The paper does have a website (private-eye.co.uk), but to read full stories from the latest issue, readers have to buy it at a newsstand or sign up for a subscription.
Editor Ian Hislop recently appeared before the Leveson Inquiry, the British government investigation into the press following the phone-hacking scandal at News Corp.’s News of the World tabloid. Hislop told the inquiry team he thought newspaper companies were crazy to give away their products for free on the Web.
“I can’t see why journalism, which at its best is a noble craft, should be given away,” he said.
Wall Street Journal columnist Brett Arends followed up on Hislop’s comments. Hislop, who has been editor of Private Eye since 1986, said that during the late 1990s, when everyone was rushing to get on the Internet, he decided it was all madness. “Everyone was putting stuff up on the Internet. Everyone said, ‘You’ve got to get (the Eye) up there, you’ve got to get it out there, everyone wants everything for free.’ I just couldn’t understand how it would work,” he said.
Hislop said he was skeptical of the business model from the beginning, and others in the industry warned him he would lose readers. But when Arends checked with the Audit Bureau of Circulations, he found that the complete opposite was true.
According to ABC, 10 years ago, the Eye had average yearly sales of 176,000 copies. Last year, the paper saw a 17 percent increase to 206,000 copies. All but 2,000 of those copies were fully paid sales either from the newsstand or through subscriptions. During the past 10 years, the Eye has also increased its cover price by 50 percent, and its recent special 50th anniversary issue sold at an all-time record of nearly 268,000 copies.
While many other papers are seeing a drop in circulation and revenue, Arends said the Eye has kept itself “distinctive and valuable” with its spoof news stories, humorous cartoons, political gossip, and old-school investigative reporting.
The Eye is published every two weeks, and Arends said the paper is considered required reading for higher- end consumers. “The Eye has also succeeded because, quite simply, it has refused to devalue itself by giving its product away for free,” he said.
Hislop offered this advice: “Don’t give the stuff away. The industry’s going to die if you don’t believe in it.”