Journalism Now: Professor Peter Cole on Newspapers

In 2007 Peter Cole, professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield, published a four-part series on the national press in The Guardian. I will be looking at two of these articles, the first, ‘Why middle England gets the Mail’ – an assessment the mid-market newspapers, and the second, ‘The paradox of the pops’ – an analysis of the decline in sales of red top newspapers.

(1) ‘Why middle England gets the Mail’ – published in The Guardian, Mon 20 Aug 2007

In this article, Cole looks at the decline of newspapers, falling circulations, and young people preferring their news online. The first mid-market newspaper he analyses is the Daily Express. Cole comments on how the Express has done much over the years to ‘confuse the natural loyalty or inertia of newspaper reading habits’, although ‘upbringing’ might contribute to its popularity. In relation to sale falls he highlights how, whereas, Lord Beaverbrook’s Daily Express was selling over 4m copies a day in 1955; it sold around 770,000 in 2007 – ‘and the fall goes on’.

Cole’s explanations for The Daily Express’ decline in sales:

  • The death of Beaverbrook and a succession of changes in ownership culminated in the purchase of the group by Lord (Clive) Hollick, ‘New Labour crony’, in 1996 who broke the ‘golden rule of proprietorship by sacking the audience, dismissing the Express’s historic allegiance to the Conservatives, the monarchy and the empire and attaching itself to New Labour and a form of 60s liberalism’.
  • ‘Flummoxed again’ in April 2004 by the Daily Express editor Peter Hill’s decision to return “back the Tories”. Cole comments that if this ploy represented more than correcting an anomaly it did not work as sales continued to fall.

Cole’s view on The Daily Mail

Peter Cole describes The Mail’s domination of the sector as ‘unchallenged’ due to the fact that in 2007 it was the second largest selling daily in the country (to the Sun) and the Mail on Sunday – the second largest selling Sunday, after the News of the World. However, The daily and Sunday Express titles were both outselling the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday in the mid-to-late 80s.

He describes the reasons behind this switch as ‘many and clear’:

  • The Mail has been through no changes in ownership, the Rothermere/Harmsworth proprietorship lasting more than 100 years;
  • it has a huge promotion budget and spends more than most on free DVDs and CDs for its readers – which are always ‘carefully selected’ to match the “family audience”;
  • it is ‘ruthlessly’ edited and always ‘quick off the mark’;
  • its topical features are always on the day rather than tomorrow, and it commissions much more than it uses; and finally
  • it has never followed ‘the youth obsession’ that preoccupied its rivals.

Cole expands on the final point and attributes the newspaper’s success to its knowledge that, in 2007, more than 40% of its readers were over 55, and 60% over 45. He rounds off the article by attributing the newspaper’s success to ‘confidence’. He explains this in reference to the Mail’s dominant quality and how it knows its audience. He comments on how its audience is spread ‘pretty evenly’ across the AB, C1 and C2 social grades.

(2) ‘The paradox of the pops’ – published in The Guardian, Mon 27 Aug 2007

In this article Peter Cole describes how red top newspapers such as ‘The Sun’ have lost millions of readers over the past 20 years, yet ‘still wield political influence’. Cole highlights how historically, the red tops have been the newspapers of the masses. For most of the past 100 years they have been ‘a uniquely British phenomenon’ – satisfying what would once have been described as a working-class appetite for quick-read stories about crime, sex, sport and stars. He takes a look at the largest sector of the market, the one dominated by the Sun on weekdays and the News of the World on Sundays.

Cole asks the question ‘Why have the tabloids lost so many readers?’  He points out that there were ‘clearly’ managerial failures behind the Mirror’s decline, not least during the period from 1984 to 1993 of Robert Maxwell’s ownership when the paper lost almost a quarter of its circulation. Cole describes ‘the most significant event in modern tabloid history’ as Rupert Murdoch’s purchase in 1969 of the then ailing Sun from the Mirror group. ‘The golden age’ of the tabloids is described as ‘one where society, and culture, was more stratified, when factory and other manual work dominated, when politicians commanded respect, when education was driving social mobility and when stars were glitzy’.


Cole describes the tabloid audience as “ordinary people” (more than two thirds of readers in the C2DE social groupings – skilled manual workers and below).

The Star, what Cole names ‘the minnow of the tabloid market’, is described as the “Daily Big Brother” – running pages every day on ‘the tacky exploits of the dysfunctional wannabes in the house’. The Sun and Mirror, although ‘less’ tacky, are said to do the same. The tabloids, particularly the Sun and Star, have more readers under 35 than other newspapers – The Star having the highest proportion of male readers of any paper. Cole explains that newspapers pursue young readers because advertisers like them.

The emphasis on sex and semi-explicit pictures makes them ‘less likely to survive the settling down life stage’ and he adds how many parents with young children will be reluctant to expose them to the tabloids.


In an age where journalists are ‘as little trusted as politicians’ tabloid journalists are the least trusted. This, Cole describes as unfair as he notes that ‘some of the best journalists’ work for tabloids and the techniques of tabloid journalism are ‘the hardest to acquire’.


Cole describes the political reporting of both Sun and Mirror as ‘sharp’. The Sun, particularly, ‘understands populist issues’, and its views on crime and punishment, Europe, asylum and the nanny state are said to reflect ‘a strong vein of opinion’.

During our first Journalism Now lecture, where we attended ‘News Clinics’, we compared the headlines of the red top newspapers (i.e. The Sun, The Star and The Mirror). What we found interesting was that, whereas most of the red top newspapers had the latest scandal on DJ Jimmy Savile and allegations against the BBC as their headlines; The Sun had ‘Why I dumped ‘crazy Katie’’ – a feature on model, Katie Price. We talked about how this could be due to The Sun’s political standing and how it could have more vested interest in protecting the BBC’s reputation than other tabloids.

About brackenstockley

Contributor to the JusticeGap and WINOL. Currently studying journalism at the University of Winchester (Year Three).
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