Chimera: the outdated myth of a mainstream media

Alastair Meeks
4 min readDec 9, 2023

Send no flowers. Those of us who grew up with the mainstream media are now bereaved. Back into storyland this giant has fled.

Long-predicted, the mainstream is now irrevocably fragmented, and if anything the pace is accelerating. No single news source is now used by a majority of the British public. In the last five years, the proportion of people naming BBC1 as a source of news that they use has dropped from 62% to 49%. Considering this period spanned the Covid years, when the public would be unusually interested in the news, this is remarkable.

The effect is still more dramatic among newspapers. This year, the newspaper with the highest circulation is a free paper, Metro, and it shifts 950,000 copies a day. The biggest selling paid-for newspaper is the Mail, and it now sells just under 800,000 copies a day. That’s a decline of more than 50% since 2015.

To put these figures in context, in the 1940s, the News of the World sold nearly 8 million copies each week. It was still selling more than 5 million copies a week in the 1980s. Britain’s population has grown from 50 million in 1950 to 68 million today. Nearly 1 in 6 Britons used to buy the biggest selling newspaper. Now the figure is just 1 in 85.

The youth, as I suppose I have to call them, get their news differently. They get it from TikTok, they get it from WhatsApp, they get it from X. 30% of people get news from Facebook (however, I bet that most of my followers will agree with me that they’re almost all oldies).

This is a fundamental shift in the power relationship between news provider and news consumer. Instead of the consumer having a limited range of news outlets to choose between, all of which by necessity cater for a fairly broad audience, the consumer can decide what news they wish to consume and from where.

So newspapers have had to adapt. Instead of trying to create a product that attracts the widest possible audience, they are now trying to create a product that attracts a reliable audience that will buy a newspaper. That audience may not be — in fact, is most unlikely to be — representative of the wider population as a whole.

When people started blogging online, there was a widespread assumption that in due course news blogs would professionalise and catch up with the mainstream media. In fact, the reverse has happened. The mainstream media has amateurised, chasing after niche groups, however batty, who are willing to pay for a newspaper.

These people tend to be old or weird. Many of them sit in the centre of that Venn diagram. The Times was once supposedly written with a busy doctor in Leamington Spa in mind. That doctor might still be reading the Times but he or she would be retired now, far from the impact on reasoning that the realities of daily work life impose.

Such a newspaper is not necessarily or even usually going to report on the biggest news story of the day. It is going to report on the story that their readers will most wish to consume.

There has always been a problem that there might be a mismatch between the instincts of proprietors and editors on the one hand and the public on the other. “Never argue with someone who buys ink by the barrel”, they used to say, and that reflected the power that newspapers had. Now that newspapers are narrow-casting, however, that problem is much greater.

Before, newspapers needed to pay regard to the views of a wide span of public opinion for fear of losing them to a competitor. Now that the aim is to please a narrow part of public opinion, other views — even views that are popular to the point of being humdrum consensus — will be ignored.

One group who don’t fully seem to have absorbed this shift, oddly, are news junkies. They moan about the weird editorial lines taken by the Times and the Telegraph, not noting that those editorial lines make complete sense from a commercial perspective. And still they tend to follow the news agenda set by those papers, and to a lesser extent the Mail and the Sun. They do this because they spend most of their time on Twitter and BlueSky, which parasitically (or symbiotically, depending on your perspective) draw their nutrients from traditional newspapers. They rarely get news from TikTok or Facebook. So by default they are taking their news from a narrowcast not meant for them.

The excellent Jonn Elledge has written about how damaging this is for the Conservatives. It’s also damaging the commentariat. While they spend all their time dissecting the Conservatives’ contortions on Rwanda, they spend far too little time discussing the actual priorities of the British public as disclosed in poll after poll: the lamentable state of the British economy, inflation and the NHS. They, as much as the Conservatives, have been blindsided by the looming cataclysm that the Tories now face. Lost in the detail, they have become digital zombies, walking through a political landscape that they don’t see as they are immersed in their phones.

There’s a big point for all of us here. Now that we are able to search for news that we find meets our emotional needs rather than just be provided with news that opinion-formers believe we need to know, the temptation is to look exclusively for the news we want rather than for the news we need. For now this is a mistake the Conservatives are making. Others will probably make this mistake in future. It’s likely to be a very expensive mistake for the Conservatives in the near future. Will others learn the correct lesson from it? Candidly, I doubt it.

--

--