Media: Mirror, Mirror on the ball

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The Independent Culture
FOR THOSE who scratch their head in wonder at some of Piers Morgan's obsessions, July's newspaper circulation figures offer a salutary lesson. The Sun, The Express, the Daily Mail and all the broadsheet newspapers lost sales compared with June.

Meanwhile, to the bemusement of many, Mr Morgan's Mirror seemed to spend most of the month worrying about Manchester United not being in the FA Cup. Now we know why. The tabloid increased sales by a healthy 3.7 per cent, an average 85,000 copies a day. This is not only good going for the height of summer, when many people are on holiday, but it is also the paper's best sales figure since February 1997.

It is at least partly accounted for by a price-cutting exercise by The Mirror in Scotland, Wales and the regions. But that had started in June, a low sales month, and The Sun has anyway been matching the cuts, but its sales fell by 0.8 per cent. Credit, it seems, is due to Mr Morgan's hunch that football can sell newspapers even in the close season. It seems less likely that his campaign for a memorial to Diana, Princess of Wales will translate into the same sales figures for August, which is probably why the campaign stopped dominating his front pages after a few days.

The other element in The Mirror's success is that it is priced the same as The Sun in the whole of the UK for the first time since the early Nineties. The gap between the two is now at its smallest for six years.

An insider at the Mirror Group has even confessed that July's sales are so unexpectedly good, they will mess up the group's circulation graphs next month and next year, when they come to compare their performance with July 1999.

While the summer holidays can account for the depressing performance of many titles in July, a worrying long-term trend is illustrated by the year-on-year figures. The Independent was the only broadsheet to show a sales increase compared to July last year and in the six months to July was up 2.12 per cent on the same period in 1998.

Of the tabloids, only The Mirror, Sunday Mirror and The Mail on Sunday increased their sales compared with July last year. Despite the MoS's growth, it looks increasingly as if the heat has at last gone out of the growth of the Daily Mail and its Sunday sister. For much of last year the Mail was increasing its sales by about 5 per cent per month. This year that has slowed right down to less than 2 per cent growth most months. It fell 0.22 per cent between June and July this year, when last year in the same period it grew by 1.4 per cent.

Conversely, The Express seems to be slowing its decline slightly. Month- on-month sales falls this summer have been about 3.5 per cent, when late last year they often doubled that. But the Sunday Express still looks mournfully weak, and fell below the crucial one million mark again last month.

Among broadsheets the July sales fall was fairly consistent; The Times, The Guardian, The Independent and the Financial Times all fell by almost identical percentages last month - just under 2 per cent compared with June.

The Times is down 6.2 per cent compared with July last year, which is nearly 50,000 copies a day. If we compare the trend over the last six months things look no healthier. Between February and July this year The Times has been selling 4.8 per cent fewer copies than it did during the same period last year. It is to be hoped that The Times's new section three is, like most editorial additions, intended as a long-term circulation aid, because the advertising and marketing that went with its launch in June have done nothing to help its short-term sales.

The only comfort for all those titles that have seen their sales fall in July compared with last year is the hope that the World Cup gave newspapers a boost in the summer of 1998. In fact, at the time it seemed that there was little sign of a great sales improve-ment last summer - despite much expensive marshalling of editorial resources. It may just have been that without the World Cup things would have been even worse.