Oscar Wilde once said that there is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about. Last week, the editors at the Daily Mail provided a reminder that this credo is still very much a strategy adhered to within their organisation.
Last Sunday (24 April), The Mail on Sunday’s political editor Glen Owen reported on claims by anonymous Conservative MPs that Angela Rayner had attempted to distract Boris Johnson at the weekly Prime Minister’s Questions. The article prompted widespread condemnation from across all sides of the political divide, but rather than seek to diffuse the situation, both Mail papers have sought to double down on its attack: the Mail on Sunday’s editor David Dillon very publicly refused a meeting requested by the House of Commons speaker to discuss the article while the paper featured fresh attacks on Ms. Rayner as well as detailing the abuse directed at Mr Owen by “the Left’s Twitter warriors”.
While the reputational fallout of such an aggressive approach would cause significant concern for many media organisations, it is one where the Mail Group sees the benefits outweighing the costs. The stoking of divisions between left and right is not a new trope in the media, but the results now come with an added incentive.
The vast choice for digital news readers and dwindling advertising revenues has forced media organisations to radically reconsider how they convince readers to read and pay for content. Over the last decade, many have tried to answer this challenge in several ways, including a digital-first approach to their news operations. But one of the most prominent tactics has been to publish what I would describe as ‘identity’ editorial – highly emotive news and commentary aimed at strengthening ties with traditional readers while generating enough visibility in the national arena to attract new readers and encouraging them to ‘choose a side’ in the debate.
With plenty of controversial topics to discuss – from Brexit and Black Lives Matter to Covid-19 and climate change – the rise of contrarian commentators such as Piers Morgan, Katie Hopkins and Julia Hartley-Brewer have proven that polarisation may not be good for public discourse but is great for business.
However, despite ongoing success for some, this approach has clearly come at a price for media brands as a whole. The sector has struggled in recent years to rid itself of claims of stoking bias and spreading ‘fake news’ – a regular line of attack by populist figures and sections on social media – resulting in low levels of public trust. While the Covid-19 pandemic and Ukraine conflict have helped to improve levels of trust, there is a long way to go to repair the damage done.
Research by the Reuters News Institute has shown the toll the relentless pace and tone of the news agenda has taken on readers. Many respondents say they feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of news and regularly take steps to avoid it because it is too depressing. This can’t be good for media consumption.
Given its successful operations and loyal readership, it is unlikely that The Daily Mail will change its strategy any time soon. But many other media organisations face a dilemma of how to attract and retain readers without compromising their editorial values. With intensifying competition for eyeballs across the sector as well as from social media platforms, can they afford to take a more moderate line and keep themselves out of the news?
|This article is part of a series investigating ongoing and emerging trends in the media and digital space and their impact on the way news is reported.|
Porter Novelli have created a report covering the major trends affecting media and digital trends in 2022 and recommendations for how businesses can respond to increase their impact with media. The full report is due to be launched early May 2022
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