One of the criticisms aimed occasionally at this column is that it doesn’t write sufficiently often about the business affairs of the Guardian. This week there was a significant 20% rise in the price of the paper, and the reactions of readers to that increase have been an interesting blend of outright condemnation and in some ways surprising – but heartening – levels of support.
At the time of writing there have been 40 letters to the editor and 241 comments posted on an article he wrote about the price rise, published on page 2 of the paper on both 17 and 19 September. There were no complaints to the readers’ editor.
All those who responded were passionate about the paper. Many talked of their engagement with the Guardian through parents and grandparents; many had read it for 30 or 40 years, and in one case 60 years. Of the 40 letters – and the letter writers more closely represented newspaper readers only, rather than those who read the Guardian online – the majority were against the price rise, but there were six who supported the reasons given for it.
Of the former, this is one view: “As a Guardian reader of some 40 years I have enjoyed reading of places I cannot afford to go to and things I cannot afford to buy whilst being thoroughly well informed through excellent journalism. Alas, as a pensioner, it now looks that it is a pleasure I can no longer justify …”
Another wrote: “I am afraid that on this occasion and against the current economic background, you may well have significantly overestimated the loyalty of your current readership. Perhaps you should have consulted with your excellent economics editor, Larry Elliott, with regard to the concept of elasticity of demand. He would have no doubt explained that any increase in revenue flowing from the significant price increase will be more than offset by a loss of readership volume, actually resulting in a fall in current revenues …”
The price rise was calculated in a way that is intended to ensure a net gain in revenue, but only time will tell whether that calculation is correct. There are no hard figures for the circulation for the first few days after the price rise – to £1.20 Monday to Friday and £2.10 on Saturday – but the circulation losses are estimated to be in line with expectations so far.
One of the problems for all newspapers is that a round of competitive price cutting, begun by the Times in 1993, held cover prices back for some years. Before that, broadsheet newspapers reckoned that around 40% of their income would be from cover price and 60% from advertising. By the end of the price war, cover price income had dropped to around 30%, which made newspapers more vulnerable in times of economic downturn, when advertising tends to be cut first.
One of the other main complaints has been from existing subscribers who read about the offer promoted in the paper – and mentioned in the editor’s article on the price rise – of a seven-day subscription at £27.60 a month; those who are already in the subscription scheme pay £30.36. Richard Furness, head of sales and marketing, said: “I regret that we didn’t make it clearer that the £27.60 offer was an introductory one, for the first three months of the subscription only.”
Some letter writers suggested that we should be showing some more ingenuity: “My copy of today’s Guardian uses 9.38 square metres of paper, weighing a total of 220 grams. Can Guardian readers suggest ways to ‘re-engineer’ the paper so the cover price is kept at £1.00?”
Many readers took a dim view of any comparison – as made by the editor – of the cost of the paper with that of a cappuccino. Another had sympathy with direct action: “My Turkish newsagent said this morning, when I bought my Guardian at the above-inflation price rise, ‘In Turkey there would be a mass protest if a newspaper tried to do this. Why do the British people take this so quietly?’ Is the Guardian, rather surprisingly, trying to encourage people to stay quiet?”
But here is the view of a supporter – with limits: “I’ve been reading the Guardian since my father introduced me to it in 1968 and it will take more than a price rise to get rid of me. Any more editorials saying Nick Clegg is the way forward of the kind you published 18 months ago might test my loyalty though.”
This column was originally published in The Guardian on Sept. 25, 2011.