Saturday 15 April 2017

The Sun, Kelvin MacKenzie, and Tabloid Economics

Trolls sometimes get their comeuppance. While the bigoted and the dishonest continue to rant and rave from the platforms provided them by Britain's most poisonous media outfits, it seems one can go too far. That's if Kelvin MacKenzie's suspension from The Sun is anything to go by.

As far as I can tell, MacKenzie's done nothing qualitatively worse than your average Melanie Phillips or Rod Liddle nudge-nudge-racism piece. Readers will also recall his appalling attack on Channel Four News's Fatima Manji in the pages of the paper, and no action was forthcoming. Though to make a cheap jibe at Liverpool's expense given his and The Sun's previous here underlines an arrogance that comes with the belief of being untouchable. Anyhow, it is now a matter for the police. Which is just as well because it's not MacKenzie's unreadable boilerplate that interests me: it's his suspension.

Yes, who'd have thunk it? The most terrible enfant terrible of 1980s journalism, the man whose editorship powered the currant bun to its soaraway success and made tabloid reporting synonymous with scapegoating, jingoism, racism, smearing, and dumb-downed tittle-tattle. Yes, that Kelvin MacKenzie, hung out to dry by the paper he made. First things first, as large numbers of people have asked, why did MacKenzie's piece appear in the first place when his column must have gone through gates kept by sub editors, legal, and the editor's office? Surely it wouldn't have taken much to spike it? I'd wager that didn't happen because it's Kelvin MacKenzie. He's a legend and comes with as much swagger as he has history and status. The editorial office might prefer to have someone else take up his slot, but there's always Uncle Rupert to worry about. No longer as hands on as he was during MacKenzie's day, nevertheless senior hacks, senior legal, and senior executives have to work towards the fuhrer so everything's a-okay in case a call comes through from New York. MacKenzie got leeway, and arguably his comfortable berth in Friday's paper, because of his association with the Dirty Digger.

Why hasn't MacKenzie's friendship with the proprietor got him off this time? Perhaps the suspension is for show, but equally it could be a consequence of moves within The Sun and News UK. Like most of Britain's newspapers, it's at something of a crossroads. Present daily circulation is around the 1.6m mark, having lost 1.4m readers since 2010. Yet since dropping Murdoch's pay wall, traffic to its family of websites has doubled. As of January this year, the paper is claiming around 25 million page views per month, putting it slightly ahead of The Mirror (though they dispute this) and trailing The Mail and the BBC. Online is obviously where the audiences are, and The Sun have tried all kinds of stratagems to get the punters in. It's invested heavily in Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram, and is trying to work out how to turn growing audience numbers into pound signs. After all, with The Mail's huge global audience of over 200m/month, that translates into ad revenue of £23m per quarter. Not a lot, really. Since The Sun came out from behind the wall, it's searching for other ways to make online pay - such as its dedicated betting platform and other paid-for services ancillary to normal newspapery content.

Emerging into a mature market, The Sun's strategy is an interesting one. Whether it turns a buck, however, remains to be seen, especially as profits in the internet age are overly dependent on cornering a market. For this strategy to be a success, The Sun is trying to carve its own niche. The Daily Mail model, which relies on piling up audiences for ad revenue, accomplishes this via notoriously voyeuristic celebrity coverage, and to a lesser extent providing hyper partisan right wing coverage and comment that brings in the "right old fascists" of which MacKenzie once opined, and outraged liberals and lefties aghast at their latest outrage. Those markets are more or less sewn up. The paper could provide a straight up copy, but it would lose. The second problem is The Sun needs to bring in young audiences to replace the oldies still buying physical copy. While it still casts around for a strategy that can capture them (as per above, their approach to social media is making a good fist of it), revenues depend on not upsetting the apple cart.

Which is what MacKenzie's column does. Everyone knows The Mail is an appalling outfit, but it's not dependent on the editorial line for the audiences generated by stalking celebrities. The Sun, which does not have that luxury, must chase younger internet users. As social attitudes surveys consistently show, the younger you are the more likely you are tolerant of racial/ethnic difference, immigrants, non-heterosexual sexualities, and so on. With a rising, more cosmopolitan generation The Sun cannot blast them with the halitosis of racism and hope to be a success.

As I said, the suspension might mean nothing beyond cynical damage limitation. MacKenzie could be returned to his inglorious perch and his comments long forgotten by the time he gets another invite onto Question Time and the like. But that the higher ups felt the need to do this when they might have shrugged it off is interesting, and only makes sense in the context of internet tabloid economics.

1 comment:

Richard T said...

Might his suspension be not a million miles away from the Murdochs' attempt to get the whole of Sky?