During the 1980s-1990s heyday of Britain’s fearsome tabloid newspapers, editors sometimes saw legal losses and settlements as a cost of doing business. Whether it was The Sun falsely accusing Elton John of a sexual offense in 1987, or the Express a decade later suggesting (in libelous fashion) that Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman’s marriage was a sham, the uplift in sales generated by the lurid headlines at the very least defrayed, if not exceeded, the ensuing damages.
Take the Elton John case. The Sun ended up paying the singer 1 million pounds ($1.2 million) — reportedly Britain’s biggest such payment at the time — and publishing a front-page apology. Yet in the fiscal year when the fine came (1988), The Sun and its Sunday affiliate the News of the World generated an operating profit of 68 million pounds. In other words, the court loss cost it less than a week’s profit.
In 2018, despite generating more revenue than they did 20 years ago, the same group of newspapers posted a 61 million pound operating loss. The shift to online news consumption and subsequent erosion of print advertising has demolished the economics of traditional journalism.
The same is true of the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday, which have fought to maintain profitability as revenue has steadily declined. Their parent company has wisely diversified beyond the news business, which now accounts for just 46% of its total revenue.
Nor is it clear that these Thomas Markle-style scoops generate much discernible improvement in sales. The Mail on Sunday’s circulation continued its long-term downward trajectory in the month the story was published, falling 6%.
And while readers might have been mildly interested in the letter (essentially a rebuke to her father for talking to the press), it’s hard to buy the argument that this was in the public interest — which is defined as something more than mere curiosity, but which affects the rights, health or finances of people generally.
Tabloid newspapers have been slower to react to changing media revenue models than their broadsheet cousins, who have recognized that paywall subscriptions are more sustainable than online ads. However, it’s getting harder to convince readers to pay for the sort of celebrity reporting that’s instantly grabbed and repackaged by rival “clickbait” websites. Sensational scoops had real mileage in the newsprint past, but now they’re everywhere in minutes.
We don’t yet know whether the royals will win their case, or what the penalties might be. The damages may not come close to the nearly $3 million that the Daily Mail had to pay Melania Trump in 2017 for libel; that case was heard in the U.S. where punishments are higher.
But if a chunky payout on the Markle case encourages newspapers to take fewer financial risks on stories that aren’t really in the public interest, and instead concentrate their impressive journalistic firepower elsewhere (perhaps on real political and business scandals), that will be positive. It might even be journalism worth paying for.
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Alex Webb is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Europe’s technology, media and communications industries. He previously covered Apple and other technology companies for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.