'FT' proves it's not only sex that sells

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"Tickle the public, make 'em grin, the more you tickle, the more you'll win," advised a verse coined to describe the scandal-mongering "New Journalism" of the 19th century. Now the tactic is working for the Daily Star Sunday. Total sales of Sunday papers declined by 3.73 per cent between August 2006 and last month, according to the latest figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulations, but Richard Desmond's sex-and-celebrity red-top achieved a 26.45 per cent annual leap. A month-on-month surge of 24.04 per cent took its sales to 533,248.

Deputy editor Michael Booker crowed about "stuffing" the opposition, boasting: "We've got the best staff serving up an untouchable mix of fun, sport, babes and news."

At first glance its rivals seem to have little ammunition to fire back. Trinity Mirror's People crawled up 0.54 per cent month on month, but was down by 13.8 per cent on the year. The Sunday Mirror declined by 2.58 per cent annually and the market-leading News of the World by 5.28 per cent. But closer analysis suggests there is life in the pop-tabloid formula. Six-monthly comparisons show the People, Sunday Mirror and News of the World all recovered from a poor start to 2007. Their daily counterparts – The Sun, Daily Mirror and Daily Star – also increased their sales on the half-yearly comparison.

Sales were less encouraging at The Sunday Times. It shed 12.14 per cent year on year, falling from 1.4 million sales in August 2006 to 1.2 million last month, with a modest monthly improvement of 1.8 per cent. The Observer performed better, with a 0.63 per cent increase year on year marred by a 0.57 per cent monthly decline.

Outgoing Sunday Telegraph editor Patience Wheatcroft can look back with pride. The paper declined 1.88 per cent year on year but showed a 0.74 per cent rise between July and August. The Independent on Sunday's circulation fell by 3.03 per cent on the annual calculation and by 2.19 per cent over the month.

Among dailies, the Financial Times can celebrate, recording a year-on-year increase. Owner Pearson can be confident that its flagship enters the fray with Murdoch's newly acquired The Wall Street Journal in robust health.

Elsewhere, gloom is universal. The daily market declined by 2.29 per cent to 11.83 million, compared to the 14.9 million bought 20 years ago. Competition is ruthless, which is largely positive as quality at every level reflects huge efforts to stem the tide. And the FT's success suggests breasts and bottoms is not the only way to go.

Tim Luckhurst is professor of journalism at Kent University