One of the more remarkable sights in a pre-Covid19 Britain were the station and city centre newsstands festooned with print newspapers. More than a quarter of a century after the printed word was challenged by digital and online competitors England and Wales still have eight or so daily paid for newspapers. Scotland, Northern Ireland have their equivalent choices. In north London the Jewish Chronicle and Jewish News have been prominently on display.
There can be no pretence that mass circulations of national titles have been maintained. Sales of most daily titles have been sinking. The current pandemic has increased the thirst for news but loss of readers has accelerated. The age when the Sun could claim that it won elections for Margaret Thatcher may long be over but the printed press still sets the national agenda.
This has been true throughout the coronavirus crisis with newspapers leading the charge on ventilators, testing and shortages of protective garments. Indeed, I was among the writers to question the economic consequences of lockdown in an op-ed article which the Daily Mail described as ‘a provocative view.’ That has now moved to the top of the bulletins.
If all this sounds a little self-serving it is only to underline a basic principle of newspaper ownership. Very few titles turn a profit. Indeed, for most proprietors’ newspaper ownership is a good way of burning money. Nevertheless, there are no shortage of public figures and tycoons who find newspaper ownership attractive. Commanding a newspaper can give direct voice to the business person seeking to have a voice. It can earn the owner a seat at the top table and could be the path to honours including knighthood or even a seat in the Lords.
Victor Matthews (Daily Express), Robert Maxwell (Daily Mirror) and the Barclay Brothers at the Telegraph are examples. In Israel casino owner and Trump supporter Sheldon Adelson owner of Israel Hayom comes to mind as a proprietor wanting to promote an agenda.
Among the current crop of UK owners I would suggest three big exceptions. The Harmsworth dynasty, biggest shareholders in Daily Mail and General Trust (DMGT) see newspaper publishing as a heritage. The Guardian is owned by a trust with a duty to maintain the title ‘as heretofore.’ And the Murdoch papers, including the Times, are the love child of proprietor Rupert Murdoch.
Which brings us to the Jewish Chronicle. By now, had matters gone differently the JC would have merged with the Jewish News and under community ownership of the Kessler Foundation. The JC struggled in recent years to keep afloat in the face of dramatic circulation losses, high costs and several lost generations of readership.
It is the status which comes with ownership of a respected title and the national influence it buys which binds together the quixotic band of new proprietors who the Sunday Times described as ‘hijacking’ the title. Doubtless Downing Street insider Robbie Gibb who leads the new ownership consortium is philo-Jewish but the reasons for his interest and that of author William Shawcross are a little fuzzy. The challenge they face in owning and running a newspaper in the age of Covid and digital decline cannot be under-estimated.
The endowment of £2.5m-£3m is terrific and will ensure staff are looked after for the time being, publication continues and star columnists retained. New proprietors almost always have an agenda. It would be nice to think that the new consortium and its financial backers are altruistic and the JC’s famed independence of reporting and views will remain intact.
So far too little is known and if the JC is to retain the confidence of the community it serves the least that can be expected is transparency. Readers and advertiser need to be told the real game plan to rebuild faith in the reborn title.