As the compacts grow, the tabloids feel the squeeze
Sunday 11 December 2005
The relaunches and the downsizings, the hype, the endless "What do you think?" conversations, have all taken place. Is the new Sunday Telegraph like an iPod? Well, it's a lot bigger; it isn't even a compact. Is the Berliner-format Guardian beautiful, as some of its staff will tell you? Does The Independent on Sunday "work better" as a compact?
Such conversations are more enjoyable than studying figures, but the day of reckoning comes, and it comes with data, not opinion. We have now had a full (circulation) month of the "new" Sunday Telegraph and Independent on Sunday. We have had two of the "new" Guardian. December's figures will tell a partial story, as they will be distorted by public holidays and priorities greater than newspaper reading. So the latest (November) figures, just published, give some first indications of the results of all the investment and change this autumn.
We will need to leave it another few months before we try to answer, in each case, the "has it worked?" question. Editors and publishers are selective in the figures they use - whichever shows them in the best light - and circulation departments will regularly deploy the dark arts to massage the figures. A few more copies in the column marked "foreign sales" (so hard to check) can turn a minus into a plus. And then, of course, there are the DVDs, the quick-fix boost for a day, which every publisher disparages and every one uses.
Although costly, change and innovation have worked. All three titles mentioned above have improved their sales performance. The Guardian is selling 6.3 per cent more copies than the same month last year, The Sunday Telegraph 3.0 per cent more, and this newspaper 6.3 per cent more.
The earlier innovators, the daily Times and Independent, which made dramatic gains when they shrunk, have both entered a more mature period. Both sold more copies than they did a year ago, The Times 1.3 per cent, The Independent 0.4 per cent. The Sunday Times, the super-tanker of the Sunday quality market, is also up (2.3 per cent). In fact in the quality, former broadsheet market only two titles have lost sales year on year: The Observer (down 5 per cent), which will adopt The Guardian's format in the new year, and The Daily Telegraph (down 1.5 per cent), which has had a fraught year and currently lacks an editor.
The top of the market is, then, in reasonable shape, despite the gloom and pessimism about newspapers in general over the past few months. It is the mid- and tabloid market sectors that are taking the hit. There are worries about advertising and profits, and a new round of cost-cutting is under way. Every midmarket and tabloid newspaper, daily or Sunday, has lost year-on-year sales, apart from the News of the World, up 2.8 per cent. None has fared worse than the Express titles - daily down 10.8 per cent, Sunday down 12.5 per cent, the Star down 6 per cent, Star Sunday down 15.3 per cent. This is serious.
Young guns, old guard
One of life's trickier moments is the first time a prime minister is younger than you. The 1997 general election was therefore a difficult moment. Did one follow one's political inclinations and concede to the younger generation, or cling unconvincingly to youth by voting Major, the older man?
Now it is much worse. We are perhaps only a general election away from anybody aged 40 today being older than the PM. If you work as a journalist in the Commons you can find yourself face to face with the problem, literally. The problem, known as Cameron, has been in the House just four years.
Trevor Kavanagh, political editor of The Sun, and Michael White, political editor of The Guardian, have been in the House much longer than that. And both are standing down from political editorship. Cam-eron's accession does feel a bit like the end of an era. Journalists tend to work in Parliament for a very short time or for most of their careers, as have Kavanagh and White. There is no journalistic area where reporter and reported are closer than politics. They share a building, its corridors, bars and restaurants.
The most senior of the political journalists have known four, perhaps five, prime ministers. There can be dangers in journalists getting too close to their sources, and in the past the cosiness of the lobby system has compounded this. The best political journalists combine intimacy with detachment. White and Kavanagh are still sceptical after all these years. Though they come from such very different papers, they are both greatly respected by their peers and those they write about. They even look very similar, now Kavanagh has removed his beard.
Goodnight, Sir Trevor
And finally, farewell to Trevor McDonald, who delivers his last ITV News this Thursday. It is not surprising that he is so revered by so many; he has that defining characteristic, love of cricket. He is also the most unassuming person you could meet. Utterly without side. He provided Rory Bremner with one of his funniest subjects, and brought dignity and authority to television news when it can so easily seem slight.
Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield
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