Media: Analysis: Dailies battle-scarred in the circulation war

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THE KOSOVO conflict has destroyed an old newspaper adage: that wars are good for circulation. The broadsheets in particular expended considerable resources and massive space on the conflict; but where there have been circulation rises, they have in the main been negligible. And The Guardian, The Times, Daily Mail and The Sun all lost readers during the course of the war. It may be confirmation that television is the primary source for daily war bulletins. But I suspect there is a different and slightly odder reason. Harsh as it sounds, it could be that the lack of a ground war may have lessened readers' appetite for in-depth accounts of what was happening. Certainly, there was no scope until this week for the tabloids to follow the trials and triumphs of "our boys in the Paras". Now that British troops are in Kosovo, albeit with a rather different remit from a month ago, newspaper circulations could benefit from a public interest that will go beyond the quick fix of a television news bulletin.

May did, however, prove a good month for The Independent, The Daily Telegraph, The Express, The Mirror and The Star, which all registered rises in the daily market. The Independent's daily sale of 225,207 is its highest since January 1998, and its fifth consecutive month-on-month increase. The 2.4 per cent year-on-year increase is the highest of any broadsheet paper, and its share of the broadsheet daily market now stands at 9.33 per cent, its biggest market share since 1997.

The Guardian's 1.12 per cent monthly drop to 397,675 from 402,182 has an added significance, as these are the first full month's figures since its redesign and the accompanying advertising promotion, and represent its lowest monthly sale since December. Redesigns rarely put on sales dramatically overnight, but the circulation drop may well cause a few questions to be asked in Farringdon Road.

In the Sunday market, The Observer will be cursing those missing 75 readers who would have kept its readership above the psychologically important 400,000 mark. Every newspaper will take note of the success of The Sunday Times in one week in May. Though its circulation fell by 0.33 per cent to 1,397,596 during May, it had one extremely good week, registering a sale of more than 1.5m when it published a Star Wars supplement. Whether this is a sign that film tie-ins will take the place of book serialisations as a broadsheet circulation booster is uncertain. But it is a possibility that is sure to be explored.

The Mirror Group presents a mixed picture in the week when it could in theory change ownership. The report by the Competition Commission into bids for the group has been considered by the Government. The two regional chains, Trinity - which owns the Belfast Telegraph - and Regional Independent Media, are hovering over the company.

The group's own titles have had fluctuating fortunes in May. The Mirror itself has regained its lead over Daily Mail, selling 2,348,959 to the Mail's 2,331,296. The Mirror has recorded a 0.77 circulation rise over April, while the Mail (and its Sunday sister) lost readers. As the article below on the Associated freesheet, Metro, shows, Daily Mail may now be in the awkward position of having created a monster that is eating away at its own readers.

The Sunday Mirror had an unusually successful month, with a 4.05 per cent increase putting it above 2 million. But the Sunday People suffered a 2 per cent drop. The latter's long-term difficulties in finding a role in the Sunday market are unlikely to be a serious concern for potential buyers. The improving health of the two main titles is the more important factor. Mirror editor Piers Morgan offers an interesting reason for The Mirror's growing readership. The paper now takes a less aggressive stance to the stars that form its staple diet. The potential here is both fascinating and frightening. If being celebrity-friendly really does put on readers, it could mean a gradual farewell to snatch pictures of TV stars, and lurid details of their marriages. It could also, of course, lead to a popular press that bears more than a passing resemblance to Hello! magazine.

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