Is the advertising industry so instinctively conservative that it treats new product launches with ingrained suspicion? And is it so cautious that it goes queasy at the sight of overt political content?
I ask these questions because when I pick up the latest edition of the New European – widely seen as one of the most successful innovations in UK news publishing in the last 18 months – I cannot see a single branded advertisement. Not one. Just three pages of house ads and a half-page promo for next Sunday’s #StopBrexit march at the Tory conference with a call to “Bring a whistle, a horn or a klaxon”.
It’s hard to see why the New European is such a difficult sell. Originally intended as a four-week pop-up to voice the concerns of the 48% minority who voted Remain in the EU referendum, the weekly is now up to issue 64. It is has upped its pagination from 48 to 64. In March it was given the Chairman’s Award at the Society of Editors National Press Awards, and declared an “unusual success”. It has found a committed and upmarket audience, selling between 22,000-26,000 (with 7,000 subscribers).
Throughout the referendum campaign, papers supportive of Brexit dubbed David Cameron’s attempts to make the case for maintaining ties with Brussels as “Project Fear”. Even now, as a new title speaks up for Europe, the ad industry seems to get the shivers.
Editor Matt Kelly has spent nine months pitching to agencies and only now has persuaded London shop Madison Bell to take the account. Interestingly, Madison Bell represents Private Eye, another counter-intuitive publishing success in the digital age. Jack Daly, Madison Bell’s advertising director, predicts a “bright future” for the New European. “There’s nothing else like it within the market. This has been demonstrated by the success of the title so far, and it’s time advertisers started to share in and benefit from this success.”
In a world where so much of the media remains dependent on advertising revenue for its business model, the attitudes of brand managers and media buyers play an important role in ensuring a healthy and diverse news ecology.
A newspaper with no advertising
“To all intents and purposes the paper has had no advertising since we launched,” Kelly tells me. “It’s not for the want of trying. I have been out to half a dozen agencies and given them the big pitch on why we are important and everyone gets it but then nothing happens because we don’t fit on a schedule or the deals are already carved up.”
Despite the media buzz around the New European, which has become a platform for high-profile writers including Bonnie Greer, Howard Jacobson and AC Grayling, advertising professionals have mostly failed to even pick up the paper, let alone imagine what it might offer clients. “The biggest challenge is getting advertisers to actually look at the product,” says Kelly. “There are preconceptions that are just wholly false; that we are a single issue newspaper, boring people senseless about Brexit week-in, week-out without any attention to the fact that there’s a whole big world of other stuff out there.”
The reality is that half of the £2 paper (which Kelly accepts is “a magazine in newspaper format”) is dedicated to arts, literature, food and sport in a hefty Eurofile segment which stands comparison with the best of the culture supplements in the national press. It celebrates the likes of Jean Seberg (in a six-page feature) and Bjorn Borg, gently reminding readers of Europe’s more attractive attributes and their place in UK culture. “I don’t think people in advertising have got a clue that we have 30 pages every week all about arts and culture and books and food,” Kelly complains. “I think if they sat down and looked at us they would say this isn’t the product I had in mind.”
The New European has had to rely mostly on its innovative front pages for its marketing. One of its most memorable was headlined “Dumbkirk” and mimicked the familiar graphics of TV’s Dad’s Army by showing Theresa May and her cohorts dressed in khaki and engaged in “Britain’s Chaotic Retreat From Europe”. Most of the British strategic arrows were headed into the sea. The cover, which coincided with the July release of the Christopher Nolan film, also boasted a Steve Coogan “exclusive” story: that Alan Partridge would have voted for Brexit.
The paper’s most controversial cover was a Martin Rowson cartoon which parodied the historic "Skegness is So Bracing" holiday poster by dressing the original jolly fisherman subject in a jumper with the slogan “Go Away” and showing him sticking two fingers up. “Skegness is So Brexit” was the headline and the mayor of the Lincolnshire town, which voted heavily to leave Europe, was deeply unimpressed.
Another controversial cover, inspired by Republican artwork from the Spanish Civil War, was headlined “Aleppo” and showed a phalanx of bomber planes flying above a dead child. The paper is determined that its European mission does not mean it has nothing to say on what is happening in Syria or in the White House.
No one could say that Brexit is not a divisive issue. Some brands will be wary that any commercial arrangement with a pro-Europe title would be interpreted as a political statement that could cost them business. But, as Kelly points out, news titles from the Daily Mail to the New Statesman pursue distinctive political agendas and still attract advertising.
The New European, he says, is very proud of being partisan and considers it a journalistic asset. “It is entirely OK to be completely partisan, as long as you are honest about being partisan,” he says.
Some right-wing tabloids are guilty of wilfully concealing their agendas, he claims. “They try to inveigle a political doctrine as though it was just mainstream coverage,” he says. “That’s what the game is in newspapers, to sneak a message through. That’s what’s unhealthy in media now.”
And don’t talk to him about publishers needing to provide more than an echo chamber of likeminded opinion. “The difference between the more liberal progressive media and the more determined media on the right, is that on the right they have zero tolerance towards dissent and are completely on-message, whereas on the left side there seems to be an obligation to present other perspectives.” He cites the Guardian’s “Burst Your Bubble” feature to make his case.
Kelly likes to compare the New European to the uncompromising revolutionary pamphlets of Thomas Paine at the onset of The American War of Independence. Paine came from Norfolk, he notes, just like his paper (owned by Norwich-based publisher Archant). “If Thomas Paine had thought ‘I should be fair to the King and the British have brought us good roads and a good legal system’ he would have been doing an absolute disservice to his cause.”
By associating itself so strongly with a “liberal progressive” position, the New European risks not encapsulating the very broad constituency that backed Remain, including Conservative voters who are wary of the economic outcome of Brexit. Kelly says he commissions a spectrum of writers.
The New European has obvious ties to New Labour; Tony Blair gave it an exclusive interview and Alastair Campbell is its Editor-at-Large and has serialised the latest edition of his diaries in the paper. Kelly is nothing but appreciative of Campbell’s involvement, “I don’t think we would have got this far without his help. He has been brilliant, providing us with contacts and a constant flow of ideas. I can’t exaggerate the energy he has for this topic, he is a machine.”
Kelly believes that the New European will continue for as long as it remains distinctive. “We are not trying to copy anybody…we are trying to be something very different,” he says. “I think the newsstands these days are absolutely littered with second rate products. It’s because circulation pressure over many years has led a number of editors to try and double guess their readers and they are afraid to challenge them.”
His own readership, he says, is “absolutely the best quality audience you could imagine; they are all AB, they are all high-earners, and they are all completely self-defined in terms of their position on Europe,” he says. “There will be tons of advertisers who would love to reach those people and there’s very little to fear in advertising with us.”
He might be more successful in making his case than David Cameron was.
Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell