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

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Junior doctors’ strikes: the greatest union failure in a generation

The first wave of junior doctor contract impositions began this week. Here’s how the BMA union failed junior doctors.

In Robert Tressell’s novel, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, the author ridicules the notion of work as a virtuous end per se:

“And when you are all dragging out a miserable existence, gasping for breath or dying for want of air, if one of your number suggests smashing a hole in the side of one of the gasometers, you will all fall upon him in the name of law and order.”

Tressell’s characters are subdued and eroded by the daily disgraces of working life; casualised labour, poor working conditions, debt and poverty.

Although the Junior Doctors’ dispute is a far cry from the Edwardian working-poor, the eruption of fervour from Junior Doctors during the dispute channelled similar overtones of dire working standards, systemic abuse, and a spiralling accrual of discontent at the notion of “noble” work as a reward in itself. 

While the days of union activity precipitating governmental collapse are long over, the BMA (British Medical Association) mandate for industrial action occurred in a favourable context that the trade union movement has not witnessed in decades. 

Not only did members vote overwhelmingly for industrial action with the confidence of a wider public, but as a representative of an ostensibly middle-class profession with an irreplaceable skillset, the BMA had the necessary cultural capital to make its case regularly in media print and TV – a privilege routinely denied to almost all other striking workers.

Even the Labour party, which displays parliamentary reluctance in supporting outright strike action, had key members of the leadership join protests in a spectacle inconceivable just a few years earlier under the leadership of “Red Ed”.

Despite these advantageous circumstances, the first wave of contract impositions began this week. The great failures of the BMA are entirely self-inflicted: its deference to conservative narratives, an overestimation of its own method, and woeful ignorance of the difference between a trade dispute and moralising conundrums.

These right-wing discourses have assumed various metamorphoses, but at their core rest charges of immorality and betrayal – to themselves, to the profession, and ultimately to the country. These narratives have been successfully deployed since as far back as the First World War to delegitimise strikes as immoral and “un-British” – something that has remarkably haunted mainstream left-wing and union politics for over 100 years.

Unfortunately, the BMA has inherited this doubt and suspicion. Tellingly, a direct missive from the state machinery that the BMA was “trying to topple the government” helped reinforce the same historic fears of betrayal and unpatriotic behaviour that somehow crossed a sentient threshold.

Often this led to abstract and cynical theorising such as whether doctors would return to work in the face of fantastical terrorist attacks, distracting the BMA from the trade dispute at hand.

In time, with much complicity from the BMA, direct action is slowly substituted for direct inaction with no real purpose and focus ever-shifting from the contract. The health service is superficially lamented as under-resourced and underfunded, yes, but certainly no serious plan or comment on how political factors and ideologies have contributed to its present condition.

There is little to be said by the BMA for how responsibility for welfare provision lay with government rather than individual doctors; virtually nothing on the role of austerity policies; and total silence on how neoliberal policies act as a system of corporate welfare, eliciting government action when in the direct interests of corporatism.

In place of safeguards demanded by the grassroots, there are instead vague quick-fixes. Indeed, there can be no protections for whistleblowers without recourse to definable and tested legal safeguards. There are limited incentives for compliance by employers because of atomised union representation and there can be no exposure of a failing system when workers are treated as passive objects requiring ever-greater regulation.

In many ways, the BMA exists as the archetypal “union for a union’s sake”, whose material and functional interest is largely self-intuitive. The preservation of the union as an entity is an end in itself.

Addressing conflict in a manner consistent with corporate and business frameworks, there remains at all times overarching emphasis on stability (“the BMA is the only union for doctors”), controlled compromise (“this is the best deal we can get”) and appeasement to “greater” interests (“think of the patients”). These are reiterated even when diametrically opposed to its own members or irrelevant to the trade dispute.

With great chutzpah, the BMA often moves from one impasse to the next, framing defeats as somehow in the interests of the membership. Channels of communication between hierarchy and members remain opaque, allowing decisions such as revocation of the democratic mandate for industrial action to be made with frightening informality.

Pointedly, although the BMA often appears to be doing nothing, the hierarchy is in fact continually defining the scope of choice available to members – silence equals facilitation and de facto acceptance of imposition. You don’t get a sense of cumulative unionism ready to inspire its members towards a swift and decisive victory.

The BMA has woefully wasted the potential for direct action. It has encouraged a passive and pessimistic malaise among its remaining membership and presided over the most spectacular failure of union representation in a generation.

Ahmed Wakas Khan is a junior doctor, freelance journalist and editorials lead at The Platform. He tweets @SireAhmed.