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Media: Analysis: The cruellest month

DECEMBER IS not a good month for newspaper sales. Christmas holidays and disrupted commuting patterns hit newspaper sales every year. Even the bombing of Iraq, the impeachment of a president and the loss of two Cabinet Ministers could not generate enough interest to save the nationals from a general fall.

The most glaring evidence of this effect can be seen on the London Evening Standard sales. The Standard's six month average is just 0.24 per cent down on the last six months of 1997. Yet its sales in December collapsed by 10 per cent thanks to the disappearance of commuters.

Yet the "December effect" cannot cover the fundamental ill-health of many newspapers. Even compared with December 1997, only four newspapers managed any kind of growth.

The Star's December sales, down 2.29 per cent month-on-month, down 9 per cent year-on-year and down 10.5 per cent over the last six months compared with the same six months in 1997, must give credence to some of the worrying rumours coming from the Express Group's Blackfriars headquarters.

Lord Hollick is said to have begun serious discussions about cutting his losses on the title and closing it. Clearly, the strategy is not to make the investment needed to let The Star take on its rivals. Most of the time, it can only focus on second-rate celebrity trivia, which The Mirror is proving is not the way to sell newspapers.

Yet it is The Mirror which will suffer if The Star closes, as most of its readers are likely to find a stronger affinity with The Sun. Despite The Mirror's 4.6 per cent fall in December, the title grew in the last six months, compared with the same period the year before. But this growth contrasts with the ailing state of its Sunday sister titles, the Sunday Mirror and The People.

In the last six months, the Sunday Mirror has lost 12.6 per cent, or almost 300,000 sales compared with the year before. The People fared better last month, actually growing slightly month-on-month, but its long term situation is just as precarious. The People has fallen 9.3 per cent, or by 177,000, compared with the year before. Put together, the two Mirror Group Sundays were still selling over half a million copies a weekend fewer than the News of the World.

The other ailing Sunday tabloid is the Express on Sunday. Its long- term weakness helped it fall below sales of 1 million to 973,846. In the last six months it has lost 10 per cent of its sales compared with 1997. Already the title has to discount its advertising space compared with the Mail on Sunday. If it continues to sell under 1 million copies a week, it may soon have to worry that on top of lost cover price revenue it will start to lose advertising.

The only other Sunday title to grow in December was The Observer. It registered an average sale of 398,778. The newspaper is much improved and seems likely to go above the psychologically important 400,000 sales mark soon.