Alastair Meeks on the media influence on the EU referendum
The EU referendum has turned into a battle between the Prime Minister and the right-leaning newspapers.Â In 1992 the Sun hubristically claimed to have be the one wot won it.Â Will it be the Mail wot wins the EU referendum for Leave in 2016?
The world has changed in a generation.Â In 1992, five daily newspapers sold more than a million copies and the top twelve biggest selling daily newspapers issued more than 14 million copies.Â By 2016, only two daily newspapers sold more than a million copies â€“ a third, Metro, gave away more than that number.Â The circulation for the twelve daily newspapers with the biggest circulation was under 9 million. (The decline in Sunday newspaper circulations is still worse, with two thirds of combined circulation being lost in the last 30 years.) Â As business models go, this doesn’t look alluring.
Clearly the print market is declining.Â But how are the public consuming their news nowadays?Â Are they shifting to online versions of newspapers?Â Are newspapers as influential as ever, but through a new medium?
This is something that Ofcom has looked at in detail recently through opinion polling.Â Their slides are worth looking through in detail here:
They paint a picture of a nation whose patterns of news consumption are changing fast.Â 89% of the public follow the news one way or another.Â Two thirds watch news on TV, over 40% get it through the internet and just under a third read newspapers for news or catch it on the radio.Â Unsurprisingly, the young are much more likely to get it from the internet while the old are more likely to get news from the TV or newspapers.Â But even the old are rapidly giving up on newspapers – a fifth fewer named it as a source of news this year from last.
So where specifically do the public get their news? TV and radio channels dominate the sources of news that the public names.Â Facebook is shooting up the ranks (its penetration nearly doubled from 2014 to 2015).Â The highest ranked newspaper, the Sun, ranks tenth with just 6% reach.Â By way of comparison, the top ranked news source, BBC1, reaches 48% of adults.
But how does online content change the picture?Â After all, the Daily Mail, for example, has a massive online presence so just looking at newspaper sales misses that impact.Â Well, it turns out that the newspaper groups still languish.Â Looking at news providers by the brand through which it is provided, DMGT comes in a fourth by audience reach at 16%, far behind the BBC at 77% and ITV at 33%.Â Since DMGT includes the Metro and the Evening Standard, neither of which take the same line as the Mail publications, this 16% figure greatly overstates the potential impact of the Mail’s bully pulpit.Â The next largest newspaper group is News Corp with 13% reach.Â Trinity Mirror scrapes in the top ten with 8% reach.Â Northern & Shell, the Express’s owners, manages 7%.Â Social media garners 15% reach.Â Twitter may not be Britain, but social media reaches as many people as Trinity Mirror and the Express combined.
The public were asked to name their single most important source of news.Â 29% named BBC1. 50% named a BBC source.Â The only newspaper to reach the top ten was the Sun, with just 2%.Â Just 9% named any newspaper.
OK, but surely the newspapers are disproportionately important in moulding the views of their readers?Â It seems not.Â 59% of the viewing public think that BBC TV is trustworthy and 41% say it helps them make their minds up.Â The Mail newspapers tally 41% trustworthiness among their own readers and 37% of their own readers say that they help them make their minds up.Â The figures for the Sun are still worse: 23% for both measures among their own readers.Â Only the Guardian and the Observer are more trusted by their own readers than the BBC is trusted by its viewers.Â Most newspapers entertain rather than inform their readers, who are considerably less credulous about their contents than is commonly hoped or feared.
The following conclusions can be drawn:
- Newspapers influence relatively few people. Their sales have been declining for a generation and their audience penetration has been dropping particularly sharply recently.Â Their readers appear literally to be dying off.
- With a steep decline in sales and audience penetration for newspapers, newspapers are chasing market share. Their editorial line is more likely to be calculated to attract reliable new readers from other newspapers (the remaining newspaper readers seem to be old and very conservative) rather than designed to influence existing readers.Â It should not be a surprise to find that a business is catering to its audience rather than seeking to mould its audience to its own tastes.
- People have always chosen the news source that suits their personal tastes and that has been made much easier with the advent of Twitter and Facebook. Â But this can be overstated: in Britain, news provision is still overwhelmingly dominated by the BBC.Â We are nowhere near the position of the USA, where the public picks what news it gets to hear according to political inclination.
- If you really want to influence public opinion, go on TV.