9 AUGUST 1975, Page 23


Falling sales

Robert Ashley

I've said. it before and I'll say it again: the newspaper industry is in 'a bad way. Just how bad is shown by the latest Audit Bureau of

• Circulation figures for the first six months :of this year. They are appalling. Compared with the same period last year, every single paper, daily, Sunday, evening, quality or popular, with two minor exceptions, is down by varying amounts. The Sun is one of the exceptions, having put on 131,625, an increase which, in the circumstances would be remarkable if it were not for the 'fact that the figure is probably merely a reflection of the extra copies of the Sun sold during the Mirror's prolonged Easter strike. Without those extra copies, the Sun would be like all the rest.

It is only when the figures are looked at in some detail that the size of the catastrophe is evident. The Daily Express has lost one third of a million, slumping from. 3,226,936 to 2,894,156, and its Sun • day stablemate has dropped over a quarter of a million, from 4,059,983 to 3,786,354. In fact all the popular Sundays have copped a packet. The News of the World is down by over 200,000, the People by 168,000 and the Sunday Mirror by a walloping 286,000.

The second exception to this tale of disaster is the Evening News which, on Saturdays, has picked up just under 28,000. But even that, which sounds like a triumph, is really rather dreadful. Because the Evening Standard, which sells just under 500,000 Monday to Friday, doesn't print on Saturday. When it did, it used to sell about 350,000. Which means that the

• Evening News has managed to pick up about 8 per cent of those

; potential customers, and the only word for that is pathetic. • The qualities are doing badly too. The Sunday Times has dropped over a 100,000, the Observer over 70,000, and the Sunday Telegraph has dropped just over 20,000. The Daily Telegraph is nearly 75,000 down, the Guardian nearly 30,000 and the Times nearly 25,000. The Financial Times has only dropped 12,000 but as its circulation is much smaller than the others, the proportionate loss is about the same as the others.

The picture is much the same for the popular dailies. The Mirror is sinking nearer and nearer to the 4 million mark that inspired Rupert ". Murdoch's famous bet about the Sun getting there before the Mirror, with the important reservation that the Sun would get there on the way up, while the Mirror would do it on the way down. The Mirror dropped over 170,000 during the first six months of this year, although there is little doubt that a lot of that (for the figures are, of course, averages) is due to the millions of copies they lost during the Easter battle with Sogat. The Mail remains resolutely, and puzzlingly, in the 1.7 million bracket, having dropped 38,000 as compared with last year. Puzzlingly, because its team of writers is still the best of them all, and it must be a sore disappointment to Associated Newspapers that the re-launch as a tabloid now four years ago, has had so little success.

All in all it is a depressing picture. Undoubtedly it is the worst slump Fleet Street has seen since the war. So why is it happening? There seem to me to be two explanations, one which has been operating over a long period, the other more recently. The first one is that as more people took to driving to work they bought less papers. Train and bus commuters need something to read on the way in and out. Car commuters don't. But it is the second reason which is the important one. The days when you could put a sixpence on the counter and pick up a couple of papers have gone forever. Six old pence wouldn't buy you even half of one of today's papers. It makes you think when you realise that if you take all the Sunday papers — and a lot of people used to — then it will now set you back the equivalent of fourteen shillings, and if you take all the national dailies your weekly bill will-be well over £5. The thing that managements have always feared is happening. People have developed a resistance tb recent cover price rises. The sky is not the limit after all. There have been too many price rises in the last year or two for a lot of peoples pockets. which is where their money is tending to stay.

Since I make a habit of looking on the bright side, I must say that the slump in sales may not be a bad thing in the long run. It may make the industry look very much more closely at the way it works. Unions may be forced to realise that managements do not have money to burn any more. And, provided that cover prices can be held somewhere about where they are now, the public may gradually get accustomed to paying a lot more for their papers than they have done in the past. The British have been conditioned to cheap papers, largely because there has always been too high a dependence on advertising revenue.

If we arrive at a situation where sales revenue and ad revenue are more evenly balanced, then the newspaper industry will be a sight healthier, with the result that fluctuations in circulation won't be as potentially lethal as they are today. And do the gigantic circulations of the past matter all that much any more, if your dependence on ad revenue is lessened? One chief executive seemed to me to have the right idea, an idea which is becoming accepted more and more in Fleet Street, when he said to me, "To hell with selling more than the others. I don't mind being second to the Daily Wonder, or even third, so long as we're profitable. Profitability is the name of the game these days."