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Can the web buoy papers as print rapidly sinks?

A closer look at the newspapers' plummeting circulation figures.

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

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.