Do you really want news on the mobile?
On The Press
Sunday 16 July 2006
Few bottles of champagne were opened when the newspaper sales figures emerged on Friday. It was not, in general, a day when chief executives called editors into their offices for a ritual round of mutual congratulation. The numbers were not good.
Total newspaper sales have been in decline for years now, and those who take their conversations gloomy (journalists have that tendency) have been predicting the end for a long time. This is one of those months when they will make more noise about the death of newspapers. Already I have read one online column by a commentator who says the dream of a world full of serious newspapers selling more and more copies is over.
I take a different view. The world is changing, of course, but it is not changing so fast that we are near the point where little Annie is asking "What's a newspaper, mummy?"
But first the messages of the June circulation figures. There was hope in some quarters that the World Cup would help, with England's breathtaking performances drawing fans by the thousand to the newsagent to read yet more about what they had seen last night. Pity about the England performances. There were one or two spikes - like England's exit from the competition - but this seldom translated into more than a few thousand extra sales.
It is not unusual for newspapers to sell fewer copies in June than May so I prefer to look at year-on-year comparisons. Not that this presents a much more cheerful picture, but it is better to base one's gloom on more reliable data. Of all the daily papers, in every section of the market, only the Financial Times and The Guardian sold more copies in June of this year than last, the latter having been through its format change less than a year ago and still reaping the benefits.
Its Sunday stablemate, The Observer, together with The Independent on Sunday (both also still feeling the positive effects of a reduction in size) and The Mail on Sunday are the only Sunday titles to have gained sale.
Everywhere else are minus signs. One area of the market where publishers should be most worried is the Sunday tabloid sector. The People has been haemorrhaging sale for some time and continues the trend by losing more than 10 per cent since June last year. The Sunday Mirror is another of the big losers. It does not help Trinity Mirror that it owns both titles. The News of the World drifts on down.
Richard Desmond's Express and Star titles continue to lose sales both daily and Sunday. It is true that they have been reducing bulk sales (low price to airlines and hotels), but this excuse is running out of time.
The Daily Mail and The Mail on Sunday, had a good month, apparently arresting some recent slippage. The pair have been spending heavily on the promotional add-ons like DVDs, CDs and books, but then they always do. The language courses - a good idea copied from the Independent titles - have proved very popular.
It is suggested that sales generated by other than journalistic means - the add-ons, the price cutting, bulks and subscription sales, the crockery, air and rail tickets and all the other promotional ruses - are phoney. I don't think we can see it this way any more. While it remains true that additional sales gained through the promotional route seldom stick, and that the most reliable buyers of a newspaper are those who enjoy reading it, a sale is a sale. There is nothing new about inducements to buy newspapers - such devices were employed throughout the last century. And we don't think "two for one" makes the packet of sausages dangerous.
Newspapers have always lived in a ruthlessly competitive market, and so it remains. It is perhaps even more so today because it is a declining market and the competition is so much more than just other newspapers. It is still a profitable market, even if some of the publishers seem to be rushing around in confusion, clutching on to the latest trend, buying any website on the market, seeking to publish on anything from a wristwatch to a car door.
Online news is a wonderful addition to our range of sources, and will be there in some form for ever, just like radio, TV and newspapers. I don't myself want news on my mobile. Actually I don't think many do - information, like goals, yes; news headlines, no.
While we're at it, how many times have you, or anyone you know, ever listened to a newspaper podcast? I am particularly interested in replies from those who do not work in the media.
Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield
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