Black and White and Read All Over: A Guide to British Newspapers

It’s all change in the world of British newspapers.

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After 30 years, the Independent will be online-only from the end of March. At the same time, a brand new newspaper – the New Day – launched on 29th February.
If you’re trying to understand Britain, understanding the newspapers published and read here can be vital. Whether someone is a Guardian reader or prefers the Daily Mail can tell you a lot about them, and not just their politics. The readers of the Daily Mail and the Telegraph probably vote for the same party and support the same policies, but to say that someone is a reader of the Mail conjures up quite a different image from a Telegraph reader.

What does your choice of newspaper say about you?
What does your choice of newspaper say about you?

It’s also important if you are trying to research anything about Britain. An article from the Daily Star should be taken rather less seriously than one from the Financial Times – so knowing the differences between the newspapers can be vital if you’re checking sources. Here are the most important newspapers to be aware of, with their circulation, political leaning, nickname, format and everything else you need to know.

The Broadsheets

Broadsheet newspapers are broadly defined as those who write in depth for an audience interested in serious news writing rather than celebrity gossip or sensationalism. Traditionally, they were published in on a large “broad sheet” but, as you will see from this list, only a minority of British broadsheets are now published in this format.

The Guardian

Launched 1821
Circulation 165,000
Political leaning Left-wing (endorsed Labour in 2015; Liberal Democrats in 2010)
Nickname The Grauniad (for its history of misspellings, now much improved)
Format ‘Berliner’ – a compact broadsheet format not used by other papers

Just make sure the coffee beans are fair trade...
Just make sure the coffee beans are fair trade…

What should you know about it? The Guardian is the newspaper most associated with liberal middle-class Britain: the world of quinoa, sustainability and concerns about gentrification. It’s best enjoyed with a flat white over brunch. Mockery aside, their investigative journalism is some of the best in the business, and the newspaper won with Pulitzer Prize for public-service reporting in 2014. Their popular style guide is written with a sense of humour.

Can you rely on it? The Guardian is one of Britain’s more trustworthy newspapers, and usually wears its political biases on its sleeve, so you can see them coming.

The Telegraph

Launched 1855
Circulation 470,000
Political leaning Right-wing (endorsed the Conservatives consistently)
Nickname The Torygraph
Format Broadsheet

The Telegraph prides itself on its cricket coverage, and is understood to represent "middle-England".
The Telegraph prides itself on its cricket coverage, and is understood to represent “middle-England”.

What should you know about it? Yin to the Guardian’s yang, the Telegraph is a right-wing paper that publishes the regular column of outgoing Mayor of London and prime ministerial hopeful, Boris Johnson. While the Guardianistas are enjoying their fairtrade guacamole, Telegraph readers are filling the letters page with worries about the rising cost of private school fees.
Can you rely on it? The Telegraph has been accused of playing too much to the desires of its advertisers (including not printing important stories about criticisms of their business practices), but its reporting is otherwise well-regarded.

The Times

Launched 1785
Circulation 405,000
Political leaning Centre-right (endorsed Labour in 2005, the Conservatives in 2010, and the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition in 2015)
Format Tabloid
What should you know about it? The Times is (as its launch date would suggest) one of the oldest newspapers in Britain, and if you want to know what contemporary opinion was of any time in the past 200+ years of British history, The Times is a good place to start.

The Times can serve as a useful historical record.

Can you rely on it? The Times is a paper of record, and therefore has a responsibility to be reliable and somewhat politically objective. However, it was bought by the right-wing Rupert Murdoch’s News International in 1981, and has been accused of drifting rightwards ever since. A quick glance at the history of the paper shows that it has never been politically neutral and, bearing this in mind, it remains one of Britain’s more reliable newspapers.

The Financial Times

Launched 1888
Circulation 200,000
Political leaning Centrist, in favour of free trade (endorsed Labour in 2005, the Conservatives in 2010, and the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition in 2015)
Format Broadsheet

The FT: one for the economists.

What should you know about it? The Financial Times is not much like the other papers on this list. As the name would suggest, business and economic news are its priority, so expect to see world events viewed through the lens of their impact on the stock market. It’s known for the distinctive pink paper on which it is printed. It also has a reputation for people buying it in order to look intelligent.
Can you rely on it? Yes, very much so. It’s worth noting that “financial times sca” autocompletes to “Scarlett Johansson” (not one of their regular columnists, unfortunately) rather than “scandal”, which is a good sign for reputability.

The Independent

Launched 1986
Circulation 55,000
Political leaning Centre-left (called for anyone-but-the-Conservatives in 2010, and the Liberal Democrats to stay in government in 2015, with the Conservatives as a preferable coalition partner to Labour)
Nickname The Indy
Format Tabloid

The advent of online content has altered the shape of the Independent.
The advent of online content has altered the shape of the Independent.

What should you know about it? Mostly that it isn’t going to be around much longer. Yes, its content will still be available online, but the print newspaper has always had a more serious tone than its Buzzfeed-esque online content. Its aim on launching was to be centrist with opinion pieces from columnists with a range of political views (hence ‘independent’), but historically this has broadly coalesced on the centre-left. Until 2011, the Indy’s front page carried a banner declaring it “free from party political bias, free from proprietorial influence”, though this has been dropped since its acquisition by Russian oligarch Alexander Lebedev.  
Can you rely on it? Not if you want a paper you can still buy next month. The Independent’s news coverage has been criticised for lacking substance – it’s been called a “viewspaper” rather than a newspaper, promoting opinion over content – but what content exists is generally solid. 

The i

Launched 2010
Circulation 270,000
Political leaning Centre-left (as the Independent, but more student-orientated)
Format Tabloid

The i consciously addresses a degree-educated audience.

What should you know about it? It’s the Independent’s cheaper, shorter sister paper, designed for students and others without the time to read a full-size paper. It’s been a huge success, and its profits helped keep the struggling Independent in print for longer than it might otherwise have endured. It’s right on the border between broadsheet and tabloid, and is probably thrown into the broadsheet bracket mostly because it’s clearly written for a degree-educated audience.
Can you rely on it? Perhaps. While it had the reporting heft of the Independent backing it up, it was as reliable as its sister paper. But with the demise of the Independent in print, it’ll be worth keeping an eye on the quality of the i.

Tabloid newspapers

Thankfully, all tabloid newspapers are published in tabloid format. These are cheaper newspapers and quicker to read, with the balance of news versus other content (gossip, weather, sport and games such as crosswords and sudoku) tipped much more towards the latter in comparison with broadsheets. From here on, the question of ‘can you rely on it?’ disappears, because the answer is a consistent no – while many of Britain’s tabloids do contain some good journalism, they are strongly geared towards sensationalism, not a straightforward presentation of the facts.

The Daily Mail

Launched 1896
Circulation 1,590,000
Political leaning Right-wing (endorsed the Conservatives in 2010 and 2015, calling for anyone-but-Labour in 2015)
Nickname The Daily Fail
Format Tabloid

The Daily Mail is known for its pet topics.
The Daily Mail is known for its pet topics.

What should you know about it? Describing the Daily Mail is hard – it’s the trusted paper of one-and-a-half million people, but it also publishes such predictably sensationalist headlines that someone created a tool to generate them automatically. It’s concerned about things that cause cancer, house prices and immigration – and if there’s a story that combines all three, so much the better. Its website, Mail Online, is the most visited English-language newspaper website in the world. Its ‘Sidebar of Shame’ – a section of the website that focuses mostly on the failings of celebrities – is one of the key draws for its 11 million daily visitors.  

The Express

Launched 1900
Circulation 410,000
Political leaning Right-wing (endorsed the Conservatives in 2010 and UKIP in 2015)
Format Tabloid

Over 60% of Express readers would like to see Britain exit the E.U.
Over 60% of Express readers would like to see Britain exit the E.U.

What should you know about it? While the Daily Mail has cancer and immigration covered, the Express has its own pet topics: namely Diana, Princess of Wales (yes, even two decades on from her death), the disappearance of the toddler Madeleine McCann (which was in 2007, so represents slightly more up-to-date reporting) and the weather (admittedly a perennial topic in the UK). At the moment, it’s notable as the most Eurosceptic newspaper in Britain, with 66% of its readers backing Brexit (the opposite end of the scale to the Guardian, with 75% of its readers backing Remain).

The Mirror

Launched 1903
Circulation 810,000
Political leaning Left-wing (endorsed Labour in 2010 and 2015, calling for anyone-but-the-Conservatives in 2015)
Format Tabloid
What should you know about it? It’s currently Britain’s most popular left-wing tabloid by quite some margin. It was initially launched as a newspaper by women, for women, but this was not a commercial success, so it moved to a broader focus not long after its launch. Though the Mirror is no more reliable than its other tabloid rivals (as a long list of libel suits and front-page apologies show), it tends to escape the harshness of criticism targeted at the Daily Mail and the Express, possibly because of its relatively lonely political position among the tabloid market.

The New Day

Launched 2016
Circulation It will probably end up around 200,000
Political leaning So far, apolitical, but from the publishers of the Mirror
Format Tabloid
What should you know about it? There isn’t yet much to know, except that it’s an interesting choice on the part of Trinity Mirror to launch a brand-new newspaper at a time when most print newspapers are seeing their circulations in significant decline – though the buoyancy of the i and similarly positioned freesheets such as the Metro are presumably what prompted the launch. It’s worth watching what happens to the New Day (for instance, whether it retains its neutral tone or finds a niche on the political spectrum) as an indicator of the general health of print journalism in Britain today.

The Sun

Launched 1964
Circulation 1,775,000
Political leaning Populist (endorsed every election winner since 1979)
Format Tabloid

The Sun is relatively new, having been founded in 1964.
The Sun is relatively new, having been founded in 1964.

What should you know about it? Britain’s most-read newspaper, owned by the same group as the Times, the Sun is the paper to keep an eye on if you want to know the mainstream of British public opinion. The paper claims that its record of endorsing election winners is because of its influence (take its famous 1992 headline on the surprise election of John Major – “It’s the Sun Wot Won It”) but it’s perhaps more likely down to a good instinct for the mood of the country on the part of its editors.

In 1987, the sitcom Yes, Prime Minister had its main character – the Prime Minister, Jim Hackett – give the following speech:
“Don’t tell me about the press. I know exactly who reads the papers: The Daily Mirror is read by people who think they run the country, the Guardian is read by people who think they ought to run the country, the Times is read by people who actually do run the country, the Daily Mail is read by the wives of the people who run the country, the Financial Times is read by people who own the country, the Morning Star is read by people who think the country ought to be run by another country and the Daily Telegraph is read by people who think it is.”
There have been a few small changes since then – the Morning Star, once the newspaper of the British Communist Party, now has a readership of just 10,000 and so doesn’t get included in lists of major newspapers any more (even though it counts the current Leader of the Opposition among its regular contributors), and no Mirror readers are under the impression they run the country any more either – but otherwise it’s remarkably on the money, even down to the fact that the Daily Mail is one of the few newspapers with a majority female readership. Despite falling circulations, closures and controversies, Britain’s newspapers continue to provide a remarkable insight into the way the country thinks, and seem likely to continue to do so.

Image credits: close up of newspapers; flat white; cricket; houses of parliament; calculator; textbook; computer; stack of newspapers; european union flags; magnifying glass; sun front page.

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