The general election has been a painful reality check for Britain’s most popular newspapers.
The Sun, which attracts floating voters, and the Daily Mail both ran crude hit jobs on Jeremy Corbyn in the run-up to polling day that may have paradoxically helped him.
They looked out of step with the political mood before the vote and even worse after the result as 40% of Britons voted Labour – only 2% behind hapless Theresa May’s Conservatives.
Ignoring the enthusiasm among young people for Corbyn on social media and at live events was foolish. It will do nothing to encourage a new generation to turn to traditional news brands – online or in print.
Metro, which is tipped to overtake The Sun’s 1.5 million circulation on weekdays within months, looked smarter and more modern with its neutral tone.
There is a lot to be said for news brands taking a strong editorial stand in the age of Donald Trump, Brexit and fake news. But a one-way, top-down approach looks and sounds old hat.
News brands need to be open and willing to have a dialogue when every story, opinion piece and front page gets tested and then shared or ripped apart on social media.
Behind closed doors, there are some searching commercial questions too. All this political drama is a journalist’s dream, but ad sales people worry that it won’t bring in many readers and over-the-top hatchet jobs risk turning off advertisers.
And then there’s the fear that a hung parliament will further undermine the already weak UK ad market, with print still sliding and digital going sideways.
There’s no point exaggerating the scale of the Corbyn surge. Labour still lost. But the strong youth turnout should be a wake-up call for news brands, especially those that got an inflated sense of their own influence because of last year’s Brexit result. Elderly Leave supporters ain’t the future of news publishing.
So it’s time for editors and publishers to take radical action in the face of digital and political disruption.
Rethinking print is becoming more urgent, not less, because this brilliant medium is only going to shrink.
The Guardian’s expected decision to ditch its unwieldy Berliner edition to go tabloid makes good sense. It might even boost sales, given The Times’ experience after dropping its broadsheet size a decade ago.
But let’s not kid ourselves. The future is digital and social. Editors handing down tablets of stone telling voters what to think belong to an analogue world.
Gideon Spanier is the head of media at Campaign.