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The contrarian publisher: Ian Hislop on fake news and Private Eye's digital abstinence

Hislop's unapologetic strategy has succeeded in the face of falling print sales across the industry

Fake news and the crisis of journalism may be pushing publishers to ask tough questions of themselves but Private Eye has reason to celebrate.

Not only is Private Eye the UK's number one best-selling news and current affairs magazine at a time when many publishers are seeing print circulation dwindle; its lack of digital strategy has insulated the brand against a fake news headwind that has seen many publishers lose their value on social.

Editor Ian Hislop is a stickler for tradition. The paper today carries the same textbook British sense of humour, clunky graphics and cutting headlines it did in the 60s. But more than that, it’s also one of the last remaining publications to ardently defend print by sticking a finger up to digital, even if it means the brand could die with its format.

Hislop, who has been editing the paper since 1986, is silent at first when I ask him if he has plans to introduce a digital strategy. After a long pause when he presumably works out if I am joking or not, he says simply: “No.”

Instead, he points me towards Private Eye’s website, which rather than housing the content of its magazine, is populated with a slew of moving banners and ads directing people to buy the print product if they want to read it. It’s an unapologetic strategy that has worked in the face of falling print sales across the industry. Sales of Private Eye are up 9% year-on-year, and its Christmas issue was the biggest seller in the title’s 55-year history, shifting 287,334 copies.

“Journalism needs to be paid for. It keeps it clean because it means it’s not paid for by the Russians or someone else paying teenagers in a factory to write drivel. And it means you have a comeback. Our readers pay for the magazine. If they don't like what is in it, they are very cross. They write and tell you – they keep you honest. It is a much, much better model, a much more honest model,” he says.

Add to that a simple advertising offering that includes the occasional print ad and a classified section and you have the contrarian publisher. I ask if Hislop plans to build out its advertising offer? He breaks into a bellow of laughter. “Do we do advertising?” he shouts, bemused, to his colleagues across the room. It turns out he thought I was asking if he advertises Private Eye.

I correct this misunderstanding, to which he responds: “We are always keen on ads. The more the merrier. We have got one for some suits in at the moment, which is rather good. I think we have got some other ads, one or two in there? But no, absolutely,” he says.

Private Eye’s readership, which tends to be upmarket ABC1 men, is very attractive to advertisers, notes Andy Hargreaves, head of press at OMD. While marketers have to be “slightly braver” to advertise on the pages of the satirical magazine, especially considering the magazine takes aim at brands as well as politicians, Hargreaves predicts a bright future for its print ads despite the medium commanding an ever-decreasing share of marketer’s budgets.

So with a winning remedy where the cover price pays for the magazine with advertising as a bonus, rather than a reliance, what’s Hislop’s advice to ailing publishers? The editor won’t speculate: “I don’t think it's my position to lecture people. I have had 10 years of people saying to me that ‘the future is digital and print is dead, you are finished’. And we are not, self-evidently.”

He is certain that the notion that readers are becoming increasingly digitally focused is nonsense: “I am not convinced by that myself.” He suggests that publishers who invest in digital editions do so chiefly so they can count readers twice and make their readership appear stronger than it is. Hislop is referencing an anomaly in the ABC rules that permits publishers to count subscribers who have print and digital editions twice in the individual circulation totals.

His anti-digital strategy also circumvents the social media ‘echo-chamber’ – a contributing factor to the fake news crisis that has harmed the value of quality news brands – in favour of a “varied” print product that offers a much more honest view of the world, so he says.

“From our point of view, the fact is print does something different. If you get a copy of Private Eye, there is a huge variety of material in it which you get in one place. You may by serendipity pick it up, find the jokes funny and read the stories later. You may find the jokes pathetic but think the stories are great. There is stuff in it that can be much more varied because people are not directed to it through a funnel on the internet. You have got it in your hands,” says Hislop.

That’s not to say that Private Eye hasn’t been called fake news by people who don’t understand satire. In fact, the magazine was listed by a journalism lecturer in the US as fake news and is currently listed on a Fake News Checker site, which means blockers that clean up the spam on social media could blacklist its content. Lucky, then, that it doesn’t publish content online, aside from the odd cartoon.

“I think you'd have to be pretty insensitive to humour to imagine that the Queen has signed a petition to stop Donald Trump coming over on a state visit. There may be people out there who believe that. There is not much I can do about that,” Hislop says.

While fake news is not a new concept, it seems to have taken a more alarming turn in the midst of global political turmoil. Hislop blames the spread of fake news on the “Trump effect”.

“When you have a group of people in authority to whom it doesn't matter whether things are true or not – and that includes press spokesmen and your officials in supposedly the home of freedom of expression – the truth is treated as no longer an important concept. That is very damaging,” he opines.

He sees satire as a “pressure valve”, a form of resistance to what’s happening in the corridors of power: “You have to try to restore some sort of perspective and you can do that with jokes.”

Hislop’s print-only view is at odds with the rest of the publishing industry, where digital is almost unanimously seen as the panacea to print’s recession. Newspapers that were once selling out on newsstands are now finding they need to accelerate revenue growth from digital readership. The New York Times, for example, one of the world’s most widely respected newspapers, saw print ad sales drop 15% in its third quarter of 2016, as it laid out plans to double its digital revenue by 2020 to $800m.

With this in mind, Hislop’s nonexistent digital strategy might not be a sustainable one in the face of a digital revolution that leaves no industry untouched. The paid-for magazine industry in the UK, while healthier than the business of news, lost sales at an average rate of 5.9% year-on-year in the second half of 2016. Condé Nast’s titles saw an overall circulation drop of 8.9% year on year, owing to Glamour’s 25.6% circulation slide in 2016. Even the 129-year-old National Geographic saw its print circulation drop 8.5% in 2016.

Private Eye is one of the only remaining antidotes to this trend. Hislop is cognisant its luck won’t last forever. He recognises the model of making people value news is broken, in a world where young people are being brought up expecting so much for free.

“I still find it extraordinary that people say we won't pay for news. It is a tiny amount of money. Private Eye is less than two quid. We are asking people to pay what they pay for a coffee every morning for the work of about 50 extremely talented and trained and committed people. It really isn’t much. And I think the failure of the last 10 years has been to chase after free and give away your content for free – why should you? I don't expect to be given entertainment for free, a haircut for free, music, films, any of that. All that model seems to be doing is destroying a craft base,” he says.

Indeed, while Private Eye maintains an avid following, when its generation of readers and old Fleet Street journalists is no more will it be replaced by this younger, penny-pinching one?

It feels like it either works as a print product or not at all – that when print eventually becomes obsolete, Private Eye will go down with the ship, clasping at the last remaining moments of a once-treasured medium. Or perhaps Hislop has some more tricks up his sleeve to steer a resurgence of print after all.

Either way, in the face of naysayers, caricature politicians and economic woes, what more is there to do than laugh?

“People are very gloomy and they want something to laugh at, which I think is a perfectly reasonable response. That has meant people have come our way,” says Hislop. It’s as simple as that.

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Jessica Goodfellow

The Drum's media reporter covering everything from publishing, TV, social media, radio and technology.

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