Newspaper circulations are falling more than you think

Media - Bill Hagerty

There are, as Disraeli did not say, three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and newspaper circulation figures. The Audit Bureau of Circulations report for last month shows that most national titles fared rather poorly in June. But this is not true. Most national titles fared absolutely terribly in June.

On 16 July, the Sunday Times, never slow to kick a competitor when it is down, pre-empted the ABCs with a full-page business section story on the parlous state of the Independent and the Independent on Sunday. The Sunday Times pointed out that the circulations of the two titles are being inflated by ever-increasing numbers of bulk sales and copies sold at less than full price.

On 17 July, the Guardian published the ABCs for June, giving the Independent's circulation as 225,898, slightly up on the previous month, and the IoS circulation as 243,154, a worrying 2.79 per cent down on its May average. But although the figures indicated that Dr Tony O'Reilly's flagship titles are having trouble staying afloat in increasingly choppy waters, the Sunday Times had already torpedoed them by claiming that the Indy is really selling fewer than 90,000 copies a day at the full cover price, and that the IoS has lost 77,006 full-rate sales in two years - a fall of more than a third.

The full and detailed ABC figures confirm that the bulk sales (papers sold in quantity at a cheap rate and often given away in hotels or on board aircraft) and copies sold at a discounted cover price have grown hugely for both the Indy and the IoS over the past year. For example, the total of bulk and discounted sales for the IoS in June of last year was 33,472. Overall circulation is down by only around 0.5 per cent year on year, but last month a total of 120,185 copies were unloaded at less than the proper cover price.

It is unfair to pick solely on the Indy and IoS. Jiggery- pokery to bloat circulation figures has been going on for years - at one paper where I worked, we were constantly amazed that the English Channel was not blocked every Saturday night by the number of "bulk" copies being thrown overboard from ferries to prevent them sinking under the extra weight.

The Sunday Times was careful to acknowledge that it has bulk sales of "around 34,000" - tiny on a circulation of almost 1.34 million. It failed to mention, however, that the Times, 2.46 per cent down year on year, in June disposed of 211,671 copies of its 723,928 sale at less than full price. A year ago, discounts accounted for fewer than 100,000.

The reliance of the Daily Telegraph and its Sunday sister on cut-rate subscription sales has been well documented, and Conrad Black can, and does, argue the merits of such sales - money in the bank in advance and guaranteed continuity of readership being just two of them. But in June, the daily paper, down both on the previous month and year on year at 1,029,108, got rid of more than 122,000 copies at less than cover price in addition to its subscription sales of almost 300,000. Again, the number of full-price copies sold has fallen dramatically over the past year.

Two more examples before we all go number blind, if only to illustrate that the middle market is not immune and that the mass market is not quite the mass we are led to believe.

The struggling Daily Express, the poor relation of whatever financial Goliath emerges now that United News & Media and Carlton Communications have been given the go-ahead to hold hands, appears to be clinging on by chewed fingernails to the million mark. But take away the bulk and discounted sales, and it is wallowing at not much more than 950,000, while its Sunday sister's full-price circulation is below 800,000. As for the Sun and the Mirror - as ever locked in mortal combat, with the former boasting a lead of 1,340,316 over its red-top rival - both have vastly increased their bulk sales over the past year. But the Sun has the most - the gap between the two titles is, in fact, reduced to 1,046,226 if only full-price sales are counted.

Roger Eastoe, the managing director of Trinity Mirror's national papers, says that the company makes sure that bulk sales are never more than 2.5 per cent of a title's true circulation. The Audit Bureau of Circulations put a ceiling on bulk sales in July 1998, he points out. "So you cannot just flood hotels and restaurants with copies any more. The occupancy rate of hotels and number of seats in restaurants have to be taken into account."

Some magazines, claims Eastoe, have bulk sales that make up as much as 20 per cent of their true circulations. In newspapers, the largest level of bulk copies is in the quality market. They are using the device to bolster circulation more and more, he says - "after all, they are the papers wanted on the airlines" - and suggests that bulk sales have contributed up to 25 per cent of Sunday Business's circulation since it increased its cover price to £1. As for the reduction in cover price that so many publishers also now adopt, Eastoe asks, with only minimal exaggeration: "How many times a week does the Evening Standard publish at full price?"

No matter how deep the pockets of their proprietors, it is hard to see all current titles surviving. Ever-increasing bulk sales and heavy discounting can lead only to financial suicide. Thumbing idly through Pressures on the Press, published by the late Charles Wintour in 1972, I noted that the average circulation of all national newspapers at the time, when bulk sales and discounting were but a gleam in a circulation man's eye, was well in excess of 40 million. Currently, it is a little over 27 million - as long as you don't look at the figures too hard.

The writer is a former editor of the People

This article first appeared in the 24 July 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Miserable small-mindedness