Porn of varying grades flourishes in Germany and Scandinavia but it is generally confined to top shelf magazines, not the newsstand. The Sun, the Daily Sport and the Daily Star, in satisfying people's more earthy tastes, have been a speciality of the British Press - and it is an approach that has produced one of the circulation success stories of the year - the Daily Star. Brian Collett reports.
Foreign students of journalism were amazed when Roy Greenslade held up copies of all Britain’s national newspapers and told them the Daily Star sells nearly a million a day.
It seems to be a British trait that some newspapers choose to have that lighter touch and display large pictures of practically nude young women.
The foreign students who made up about half Greenslade’s group were not being prudish. Porn of varying grades flourishes in Germany and Scandinavia but it is generally confined to what we call top-shelf magazines and blue clubs and cinemas. The Sun, the Daily Sport and the Daily Star, in satisfying people’s more earthy tastes, have been a speciality of the British press.
It is an approach that has produced the phenomenon of astonishingly rising circulation for the Daily Star in recent times.
In this context it is worth going back to 1979 and remembering that Derek Jameson, the first editor of the Daily Star, told the world at the newspaper’s launch: "It’ll be tits, bums, QPR and roll-your-own fags."
Little has changed at the newspaper. At first it seemed to be trying to out-Sun The Sun. In the early days Fleet Street journalists chortled as they indulged in the sport of nipple counting. Which newspaper would have the bigger tally on any particular day?
Although the Daily Star has retained its style, reading habits appeared to change in the 1990s.
Greenslade, a former Daily Mirror editor, who now holds the title of professor at City University in London, recalls: "We saw a trend in which readers were turning away from the red tops and going for the broadsheets. The trend was discernible for about ten years. Then The Sun under David Yelland and the Daily Mirror under Piers Morgan identified a more middle-class and better-educated public that they wanted to attract."
The two newspapers certainly began to carry more of the heavy social and political stuff in the attempt to grab a share of the middle ground. Greenslade thinks they made the move at least partly because they thought it would attract more advertising.
Whatever the reason, the Daily Star bucked this red top trend. It continued on its merry way and continued to appeal to the readers who wanted its kind of newspaper in the first place. As a result it has bumped up its circulation steadily for the past three years, while its two red top rivals with their more serious-minded approach have lost sales.
"What it is really is a Beano for adults," says Greenslade. "It intrigues me that it can turn everything into a celebrity story." Ironically, Sun journalists used to refer to their own newspaper affectionately as the Beano. Greenslade observes that the very consistency of the Daily Star in never overestimating the intelligence of the public has to an extent guaranteed its present place in the circulation ratings.
Remember the old joke about who reads which newspaper? The Times was said to be read by the people who run the country, the Financial Times was supposed to be read by the people who own the country, and so on. Readers of The Sun, according to the wags, didn’t care who ran the country so long as she had big knockers. Perhaps today they would quip that that classification contains Daily Star readers, rather than the more rounded 21st-century Sun devotees.
Some would construe this summing-up of the Daily Star as negative criticism, but Greenslade is full of praise. "They are very good at what they do," he says. "They have made a great success of it. To have achieved a circulation of 930,000 is a triumph."
And he finds one of the most positive things about the newspaper is that it does not demolish reputations. "It doesn’t do anything nasty on the people it features," he says. "It isn’t annoying people in its pages."
Another view from the outside salutes the Daily Star formula because it works. Raymond Snoddy, the respected media editor at The Times, observes: "They’re clearly getting the readers by very obviously giving them what they want. It is what young men want – lots of sex and sport and hardly any sign of boring stuff such as politics. It is well done and cost-effectively done."
Snoddy harks back to the Jameson declaration in 1979. "They haven’t changed their philosophy at all," he says.
Scotland may be a special case. The Daily Star has increased it circulation north of the border too but the 30p cover price may be a big factor here. Scott Horan, forecasting and data manager of the Daily Record and Sunday Mail, does not regard the Daily Star as a threat to his titles but concedes that the newspaper has been highly successful. However, he attributes its popularity to the price and free offers such as CDs, and he finds its readers are mainly males in their teens and twenties "who like a bit of fun".
While the Daily Star picks up readers with "scantily clad women on the front and showbiz news and gossip", the Daily Record maintains its family newspaper approach.
Long ago the Daily Record ditched its topless girls and now sells on its more conventional image. "Our newspaper has an entirely different readership and we are not frightened by the Daily Star. Ours is a Scottish newspeper."
Any likelihood of copying the Daily Star formula? "I dread the day," says Horan. "We tend to take things a little more seriously."
Media people on the outside are clearly convinced that the Daily Star is succeeding because sex, sport and showbiz sell, but how do they see it on the inside? "We have caught the imagination of a young audience," says Roland Aganbar, the marketing director. The newspaper has set out to attract those readers with what appeals to them, such as sport, television and music, he says.
Bob Nuttall, the circulation director, adds to the flavour that draws in this young audience. "We give the readers what they want," he says. "They like a nice girl on the front, and we found early on that it influenced sales. The newspaper is laddish to a degree but there is a family aspect there too, there is good sport coverage, and it is very good for racing.
"Many of the youngsters read it to see what the pop groups are doing. If there is something happening in the fashion world the Daily Star is there. And at the weekend we have a supplement giving the week’s television listings."
Nuttall believes the lighter touch of his newspaper extends to its political and moral stance. "We don’t lecture," he says. "The Sun can start lecturing you."
The readers being gathered up must come from somewhere, of course. "Undoubtedly, they’re getting the low end of Sun and Mirror readers," says Greenslade. "I suspect they are mainly younger people, and probably also heavily male and heavily northern."
Aganbar agrees that until fairly recently the readers were predominantly in the north of England. However, the newspaper has conducted a drive in the Carlton television area, and new readers here have helped to push up the circulation figure. "We have grown in areas where we were weak," says Aganbar.
Nuttall thinks the new readers of recent years have come mainly from The Sun, but there is a sector that is possibly more significant. Nuttall believes the youth appeal is persuading school-leavers, who have not bought newspapers before, are picking up the Daily Star, maybe for the sport or the music news. "And they may stay with you for life," says Nuttall.
A similar view is expressed by Snoddy. He suspects the newspaper is taking some sales from The Sun and the Daily Mirror, but is also reaching people who don’t normally buy a newspaper.
The rest of the national press is noticeably quiet about the success of the Daily Star.
To Barry Allsop, the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday circulation sales manager, it is a downmarket newspaper on which his organisation has no view. "We don’t tend to take very much notice of it," he says. He adds, significantly: "The Daily Star is still increasing its sales."
The Sun spokeswoman said a competitor’s circulation was "not generally the sort of thing we would comment on", and Trinity Mirror, the Daily Mirror’s parent company, "doesn’t usually comment on a rival".
The Financial Times and The Independent had nothing to say, and Bob Steadman, circulation manager at Guardian Newspapers, said: "It’s off our radar." Nevertheless, he believed the Daily Star had "done a good job, concentrating on the basics of circulation".
The proof of the pudding is in the figures. Last year’s March-August average from the Audit Bureau of Circulation was 797,367. This year the corresponding figure was 876,868.
The monthly figure for August 2003 was 928,572 and the latest statistic, for September, was just above 922,000.
A final word from Nuttall on the newspaper’s success: "It’s on the pace."