Media: Analysis: Have travel token, will buy

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The Independent Culture
COLD, GREY January. A time for staying home at weekends and curling up with a newspaper. At least that's what seems to have happened, according to the latest monthly sales figures for newspapers.

While almost every newspaper registered an increase in January compared to the low sales month of December, it is the Sunday titles which have made some of the most spectacular gains. In all, five Sunday newspapers increased sales by over 5 per cent month on month. But from the tabloids to the broadsheets, from specialist titles to regional ones, Sunday was a good news day and every title showed some kind of increase.

The Sunday Mirror led the way with a 9.56 per cent increase, taking it to back above the two million figure. The paper is being made more "family friendly" with expanded editorial to add value to the product - however, that is yet to kick in and, as ever in the newspaper market these days, when you see a spectacular sales rise the best clue usually comes from looking at what the paper was giving away.

During January the Sunday Mirror has been giving away Lucky Bags, its own version of the Mail's Lucky Wallets, proving that there is no such thing as an original idea in newspaper marketing. The People, which saw sales rise by 3.85 per cent, had something called an Instant Money Bag.

The News of the World, which raised sales by 6.2 per cent, spent its money on editorial rather than giveaways. In particular, it bought up the story of the couple who married in a radio station competition so it could tell its readers whether they had sex on their wedding night. It managed to prevaricate for a page and a half before informing its readers that they hadn't. If they had, presumably their story would have been worth more.

The Mail on Sunday relied on one of the oldest chestnuts in the business, the annual horoscope for the year, and spent heavily on television advertising to promote it. But this had only limited success. The paper's sales went up by just 0.43 per cent compared with December, but then again, it was the only title not to fall in December and so had no ground to make up.

Money just seems to burn holes in the pockets of Associated Newspapers, so a raft of editorial changes to the MoS are planned for March. The Programme television supplement will be wrapped inside the magazine, Night and Day, making it a weighty, 96-page magazine on the first issue. At the same time the Family Mail section is to be replaced by a new review section.

The other hoary old January special in newspaper marketing is the travel giveaway. Because people are being bombarded with adverts from real holiday companies, newspapers decide to get in on the act and blatantly give away tickets. The Express on Sunday, which is to be renamed The Sunday Express because that's what everyone calls it anyway, The Mail on Sunday and the Sunday Mirror all decided to give away flights, ferries or holidays to France, the favourite country of newspaper marketing departments. The French must be groaning under the weight of British newspaper readers grasping two-for-one tokens.

Despite all this expensive effort, the inexorable downward movement of tabloid newspapers just kept on going. The red-top and mid-market Sunday tabloids sold an average 400,000 copies fewer in January this year than they did last year.

In the Sunday broadsheet market, the recovery of The Observer, which was hinted at in the gloom of December, made itself apparent. The Observer is now well above the 400,000 mark at 419,000, just a few thousand below its figure for January 1998. Either this is the paper's natural bottom limit - given that its weird layout experiments during 1998 pushed away even some core readers - or the rise is down to a rare burst of television advertising and the offer of free flights, free CDs, free holidays and free tickets for the Monet exhibition.

The Times and Sunday Times have both benefited from their heavy spending on television for the Books for Schools promotion, so The Sunday Times is the only Sunday broadsheet not to be down compared to January 1998. In fact the Sunday broadsheets sold 64,000 copies a week less than they did last year.

Unseen on the above table are good signs of growth from other Sunday papers. Sunday Business is now selling 53,000 copies a week and, thanks to its low base, it is up 11 per cent on December. Sport First, the other Sunday newspaper which was until recently given no chance, is now selling 84,000 copies each week. Sport First benefited from some television advertising and the two titles are on their way to proving the case for specialist newspapers on Sundays.