Bill Hagerty on the press U

Sunday has changed, but the papers haven't woken up yet
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The Independent Online

A journalist friend tells me he has cut from three to two the number of newspapers he sees on a Sunday. He dispensed with The Sunday Times and, after the initial withdrawal symptoms induced by cold-turkey abstinence from what is still widely considered an essential part of the weekend, discovered he didn't miss it. He is now considering giving up another of his Sunday reads. "The truth is," he says, "I no longer see the point of the Sunday papers."

A journalist friend tells me he has cut from three to two the number of newspapers he sees on a Sunday. He dispensed with The Sunday Times and, after the initial withdrawal symptoms induced by cold-turkey abstinence from what is still widely considered an essential part of the weekend, discovered he didn't miss it. He is now considering giving up another of his Sunday reads. "The truth is," he says, "I no longer see the point of the Sunday papers."

There's no doubt that, in an industry where many national titles are slowly, and possibly irrevocably, sliding downhill, the Sunday sector is desperately trying to avoid plunging over the precipice and into the abyss.

Whereas the shrinking in page size of this newspaper, as well as The Times and The Scotsman has breathed new life into the quality daily market, the Sunday broadsheets continue to struggle, with no similar big idea in sight. With the exception of The Observer - holding on to its circulation, but constantly depleting the war-chest at Guardian Media Group - the outlook is bleak. As for The Business, it may boast a circulation inflated to more than 200,000, but it is coming close to giving away more copies than it actually prints.

The reasons for the emasculation of what was once a mighty Sunday press have been well documented. Over the years, with the relaxation of trading and licensing laws, the nature of the day itself has changed. Competition for the reader's time from a myriad of television channels is overwhelming. The world-wide web has spun seductively into the homes of those who once wouldn't boil a kettle until the newspapers arrived.

Far from Sunday being a day of rest, for the national press it has meant working harder than ever to offer readers irresistible inducements to stay loyal. Only they haven't. In terms of editorial content, the Sunday diet is much as it has been for years, except that there is more of it. My friend's Sunday Times may have been useful had he wanted to construct a model of the Great Wall of China, but rarely offered anything he felt was absolutely essential to read.

But, if the broadsheets are suffering and the mid-market titles moribund - the powerful Mail on Sunday and puny Sunday Express have employed expensive CD give-aways to maintain a false glow of health - the once-astronomical red-tops have haemorrhaged sales.

Even the News of the World, king of the hill and with a propensity to break more big stories than the Sunday Times has hot caffé lattes, has slipped below the benchmark 4 million figure and looks unlikely to regain it. As for its competitors, only the Daily Star on Sunday, embarrassingly under-resourced but snaffling a downmarket readership with soaps, "stunnas" and free pints of beer, can celebrate a year-on-year increase.

Meanwhile, Trinity Mirror's double-act of the Sunday Mirror and The People drifts towards the sunset, with a profits-hungry management failing to provide the kind of investment or encouragement that might enable the titles to escape from the News of the World's shadow. On a Sunday when the NoW, at 80p, delivered a 96-page paper plus a 24-page football insert, a 40-page television listings guide, a 64-page magazine and a free CD - who could resist "Sex and the CD"? - its lookalike, read-alike rivals were anorexic by comparison.

Last month the Mirror group announced The People was to lose 16 journalists so more could be spent on marketing aids, presumably of the free CD or beer variety. The way things are, free rides into the valley of journalistic death will soon be on the agenda.

Unstoppable rise of the grey pound

On the same day, two media stories jostled for attention. The Pink Paper, Britain's only national weekly newspaper for the gay community, had closed. Conversely, Saga, the group providing various services for the over-50s and publishers of an eponymous, thriving, monthly magazine, has been sold for £1.35bn.

The demise of the 17-year-old weeklywas, according to its publishers, due to the emergence of gay internet sites that shredded the paper's advertising income. Yet with 44 per cent of the country's population over 50 (it will reach 50 per cent with 20 years) the grey sector is less vulnerable. Why, then, are there so few publications dedicated to a demographic group containing vast amounts of disposable income and with leisure time unavailable to those chasing careers or raising families? And why don't the major wholesalers realise this is an area of publishing to be exploited, rather than tucked out of sight behind Zoo or Nuts?

Richard Ingrams's quirky Oldiewas almost strangled at birth by a reader-unfriendly title and by its then over-ambitious fortnightly appearance on newsagents' shelves. Now a monthly, it has found an audience among greys. Yet WH Smith has, short-sightedly, cut back on the number of its outlets that stock it.

Were I tempted to invest in a new publishing venture, I know what colour my pound would be.

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