MEDIA FORUM: Why were newspapers the losers in the Iraqi war?

Newspapers sell more during wars don't they? Well, not if the war in Iraq is anything to go by. Alasdair Reid asks if the papers should worry.

Whether they like it or not (and let's not be too cynical about those who claim the moral high ground), newspapers tend to have rather good wars. Their front pages are rarely less than dramatic. Explosions come up a treat in colour, especially if the production people are motivated to make a real effort, plus there are lots of opportunities for screaming headlines and once-in-a-decade, eye-catchingly unorthodox page make-ups.

In a time of war, newspapers feel they command a more central role in the vital life of the nation - a vitality that intensifies with each stiffening of the sinews and summoning up of blood. And the bottom line of all this is that they sell more copies. Trains and buses are even more silent of a morning as everyone tries to make sense of the previous day's cacophony of rumour, gossip and general fog of war.

At least that's what usually happens - and indeed the editor of at least one broadsheet confidently told his staff that they could expect it to happen again this time around. It looks as if he's going to be proved wrong, if the March circulation figures are anything to go on, although some insiders expect the numbers for the first two weeks of April will prove to be better.

But the March scores make sobering reading, especially at the Daily Mirror, where sales (excluding bulks) fell below two million for the first time in ... well, effectively, for the first time ever in its guise as a national newspaper. The only title to do well (up more than 12 per cent) is the Daily Star, which followed the cunning though effective strategy of basically ignoring the very existence of the war - though The Sun and The Guardian both posted marginal increases.

So what went wrong with the broad theory about newspapers and wars? And is it worrying for the likes of Tom Knox, the deputy chief executive of Delaney Lund Knox Warren & Partners - the Financial Times' agency. He argues it's not hard to work out what happened. "The way it has been reported on TV has been revolutionary and people have been watching," he says.

"The disadvantage in terms of time lag that newspapers suffer from has been exacerbated - and it's certainly a lot worse than in the first Gulf War. And, actually, the fragmentary nature of the coverage has contributed to the fog of war. They've even started showing webcam images. I was watching webcam coverage the other day from Tikrit and you can't tell what on earth's going on. It's ridiculous in some ways."

But, in fact, you could argue that the formless stream of TV images creates an even greater role for newspapers to fill. They clearly failed in that respect, didn't they? Knox isn't convinced of that and, in any case, he says that the focus must now be on the future, not the past. He states: "It will be interesting now to see (which media) win the peace and there will certainly be a need for interpretation in what's going on in the rebuilding of Iraq. That's the challenge for newspapers. From a particularly FT viewpoint, the paper tends to perform better in times when there's a volatile stock market situation. So, if markets begin to push up, it could benefit from the Baghdad bounce."

Moray MacLennan, the joint chief executive of the Mirror's agency, M&C Saatchi, agrees with much of that analysis. "At almost any time of day, people could get a TV update, and having had that level of consumption they didn't necessarily want to wallow in the in-depth coverage of the war that newspapers offer. They'd had their fill, especially when many people had reservations about it anyway."

And that, he adds, was perhaps the most important factor. Many people were just downright uncomfortable with what was going on out there. They weren't buying into it. And they certainly weren't making special efforts to buy into the newspaper coverage.

Marie Oldham, the joint managing director of Media Planning Group UK, says that the TV channels were very focused in their strategy this time around. "It's not unknown for TV channels to make scheduling mistakes, obviously, but you only have to look at the way that the broadcasters cleared their schedules for war coverage to realise that the ratings and the consumer interest were there," she comments.

And there was also, she reckons, a quantum leap in internet usage. She states: "With the internet, every time there's a war there's a step change. It happened with the first Gulf War, it happened with 11 September and it happened this time. The time shift factor is important too, but there was a time shift factor in the last World Cup and this has been far more important in changing people's behaviour than the World Cup. The way it works is that people tend to be cruising along using the internet mainly for e-mail and then when there's a war they will start e-mailing newsflashes and links to each other. Before they know it, they've developed a news habit."

All of which should be thoroughly alarming for newspapers, shouldn't it? Another unique selling proposition bites the dust. On the other hand, shouldn't they have been shouting louder, marketing themselves more aggressively?

Absolutely not, agencies and publishers alike say - it's completely inappropriate for all sorts of reasons to be seen to be attempting to profit from a war situation.

And some publishers feel that too many simplistic conclusions are being drawn from the latest figures. Len Sanderson, the Telegraph's managing director of sales, concedes that the market didn't get the overall sales boost it expected but he did see many isolated cases where sales were good: at the very beginning, for instance, and on the day that Baghdad fell.

But, he does fall into line with the consensus that this was a TV and internet victory. He comments: "The post rationalisation is that it was the first war fought out in our living rooms in real time. There is only so much people can take."

That said, Sanderson argues that we shouldn't worry about print losing its unique appeal as a trusted source of reflection and analysis. "The thing to remember is that while sales didn't rise as expected, they weren't down (broadly, across the market) either. When there were milestones, when there were momentous events, the sale was clearly up."

And he says that the most encouraging evidence for the enduring power of newsprint was not the war but the budget. "It was as agnostic a budget as there's been and in the end I don't think many people can point to what difference it makes to them. That was the way it was presented to TV. But the point is that our sale was up. People still wanted to be sure they knew about the budget. When something important happens, people still turn to newspapers. The war was a learning curve for us all, but I wouldn't see it as a major worry," he says.

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