Albion Monitor /Commentary

The Times (UK) Defends Microsoft Promo

by Bruce Tober

Staffers and freelancers contributed articles to the supplement

LONDON -- The Times, that bastion of staid, upper-crust, conservative (lower-case as in political philosophy and upper-case as in political party) journalism, that newspaper of record in England, recently showed it's got a soul. Or perhaps that it's sold out.

On August 24, the paper allowed its entire print run to be bought up by Microsoft Corporation. Microsoft then bundled a supplement extolling the virtues of Windows 95 in with the paper and distributed the entire package free, the same day the product was released. Both Times's staffers and freelancers contributed articles to the supplement.

Immediately, a firestorm of controversy broke out on the Internet, mostly among journalists. Many felt the paper's integrity had been diminished by this case of "crass commercialism." Others saw it as "what capitalism is all about."

Can that "commercialism" be looked upon as a means to a justifiable end? The Times' editor apparently thinks so.

Peter Stothard, Editor of The Times, stands by his decision to run the supplement. He says the decision was made as part of an overall strategy on his part to increase the venerable paper's financial strength by increasing circulation.

And increasing a paper's circulation is perhaps even more important here than in the United States. In the States, most cities have no more than one paper, and there are only a handful of national circulation papers.

In England, on the other hand, there are 21 nationally-circulated daily papers, 11 appearing on weekdays and the rest on Sundays. About half of the weekday papers are "respectable broadsheets" like The New York Times; the other half are tabloids, sort of a cross breed of The National Enquirer and the New York Daily news. In addition, most big cities (and many smaller ones) have at least one daily local paper, and many have two or more.

Competition is particularly fierce this year, which can arguably be cited as one of the worst years in recent decades for newspapers. All too many major papers have folded, with many hundreds of journalists thrown out of work.

"The Times has never made anything but big losses"

Almost exactly two years ago, The Times and several of its competitors began a major price war which continued at least a year. Those who could manage to do so -- such as The Times -- dropped their prices significantly. All managed to survive the war, but not totally unscathed.

According to Stothard, this is just the latest salvo in the circulation wars.

"I was asked if I was prepared to accept the insert a few weeks ago," Stothard told me in an exclusive interview the day after the event. "As Editor of The Times I have complete control of what I will accept or not in the paper." That, he said, includes both editorial and advertising material.

"The Times is a paper with very long tradtion and is recognised as a very powerful paper, but it is also acknowledged that it is a paper which has been held back in many respects," he explained. "It is seen as the paper for the elite, only for people working in London. Unless people try The Times, they don't know we're very much the paper for the '90s in the 1990s as we were in the 1890s.

"The Times was very dominant till turn of the century, when the management of other papers cut their prices. Since that time," Stothard explained, "The Times has never made anything but big losses. No one could ever find any way of turning that around.

"This project put The Times in a position of having a viable future for the first time in 80 years, by showing people it's a paper for them." If increasing readership means he has to continue "cutting the price, I will do it," he concluded, "and if it means taking imaginative initiatives like this, I will do it. The people who work here and those who read the paper can either trust me or fantasize about journalism in control of other forces."

Stothard denied the Microsoft insert was an advertising supplement

Amidst all the criticism of the Microsoft episode was the frequently asked question of whether staffers working on the supplement had the option to not participate.

Stothard told me no one was required under force of sanction, or in any other manner, to work on the supplement. "No one gave me any suggestion they were unhappy to be doing this project. I'm the editor and I don't think I've ever forced anyone to write anything they didn't want to write," he said.

Stothard also denied the Microsoft insert was an advertising supplement, "Advertising supplements are different. ***This was a special report or focus section, not an advertising supplement." He likened it to the focus reports on such things as "the plastics industry or Saudi Arabia or any other country that appear occasionally in papers, both here and in the States."

"Microsoft and other ancillary companies advertised in it, very much the same as companies advertise in any other such special section. There are zero implications to journalistic ethics," Stothard added.

Stothard chalked up criticism to jealousy on the part of other, competing papers, and to wrong-headedness on the part of complaining journalists.

In an effort to increase circulation, other alternate methods were open, Stothard acknowledged, "I could have advertised on TV for about 500,000 Pounds Sterling and only stimulated 30,000 trial readers, for example. Instead, I had the opportunity to sell out the entire press run for that same amount and have the paper seen for that day by 750,000 people who wouldn't normally see it."

"I dread the day when an entire medium is for sale one day at a time"

Not everybody's convinced: "Why in the heck didn't The Times just sell a supplement or section instead of the entire issue?" asked Judith Sylvester, Ph.D., assistant professor at Louisiana State University Manship School of Mass Communication, "I dread the day when an entire medium is for sale one day at a time."

But others were not antagonistic towards the marketing ploy.

An editor for a paper in the southern U.S. noted, "if my publisher got a similar offer from Gates, I'd say go for it. But if he said we couldn't print articles critical of Windoze 95 [sic] or Microsoft because Gates bought the press run, a lot of us would be out the door (I mean, if you're going to work in PR, you might as well get paid like a flack)."

In the final analysis, the marketing effort might have been more successful if it hadn't been published the Thursday prior to the last "bank holiday" weekend (British national holiday) until Christmas. And it was one more agonizing day in a heat wave, described as the longest prolonged hot and dry spell in the 300 years Britain has been keeping such records.

Great hoards of people were already on vacation. A great many others were staying indoors and trying to keep cool as best possible. And so, at least in the bigger cities, large piles of the paper were seen unclaimed at train stations and elsewhere.

Albion Monitor September 2, 1995 (

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