Where did the advertising go? How Fleet Street failed to capitalise on its own digital revolution

More than 30 years ago, Fleet Street underwent a technological revolution, belatedly joining the computer age. It sparked a renaissance of newspapers and a boom in press advertising. But the digital seeds sown then would ultimately lead to an exodus of ad revenue from print, writes media commentator and advertising industry expert Torin Douglas.

The first computer revolution

In January 1986, Rupert Murdoch moved his four national newspapers to a new computerised printworks in Wapping, bypassing the print unions which had resisted the new technology. In March, Eddy Shah launched Today. In September, hot-metal printing ended at the huge Daily Telegraph presses in Fleet Street, to be replaced by a high-tech plant in London’s Docklands. In October, the Independent was launched, followed by a wave of new papers embracing the lower-cost production methods.

Computer screens and keyboards replaced typewriters for journalists and advertising teams. Freed from union restrictions, publishers unleashed a wave of specialist supplements, offering more choice for readers and better audience segmentation for advertisers.

But in due course it became clear computers, algorithms and the internet could deliver segmentation and targeting far more efficiently than printed newspapers, which is why so much of the press advertising has been gobbled up by Google and Facebook.

To understand how and why the change happened, we need to look back to that earlier revolution, to see the benefits it brought to advertisers, readers and society (not least in the the delivery of high-quality, independent journalism) which are now at risk, if not already lost.

It took two years for the full impact of post-Wapping creative innovation to emerge. On September 16, 1988, I wrote in Marketing Week:

“The truly astonishing mass of new sections that arrived on my doorstep at the weekend represents the final stage in the liberation of our national newspapers from the tyranny of the trade unions that held back pagination and editorial development for so long.

“The first wave was Wapping, where Rupert Murdoch was heralded, aided and abetted by Eddy Shah. For the first time, a national newspaper publisher was able to produce papers on the management’s terms, rather than the unions.

“The second wave, post-Wapping, saw the rest of Fleet Street capitalise on Murdoch’s breakthrough, signing dramatically different agreements with their unions and moving to new computerised typesetting and printing facilities, gradually adapting their papers to the new technology.

“The third wave sees the journalists, backed by their management, for the first time taking control of the new opportunities and starting to produce new types of newspaper sections. Last weekend, more newspapers started producing more editorially-led innovation than at any time since the Sunday Times introduced the two-section newspaper and colour magazine in the 1960s.”

That weekend in 1988, the Independent launched a two-section Saturday paper and a groundbreaking colour magazine. The Telegraph switched its colour magazine from Sunday to Saturday, launching a new magazine called Seven Days in its stead. The Times moved to a four-section Saturday paper. The Sunday Times produced its eighth section, called New Society, a partwork about Italian food and a second colour magazine previewing the Olympics. The Mail on Sunday also carried an Olympic magazine – funded entirely by 3M. The Observer launched Section 5, a London leisure, arts, property and listings section, the Sunday Mirror a colour magazine and the Sunday Telegraph a total redesign.

Amid today’s cornucopia of creativity, and the constant global stream of new apps, websites, social media, memes and video, this may not seem much. At the time, it was a giant leap.

There was a separation between ‘church and state’ that everyone understood

Crucially in those days, the twin revenue streams of cover price and advertising (display and classified) provided a robust funding model for high quality, independent journalism – and a much purer one than the blurry lines of today’s ‘native’ advertising.

There was a separation between ‘church and state’ that everyone understood – journalists, sales departments, advertisers and readers. It was plain to see what was editorial and what was an advertisement. The occasional ‘advertorials’ – pages of editorial paid for by advertisers – had to be clearly labelled as such, under the Code of Advertising Practice. And if advertisers threatened to remove their advertising because they didn’t like what was being written about them, the best newspapers resisted the threat and waved them goodbye.

The most famous example concerned the Sunday Times expose of the Thalidomide scandal. In his book Good Times, Bad Times, the distinguished editor Sir Harold Evans recalled the start of the paper’s campaign in 1972 to persuade Distillers, which owned the drug company involved and had always denied negligence, to accept responsibility:

“I told Denis Hamilton (the paper’s managing director). He was very relaxed about it. I also told the advertising manager, Donald Barrett. ‘Distillers are our largest single advertiser. As a group they spend £600,000 a year’ he told me. ‘I know that won’t stop you and it shouldn’t,’ he added. (Distillers withdrew all their advertising after the beginning of the campaign.)”

Commenting in The Journalist in British Fiction and Film, Sarah Lonsdale wrote: “If we compare this incident to the famous Telegraph repression of criticism of the banking giant HSBC in 2015, it is clear we are operating in very different worlds.”

For many publishers in the 1980s, particularly the quality broadsheets and local newspapers, classified advertising for jobs, cars, and houses was a crucial element of the business model. The Guardian carved out a highly profitable niche in public sector job advertising, for which it created weekly editorial supplements on education, health and social and charity work.

Its Media Page, created in 1984, soon became a Media Section, carrying several pages of editorial designed to keep the ads apart and attract readers in the media, whether or not they were looking for a job. When I wrote a weekly column about the media, for The Times from 1982-84 and later for the Independent, I was under no illusions: I knew it was in the hope media advertisers would place their ads there. But, in those days at least, media sections were allowed to be independent and to write frankly and fairly about the publication itself and its rivals.

The Guardian, under the protective mantle of the Scott Trust, also benefited from the classified ads in its highly profitable sister publications, the Manchester Evening News and Auto Trader. In those days, the best regional newspapers and trade papers were cash cows for their owners – but they were ripe for milking by others when the digital revolution took hold. Some publishers saw the writing on the screen and moved smartly to launch or buy websites of their own. Others were slower to respond.

Torin Douglas has been writing about advertising and media for more than 40 years, and was the media correspondent for BBC News for 24 years. The concluding part of this piece will run tomorrow.

This is an extract from Last Words? How Can Journalism Survive the Decline of Print? Edited by John Mair, Tor Clark, Neil Fowler, Raymond Snoddy and Richard Tait, and published by Abramis on 23 January at £19.95. Readers of The Drum can order copies at a special pre-publication discounted price of £15 from Richard@abramis.co.uk

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