Print newspapers: Alive and kicking

Published 27.06.2016 00:33
Updated 27.06.2016 00:37
Illustration by Necmettin Asma -
Illustration by Necmettin Asma -

As the dust of Brexit finally settles, it looks like print newspapers had more effect on the outcome of the historic referendum, even though many have been claiming them dead and buried for quite some time

The last five years have been downhill for printed newspapers, and the short-term future seems bleak by even the most optimistic estimates. The middle-aged generation has been migrating to greener pastures, and for the younger generation, printed newspapers weren't viable alternatives to television and digital media. Advertisement revenue, which was the lifeblood of newspapers, declined as circulation numbers plummeted and the ability to shape the public agenda waned. Even though the fall of printed newspapers didn't mean a fall for journalism as many proposed, the situation was enough to make many of us nostalgic. Or so we thought. The latest development, which might well be the biggest political event of 2016, has shown that printed newspapers still hold sway. The event that has already shaken Europe and its union and will no doubt have long term effects on the whole world: the Brexit referendum.

Despite predictions and most survey results, those who argued for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union found that 52 percent of the country's population agreed on this key issue. Debate over how much of that was protest votes in the face of a perceived surefire remain win is up to debate, although it may show us that survey companies have dropped the ball and may have cause some "Remainers" to stay at home instead of going out in the rain to polling stations. But we'll look more at that in a separate box. This article will focus on the influence of the media on this historical referendum.

On June 21, the Huffington Post released an article on the leanings of the U.K. media, or to be more precise, printed newspapers. Assistant news editor Louise Ridley penned the article, "Which Newspapers Support Brexit In The EU Referendum?" The article estimated total and individual circulation numbers for print circulation of the U.K.'s major newspapers and where they stood in the Brexit debate. Here are some of the biggest numbers on both sides of the aisle according to Ridley's article: "Britain's most read print newspaper The Sun with its 1.7 million circulation argued for leaving the EU with its headline "BeLEAVE in Britain." On the other hand, the biggest circulation numbers from the Remain camp came from The Mail on Sunday newspaper with a print circulation of 1.3 million. A surprising outcome, considering it is the sister newspaper of The Daily Mail, which was in favor of leaving the EU with its 1.5 million circulation number, second largest for the Leave camp.

A similar difference in stance for sister newspapers was The Times and The Sunday Times. The Times with a circulation of 438,000 backed the Remain camp, while The Sunday Times with a circulation of 797,000 opted to leave the EU.

For newspapers favoring remaining in the EU:

The Guardian with a circulation of 165,000 released an opinion piece on June 20, penned by their editorial board, "The Guardian view on the EU referendum: keep connected and inclusive, not angry and isolated," clearly showing support for remaining in the EU. The sister newspaper The Observer also supported the Guardian's view with its 194,000.

The Financial Times with a circulation of 198,000 clearly expressed support for Remain, with its FT view article of June 15, "Britain should vote to stay in the EU."

The Daily Mirror with a circulation of 778,000 was another print publication that expressed its wishes clearly on its front page: "This paper certainly has its issues with the EU, but after the most divisive, vile and political campaign in living memory, we say ... vote remain tomorrow."

Mirroring the public

So if we look at the estimates from the Huffington Post article, it shows that papers supporting the leave vote had a circulation of approximately 4.8 million readers. Papers that wanted the U.K. to remain in the EU had a combined circulation of slightly more than 3 million. The referendum over whether the U.K. should leave the EU or not had quite close numbers as well, as 17,410,712, voted to leave the EU, while 16,141,241 voted to remain. Thus Leave won with 51.9 percent to Remain's 48.1 percent. Considering the split between circulation of printed newspapers largely coincided with the referendum numbers, the ability to cater to if not shape public opinion is still very much in the arsenal of printed publications, despite the last decade's unfavorable numbers for the sector.

However, that doesn't mean business as usual for printed newspapers. Age demographics must also be factored in. Age groups where Leave voters were above 50 percent were 45-54 with 56 percent, 55-64 with 57 percent and 65+ with 60 percent, according to data from Lord Ashcroft Polls. Turnout was also lower in areas with younger demographics. To sum up, we can say that even with today's demographics, printed newspapers hold considerable sway with the general populace when it comes to shaping the public agenda, this may not continue to be true as the elderly are replaced by the young.

Another related statistic would be the coverage that these newspapers gave to those supporting their stance as well. According to media analysis by the Loughborough University Center for Research in Communication and Culture regarding the EU referendum, there was a difference in the volume of coverage between remainers and leavers. It seems that from May 8 to June 15, out or pro-Leave papers had one third more stories and other items of coverage supporting their stance, when compared to the in or pro-remain papers. According to this data, when weighted by circulation, The Mail had more pro-leave items than the combined number of pro-remain pieces published by the four biggest pro-remain newspapers. When it comes to finding balanced or neutral discussion, pro-remain papers had a better report card though, with the Guardian, The Times and Financial Times in the lead, while the Daily Express, Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph were the least balanced or neutral.

False sense of security

In the wake of the historic Brexit referendum, the results of the very recent vote has us asking a familiar question: How did the pollsters get it wrong? The U.K. is now faced with a situation Turkey is all too familiar with, joining the ranks for the recent royal mess. Turkey saw a similar scenario back in May last year, when general election pollsters were unable to predict the conservative win. But history aside, let us look at the overall failure of the Brexit poll this time. According to Tom Morgan's article in The Telegraph, 168 polls have been conducted since the EU referendum was set in stone back in September and only 55 of them predicted a leave vote. In other words, only one-third of the polls managed to predict the outcome. The number gets even lover if we only include those who managed to predict numbers closer to the actual percentages.

Experts were also among those who got their predictions wrong. Peter Kellner, the former president of the market research firm YouGov predicted an 8.5 percent difference in favor of the remain votes.

Some pollsters were more daring, with 10 percent differences in favor of remain votes, putting them 55 to 45 percent. The initial stages of polling revealed even more daring numbers but as the referendum date drew closer, estimates of the leave votes started to rise. For example, a poll by Ipsos Mori put the remain vote at 52 percent and the leave vote at 48 percent. Even though they got the percentages right, the color of the votes seemed to be off.

Jesting aside, the predictions of experts and poll numbers indicated a clear win throughout the campaign, which was obviously among the reasons for losing the remain vote. The demographics of voter turnout were also inaccurately predicted, with low voter turnout from the demographic group that experts expected would vote to remain in the EU.

A similar situation could just as easily happen in the U.S. with the upcoming presidential elections in November. Even though the polls put Hillary Clinton at the lead right now, the same air of confidence surrounding her campaign as well as the idea of a protest vote could spell her defeat and Donald Trump's victory. It certainly played a part in the U.K. with some of the leave voters now professing regret over their protest votes.

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