War sells serious newspapers

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The Independent Culture
THE NATO bombing of Yugoslavia began only a week before the end of March, so it is still too early to say what the true impact of the conflict has been on newspaper sales.

Nevertheless some trends are emerging. The broadsheet dailies have had a better month than the popular market, while in the Sunday market only The Independent on Sunday and the News of the World managed to increase sales compared with February.

When Diana, Princess of Wales died, quality newspapers did better than tabloids, and some pundits believed that this phenomenon was owed to a rejection of the popular press by the public because of the manner of Diana's death. However, others saw it as a natural trading up by newspaper readers at the time of a big event - they simply wanted more information and a different type of news presentation.

Early indications from the Yugoslavia conflict may show this happening again. The BBC's news is attracting bigger ratings than ITV, so to make a crude comparison, broadsheets may also benefit.

This effect will be exaggerated if a ground war begins and Nato forces start to suffer casualties. Many readers will not want their serious war coverage sharing pages with the latest soap star's love life.

As the conflict has progressed there has been a blurring of newspapers' editorial lines on the rights and wrongs of Nato involvement - the refugee crisis has moved the debate on to tactics and the need for ground forces. Although opinion pages were more divided in the first week - the week covered by March's figures - those opinions seem to have had little effect on sales. The Express, which was highly supportive of the Government and Nato, is down month on month by 0.5 per cent whereas the Daily Mail, which has been much more critical, continued its relentless rise, up 0.67 per cent.

But forces other than the war affected March's figures. The Independent won a series of industry awards which it promoted in an advertising campaign, both of which contributed to the largest month-on-month and year-on-year increase in sales in the broadsheet market. Indeed only The Sun registered better growth in March and The Independent is up 4 per cent on last year - giving the paper its largest market share since November 1997.

Neither the war, nor a books for schools promotion, seems to have stemmed The Times's long-term decline. The Thunderer fell more in March than any daily paper with the exception of the ailing Daily Star. In January 1998 it was selling 95,000 more copies a day than the 746,403 it is selling now. The benefit of the paper's price differential seems to be diluted with every passing month. The pattern of its decline has not been uniform. The paper's circulation fell for the first five months of last year before rising slightly after a promotional push. Then it fell every month for three months before more promotions brought the figures back up. This has been repeated at three-month intervals, but each time the promotion buys the paper fewer and fewer new readers.

At first sight The Times seems to need a lesson from its sister title The Sun. For the first time since Robert Maxwell owned The Mirror, The Sun is on sale at the same price as its great rival. Given that it has put on sales in March - it was up 3.1 per cent for the month and had its first year-on-year sales increase for 30 months - this makes David Yelland look like a genius who can put on sales while raising the price of his paper. In fact the price increase helped fund an estimated spend of pounds 14m on promotional give-aways and regional price cuts in the first three months of last year. Although 30p is The Sun's headline price, it has been on sale in Scotland for 10p, and has also been sold at a discount in Northern Ireland and in the Central ITV region of England. This has been combined with its "millionaires" game and the books for schools promotion.

The Guardian seems to have recovered after its six-month period of weakness in the second half of last year. It is back to hovering around 400,000 copies a day.

The slight redesign the paper unveiled yesterday is regarded as an attempt to safeguard that stability, rather than an effort to put on new sales.

Its sister paper The Observer, at 401,403, has fallen two months in a row from an advertising-supported high of 419,000 in January. As with The Guardian, stability is defined as around 400,000 copies.

Slightly more fraught must be the conversations at The Sunday Telegraph. Quietly, and without anyone noticing, Dominic Lawson's paper has dropped 50,000 sales a week since the beginning of last year. No Sunday broadsheet has picked up that many buyers, so we must assume that Lawson's paper has been funding the growth of the Mail on Sunday, up 70,000 in the same period.

The Times and The Sunday Telegraph have been the sales successes of the Nineties, wooing readers with price cuts and subscriptions offers. Now that those "bought" readers are seriously leaching away, a serious news story may have come just in the nick of time.