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National newspaper circulations: levelling out at last?

11 Nov 2015  |  Raymond Snoddy 
National newspaper circulations: levelling out at last?

We will have to wait with bated breath to see whether October was an anomaly for newspaper circulations - or the first sign of something more important, writes Raymond Snoddy.

The Holy Grail for national newspapers is to find the bottom of the circulation sales decline - after all these years. And once found, even if they can only manage to bump along that bottom, what a wonderful thing that would be.

T.S. Eliot might have said October was the cruellest month. Not for national newspapers it wasn't.

According to the latest ABC circulation figures the national titles as a whole lost just one half-a percentage point in sales and the Sunday papers only 1.5 per cent.

Many companies in most sectors would be horrified by such sales returns but in the newspaper industry this is as close to good news as it gets.

There are always peculiarities in any month to explain away any - in this case good - aberrations in the average.

The Star was up 7 per cent on the back of a 50 per cent cover price cut from 40p to 20p but The Sun, under its new broadsheet editor Tony Gallagher, managed a terrifically flat performance.

The Times was even up slightly last month and stable for the year.

There were some decent events and breaking news stories such as the Rugby World Cup, the near demise of the steel industry and the VW emissions scandal. Yet it is difficult to think that they could account for such a better performance. There are nearly always headlining stories with us.

What if anything do the October figures mean, given that in September the figures were their usual appalling self with the tabloids down more than 10 per cent and even the Daily Mail down 4.5 per cent and The Guardian off by 7.6 per cent?

Optimists believe that the bottom will have to be reached sometime, and the hope is that it is reached before the newspaper industry goes the way of steel and is no longer a pursuit that is viable financially in the UK.

In a rational world it would have been better to be able to tract circulation figures across a number of months with a steady decline in the rate of fall leading to a wondrous reliable conclusion.

Then everyone could announce formally that the bottom has been reached and could now consolidate and maybe even start thinking about some modest growth, at least in line with a rising population.

We will have to wait with bated breath to see whether October was an anomaly or the first sign of something more important.

As David Mulrenan, head of display at ZenithOptimedia put it this week - the printed word is far from dead and if you include online the words of newsbrands have never been read by more people.

There was also good news in October on the financial side for print as Sir Martin Sorrell, chief executive of WPP, went out of his way to emphasise the impact and engagement that print delivers. Many of the fleeting contacts online are with robots rather than human beings he added and half of online video is viewed with the sound off.

At least the editors and journalists are doing their job in creating that impact and engagement and scarcely a day passes without ground-breaking journalism there for all to see.

There is the detailed work by the Daily Mail investigations unit throwing up mouth-watering scoops on the "excesses" of pay, perks and pay-offs in the public sector.

It has already led to Government promises of action although it should also be noted that the exposes were only possible because of the Freedom of Information Act - the very legislation the Government now apparently wants to neuter.

Original reporting and data analysis by The Sunday Times, with help from the German public service broadcaster ARD, also had a significant role to play in the final unravelling of the Olympic blood-doping scandal.

Let's hope such stories provide a circulation boost to the November circulation figures because whatever magical worldwide online figures for newsbrands it is print that still brings in more than 80 per cent of the advertising revenue.

At the same time as there was a small sigh of relief for the October print sales figures Freesat had the simple but intriguing idea of using the BARB television ratings figures to look at what people who subscribe to Sky actually watch.

Because many people use their satellite dish as the entry point for all their television into the home and the replacement for the old TV aerial, the results are not surprising but interesting all the same.

Freesat is nonetheless able to claim that 99 per cent of the top 1000 programmes on Sky last year, which came mostly from the BBC and ITV, were available on free-to-air television. Only 10 on the 1,000 list, they say, were pay only.

The top three programmes in ratings on Sky were all from the BBC - The Great British Bake Off, the live episode of EastEnders and New Year's Eve Fireworks.

The only pay-TV programme to make it big in the ranking list was Game of Thrones which came in at number 368.

Naturally the research is designed to benefit Freesat and highlight how many popular programmes you can get access to without having to pay a subscription.

Sky is of course a subscription, rather than a ratings business, and the only figures Sky is ultimately interested in is the 10.3 million or so people who subscribe in the UK and the average annual amount of money that can be enticed out of them.

Across the Sky group it adds up to operating profit of more than £1.4 billion.

Significant numbers of football fans are prepared to pay up for live games even though the broadcasts are never likely to produce huge ratings.

However self-serving the research, it does highlight the enduring attractiveness of free-to-air programmes from the main national broadcasters, something that subscription services cannot hope to match even on their own systems.

It is another reason, among endless others, why Culture Secretary John Whittingdale should be opposed vigorously if he tries - as seems likely - to reduce the overall impact of the BBC.

He should be opposed on behalf of viewers and listeners, the broadcasting and media industries and the national interest.

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David Pidgeon on 12 Nov 2015
“Well observed - we have made a small tweak to cover the literary imperfection.”
Richard Shotton, Head of Insight, ZenithOptimedia on 11 Nov 2015
“Interesting article - especially the Free Sat research. However, T. S. Eliot said April was the cruellest month rather than October. Perhaps print should hold off celebrating for a few months! ; )”

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26 Feb 2020 

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