Analysis; Tabloid sales tell a story of shock and horror tabloids

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The Independent Online
GIVEN MAY'S newspaper sales figures, it is no wonder the German publisher Axel Springer has decided not to enter the UK market. Every single daily newspaper, with the exception of The Independent, lost sales, and every single Sunday, apart from the Sunday Express, did the same.

A smattering of bank holidays and the school half-term during May will probably get the blame for the lower sales, but it seems increasingly as if the summer downturn is coming early to the newspaper market this year.

The biggest loser between April and May in the daily market was the Sun which lost nearly 50,000 sales a day. The bad news for the advertising sales team was that the paper lost 4.42 per cent of its share in the popular mid-market. The loss of likely advertising revenue and the loss of more than pounds 300,000 a month in cover price revenue may together explain the departure of Stuart Higgins as the paper's editor rather better than his wish for fresh challenges.

The Sun's loss was the greatest in absolute terms because it still has the biggest daily sale, and its percentage loss month on month of just 1.3 per cent looks modest. But the paper lost almost 70,000 in sales the month before and that is a lot of cover price money to lose for any proprietor to take repeatedly on the chin.

The Mirror lost about half as many as the Sun, and at a slower rate than last year, proving that Rupert Murdoch was probably right to extract Kelvin MacKenzie from Canary Wharf. Still it is a measure of the state of the red-top tabloids that slowing down sales loss is what qualifies you to be a newspaper genius in the Nineties.

The Mirror still only has a 21.5 per cent share of the tabloid market, compared with the Sun's 34.2 per cent, so it would not do to overstate the Sun's decline.

MacKenzie's changes to the Mirror seem to have put off the psychologically damaging moment when the Daily Mail overtakes the mass-market title. In May the Mirror managed to increase the gap between the two from around 18,000 to 25,000. Whether it will be able to maintain the gap when new Audit Bureau of Circulation rules come into force is debatable.

The new rules will tighten up the use of so-called "bulk sales" of newspapers to organisations that give them away free. Deliveries of newspapers to hotels and train companies and the like will be more closely monitored and the use of piles of free papers in retailers will be outlawed. The Mirror's circulation last month contained 34,000 in bulk sales, so its lead over the Mail will depend on how many pass as legitimate under the new rules.

The other psychological hurdle narrowly missed this month was at the Observer, where it clung by its fingernails above the 400,000 mark. It remains above that mark by just 2,000 copies and lost 13,000 in May. Barring an England World Cup win, next month should see the title fall into the 300,000s.

And England would probably have to win to save the Observer's position. Despite all the money spent by newspapers on star columnists, special supplements, advertising and give-away promotions, there is no hard evidence that circulations are lifted significantly by the World Cup.

To compare sales during Euro 96 with the same period the previous year shows that the only newspapers that recorded a sales rise across the month were the Sun and the Times, both of which did so throughout that year thanks to price-cutting.

The last time England played in the World Cup finals was 1990, and then there was a very small sales lift for all papers compared with the previous month. All newspapers' World Cup activity seems to be more about holding readers than about gaining them.