How publishers are incentivised to appeal to the fringes
Telegraph Media Group, which owns and operates The Telegraph and The Spectator, is expected to be sold out of receivership this autumn. A number of bidders are involved, and it’s yet unclear who will have the upper hand.
But, regardless of who ultimately purchases the storied newsbrand, it has become apparent to the likes of columnists Nick Manning and Raymond Snoddy that its editorial slant has shifted further to the right in recent years.
As Manning described on a recent episode of The Media Leader Podcast, The Telegraph is more likely than not to continue taking on extreme views because of economic incentives, regardless of who purchases the paper.
Manning spoke with Jack Benjamin and Omar Oakes about why publishers in general feel the need to polarise themselves to appeal to readers on the fringes — who just so happen to be the ones most likely to pay a subscription fee.
Listen to the clip, or read a transcript of the conversation (edited for clarity) below.
Jack Benjamin: On the broader issue of trust, Nick, there’s been a lot of rumours and news swirling around the Telegraph sale that is supposed to come up any day now. What are your thoughts about who could purchase the paper and what that would mean for trust in news in the UK.
Nick Manning: I think the problem is the polarisation that we now have within the media industry from a political angle is greater than its ever been before.
Part of it is caused by the fact that the media owners rely on sensational content or content that is going to generate a response, and that response could be page traffic, comments below the line. They have to try and build traffic that they can monetise, and that leads to more extreme content, more hysteria, more sensationalism, and certainly The Telegraph has been ploughing that furrow quite significantly for quite some time now.
Although Private Eye is not always the most reliable of sources for everything, they described The Telegraph the other day as ‘increasingly deranged.’ And it is. I wrote a piece for The Media Leader a short while ago about The Telegraph in particular, and I actually say that people should read The Daily Telegraph because it acts as a useful corrective for the world that we tend to live in, which is the liberal, metropolitan, ‘woke world,’ and The Telegraph is the polar opposite of that.
It’s very important for all of us to understand that there are different views out there, there are people who think very differently. I go into The Daily Telegraph‘s comment section all the time just to try and understand the other side of the equation, and it’s extreme. It really is extreme. That extremism has been on full display in Manchester over the last few days. The political world is becoming increasingly polarised and that is being reflected through the media, unsurprisingly. GB News is another good example of that.
What I hope, and it’s more of a hope than an expectation, is that whoever wins the auction for The Telegraph titles and The Spectator returns it to a much more level-headed, sensible, well-run organisation compared to what it is today. That’s more of a hope than an expectation because we live in very polarised times.
Omar Oakes: What’s the economic incentive for The Telegraph to do that, when every indication has been, over the last 15-20 years, that the more hysterical you are, the more outrage-inducing you are, that’s how you win in the digital attention economy?
NM: I mean that is the problem, in a nutshell, isn’t it? The money lies in outrage, what we call ‘angertainment.’ It’s one of the reasons why advertisers are avoiding channels which build their audience in that way, because they don’t want to be associated with ‘angertainment,’ but that’s possibly an adjacent subject.
The trouble is that sensationalism builds audiences and audiences build revenue. Part of this, unfortunately, is also because some of these titles that we’re talking about are short of revenue compared to where they’d like to be because so much of the advertising revenue is soaked up by the big platforms.
And, of course, it’s also part of the new mixed economy of advertising and subscription, and other forms, which we’re going to be talking about at The Future of Media, which I think is one of the biggest themes of all in media right now—the way that the media is now being funded not just by the traditional sources of advertising, but by other forms of revenue, whether that be subs, ecommerce revenues, affiliate revenues, that sort of thing.
They’re all having to do this, they’re all having to build their audiences in the most monetisable way possible in order to build their revenues, given that advertising is being sucked out of the system by the big platforms, but also we live in a time when advertising revenue is in short supply anyway.
JB: I would just add, there was a recent Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism study that found two-thirds of Brits said that nothing would get them to pay for news. Nothing at all. Doesn’t matter what the price is, they just wouldn’t. They feel entitled to news for free. I think that speaks to the change you’re describing in news organisations feeling they might need to sensationalise a bit more, or polarise themselves a bit more, because the people that are willing to pay, that are more easily monetisable, are probably on the edges.
NM: Absolutely. And if you look at the recent revenues for Telegraph Media Group, they’re really quite good, but they’re not good because of the cover price of The Daily Telegraph, as it used to be the case when people bought newspapers. They’re not good because of the advertising revenues coming in via the usual routes. They’re good because they are building their subscriptions in the same way that The Times has built its subscriptions, and others have done the same thing.
The way to build revenue in the publishing industry is subscriptions these days. It may be the minority, but the ones who subscribe are subscribing because they want to belong to that tribe, they want to be able to go on and post their comments, they want to read editorial that appeals to them. They don’t want to hear contrary views.
If you go into the comment section of The Daily Telegraph, as I do for the reasons I’ve already stated, if somebody expresses a contrary view to the orthodox, they say ‘Go back to The Guardian. Get thee gone to The Guardian. You shouldn’t be on here, you should be on The Guardian website, not here.’
They don’t want to hear other people who don’t agree with them. They gain validation and self-worth and they feel like they’re in the majority. They will comment, ‘Millions of people feel the way I do about this,’ which is almost always untrue. But it makes them feel better. They feel as though they’re not alone, it gives them a chance to vent their spleen.
And it drives subscriptions. And it may not be the majority, but it’s enough to make some very good revenue.
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