge success in visitor numbers (if not in revenue) shows that people still want professional journalism. Perhaps regardless of whether they trust them.

    But, as with music, movies, and books – newspapers have to adapt to the fact that their readers want a more convenient way to obtain their news.

  2. There’s a lack of historical context here. Tabloids may always have dealt in the more lurid end of news, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t once trusted more than they are today. The People (and Sunday People) used to be a source (indeed one of the few newspaper sources) of serious investigative journalism, and similarly the Mirror used to be a source of serious, humanitarian campaigning journalism (or at least while Pilger and Foot were working there). Would be interesting to see indices of trust from the 80s, 70s, 60s to pin the tail on the donkey…

  3. Murray (aka Slewfootsnoop),

    The point I was trying to make wasn’t whether the tabloids are more or less down-market today than they were in the past.

    One of my points was that a collapse in trust in the tabloids hasn’t translated into a collapse in circulation, and the main point is that the a loss of trust isn’t the main challenge facing the newspaper business. If trust was directly tied to circulation, one would have to conclude that Brits have completely lost trust in their local papers seeing as the local press in the UK is really the part of the market under the greatest stress. Note, I’m not saying that, just saying noting the problems local titles face.

    If I was being really rigorous, I’d look at trust levels in tabloid and broadsheet or quality titles in the UK and see if there was any correlation to circulation levels. That would only establish a correlation, not causality. From what patchy data that I have, there doesn’t even seem to much of a correlation.

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