London's Tawdry Tabloids Turn Upmarket
Friday, August 22, 2008; Page D01
The Sun tabloid.
When the upmarket Guardian newspaper, which has a classical music critic, grumbled that the opera house had never helped other newspapers this way, the Sun retorted in classic fashion: Guardian readers "can have a night in with their mung bean sandwiches and discuss existentialist feminism. We'll be down the opera having a knees-up." Translation: mung beans are vegetarian fare that Guardian readers supposedly eat; a knees-up is a party.
British tabloids are hatching all sorts of schemes to woo new readers, including this one in which the Sun ran a lottery aimed at upscale Londoners, giving the winners deep discounts for opera tickets.
Class shift, the rise of give-away newspapers and privacy rulings by courts all seem to be putting extra pressure on the papers, which are loved and loathed, renowned for their sometimes adroit, sometimes atrocious puns and their steady diet of sex, sports, crime and celebrity.
Readership of high-end British newspapers has fallen about 8 percent since the 1970s, according to the National Readership Survey, a market poll used widely in the industry. The tabloids, known here as "red tops" for the red banner at the top of the paper, have fallen 34 percent.
Preoccupied with class but uneasy talking about it, Britons have long used newspapers as an indicator of social status. Buying a newspaper is kind of like wearing a badge, said Roy Greenslade, a journalism professor at City University. In their heyday in the 1950s and '60s, clutching a tabloid such as the Mirror, which sold as many as 5 million copies a day, was a way of saying, "I'm working class and proud."
Postwar Britain was largely working class, and the tabloids deftly rode the wave, Greenslade said. But as the country became richer and workers moved from the factory floor to the trading floor, a middle class emerged and people switched to midmarket and upmarket papers.
The recent rise of giveaway papers known as freesheets has also eaten into the tabloids' franchise. Gone are the days when London streets reverberated with Cockney accents shouting out tabloid news headlines. Today's street distributors are every inch as effective as they thrust free papers at passersby. In July, three London freesheets -- the Metro, Thelondonpaper and London Lite -- boasted a combined circulation of 1.65 million daily.
In interviews on Oxford Street in central London, several people said that freesheets undermined old habits of buying newspapers. The freesheets are "a more interesting read, specific to London, not the mumbo jumbo you find in other papers," said Raj Hunjan, 25 and a carpenter, referring to the folded freesheet in his hand. He occasionally buys tabloids for their sports coverage, but "it depends how rushed how I am. If I'm rushed, I get it free."
Bill Hagerty, editor of the British Journalism Review, said that young readers, many of whom grew up with the Internet, are starting to expect their news for free.
Increasingly, newspapers are trying to survive by helping readers move to their Web sites. John Lloyd, director of the Reuters Institute for the study of journalism at Oxford University, said the readers of the upscale papers generally "want to be information-rich" so they easily migrated online.
Upscale papers, also known as "quality" newspapers, have done well with polemical columnists, who have avid fans, and the competition for topics covered by tabloids, namely sex and celebrity, is fierce online.
As society evolves, views of what's shocking have changed. "Once there was history of sitting down to read headlines like, 'Vicar Runs Off with Choir Master.' These days, who cares" about a story like that? said Ray Snoddy, a media commentator.
The tabloids have had to dial up the intensity of their material, but now the courts have dealt a setback to those efforts.
In March, the News of the World tabloid published a story with the headline "F1 Boss Has Sick Nazi Orgy With 5 Hookers." The boss in question was Max Mosley, who heads the organization that oversees Formula One and other international racing events and is the son of Oswald Mosley, leader of the British fascist movement during World War II. In ensuing legal action over the story, Max Mosley acknowledged that he had engaged in sadomasochistic role-playing with five prostitutes, as the newspaper reported, but he argued that the sessions did not have Nazi overtones. A judge ruled in favor of his account, finding that his privacy had been breached.
"Freedom Gets a Spanking," declared the Sun the day after the ruling.
Mark Stephens, an expert in media law, said the Mosley ruling would make editors think twice about printing many of the personality-based "exclusives" of which the tabloids have traditionally been so proud.
At the British Press Awards, a sort of Pulitzer Prize ceremony but with a lot more booze, tabloids have snagged the "Scoop of the Year" award for the past five years.
Winning entries included "Cocaine Kate," a story about Kate Moss allegedly snorting drugs; "Intruder," wherein a reporter infiltrated Buckingham Palace to reveal, among other things, that the queen stores her cereal in a Tupperware container; and "Beckham's Secret Affair," about an alleged extramarital roaming by soccer star David Beckham.
"No editor would dare print those now," said Stephens, who added that the Mosley ruling was "a swing in favor of privacy and an attack against media news-gathering techniques."
Although ailing, the tabloids have plenty of swagger left in their step. The circulation of the four national red tops -- The Sun, Mirror, Daily Star and Daily Sport -- in June was more than double that of the five serious papers -- Telegraph, Times of London, the Guardian, the Independent and Financial Times -- and by and large, red tops are much more profitable. And as the red tops continue to eye middle-class readers, they do so with panache.
In explaining the opera to its readers, the Sun elucidated: "Most operas are dirtier than Amy Winehouse's beehive . . . and more violent than a Tarantino bloodfest."