End of the line for the Post?

Birmingham's morning paper has been an institution for more than a century. But with sales slipping below 15,000, how long can it keep going?
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The Independent Online

Britain's second city now has a morning paper selling less than the Scarborough Evening News. The Birmingham Post, one of the country's oldest, most respected and most influential regional titles, distributed across a region of five million people, sells fewer than 15,000 copies each morning.

Britain's second city now has a morning paper selling less than the Scarborough Evening News. The Birmingham Post, one of the country's oldest, most respected and most influential regional titles, distributed across a region of five million people, sells fewer than 15,000 copies each morning.

Like all regional daily papers, the Post's circulation has been in long-term decline. But its latest ABC figures are alarming. It suffered a 17.7 per cent year-on-year fall to 14,360; the biggest drop in the country and more than three times the decline of any other regional morning.

Comparable papers in other major cities, such as the Yorkshire Post and the Newcastle Journal, both fell by about 4.5 per cent, but are holding on to sales of 61,000 and 43,000 respectively.

An intelligent paper in a big, regenerated city with a strong business community, the Post now has the third-smallest daily circulation in Britain, ahead of only the Burton Mail and the Paisley Daily Express.

The grim figures have raised questions about whether a paper established in 1857, and with an illustrious history - including a claim to have broken the news of the relationship between Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson - has a future.

A century ago, the Post was one of the newspaper industry's innovators. Led by the son of its founder, John Feeney, it was the first to introduce Linotype machines, and the first to have a London office linked by private wire to its headquarters. Price cutting before the Second World War led to big circulation rises and, post-war, the paper's upmarket news, business and arts coverage made it one of the most respected titles outside London, when sales mirrored those of other big-city morning papers.

Then , in the late 1980s, came a disastrous experiment when the paper was turned tabloid to provide a 24-hour news operation with its sister title, the Evening Mail. About 30,000 readers disappeared and didn't come back even when the Post was relaunched as a broadsheet, a few years later.

Sales appeared to stabilise somewhere in the mid-20,000s in the 1990s, until, in 1999, the new owners, Trinity Mirror, discovered the Post's real sales were 10 per cent fewer than those officially reported.

Trinity Mirror stresses that the latest drop in ABC figures is in no way comparable with what happened then. Instead, there was an oversight in adapting to new ABC rules about how bulk sales could be included in circulation figures. This meant a bigger fall than expected.

The Post's "actively purchased" sales performance has altered, with a slowing of the rate of decline. But still only 90.4 per cent of the title's sales are actively purchased - the second-lowest percentage of regional daily titles - meaning that once all bulks are taken out, its circulation drops to 12,981.

With sales like that, are advertisers still going to be interested? They will be immediately trying to reduce the Post's charges, says Adam Foley, the head of regional press at Starcom MediaVest media buying agency. But he says the Post still retains an appeal for firms trying to reach business people.

Craig Lennon, an associate director of MediaCom Accent, another regional media buyer, says the Post might be forced to offer national advertisers rates so low they would be hardly worthwhile. "If the Post's readership is depleted it is obviously not hitting the right note with the community."

The Post's editor, Fiona Alexander, says the paper has started to arrest the decline by offering more regional news. She maintains that ABC figures mask the true picture of the paper's "phenomenal power and influence", pointing to research showing every copy of the Post is read by nine or 10 people, compared to about three for most titles.

"The Post works for our readers, and it works for our advertisers. It has great credibility in the business community, and is uniquely placed to give advertisers access to this highly desirable market," she says.

For all her optimism, the ABC regional figures suggest that the future may lie with small-town daily and weekly titles. More than half of the weekly titles put on sales, and the top 10 fastest-growing dailies included papers in Torquay, Weymouth, Southend... and the Scarborough Evening News.

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