Can the web buoy papers as print rapidly sinks?

A closer look at the newspapers' plummeting circulation figures.

Reading the monthly circulation round-up for the national press used to be a little like running your eyes over the football results to see which teams were up or down.

I can recall feeling a little thrill when one of my favourite papers was doing well. 

That's a feeling I haven't felt now since around 2005. Looking at the March figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulations it is increasingly clear that we are in the middle of the biggest shift in the way Briton's consume news and information in modern media history. Not only is every national newspaper title losing sales: the pace at which they are doing that appears to be increasing.

It looks like the era of some media giants (in print anyway) is drawing to a close.

Up until the last decade, the Guardian had a rock-solid circulation at around 400,000. Today, it probably still has that brand loyalty – but not in print.

An increasingly thin print edition (and an expensive one at £1.20 during the week) was down 16.8 per cent year on year to 217,190. You don't have to be a maths genius to work out that falls like that are not sustainable. 

The Guardian is shifting towards being a predominately online brand. The question is whether it can find a way to take print revenue with it so it can continue to employ anything like the 600-plus journalists it currently does. Online, it now reaches more than 4m different browsers a day (source ABC, again). But those 200,000-odd print sales (more on Saturdays) still account for 75 per cent of income.

The Financial Times is also shifting towards a web-only future, in the UK at least – rather more comfortably than the Guardian, thanks to its successful paywall strategy.

Worldwide, FT sales dropped 16.3 per cent to just over 319,000 in March. Of those, just over 65,000 were forking out for the UK edition (full price, £2.50 a day).

Whatever publishers do, print sales continue to drop. Paywall or no paywall.

The UK's most successful newspaper online, the Daily Mail, is also the best print sales performer in the dailies (dropping just over 4 per cent year on year) – suggesting that investment in online doesn't necessarily mean you are pushing your paid-for print readers into a free alternative (as critics of the Guardian's "digital first" strategy have suggested).

But then there is a big difference between paying 55p for the Mail and £1.20 for the Guardian.

The Times dropped 11.7 per cent to 394,102 copies a day in March. But that doesn't include claimed digital subscribers of more than 100,000, giving it a paid-for readership total nipping at the heels of the Telegraph.

The Independent is now selling just 71,000 copies a day at full price (versus paid-for sales of around 210,000 for its cut-price stablemate i) – meaning that some sort of merger of those two titles has to be a possibility.

Totting up the totals there were an average of 9.2m daily newspapers sold per day in March (compared with 9.8m a year ago), and just 8m Sunday newspapers (compared with 9.8m a year earlier when the News of the of World was still around).

The increasing ubiquity of smartphones and mobile broadband appear to be behind the latest dip in the fortunes of print. 

We are a long way from writing off news brands which have shown incredibly resilience since the post-Wapping revolution “golden age” of print profitability in the late 1980s first went into serious decline post-2005.

But these remain scary times for journalists and anyone who cares deeply about journalism. 

Read all about it: the Guardian's income is still largely derived from its shrinking print sales. Photo: Getty Images

Dominic Ponsford is editor of Press Gazette

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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