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Media: No quick cure for newspapers suffering from poor circulation: As the Times tries to win readers with a lower price, Richard Woods looks at the social factors behind declining broadsheet sales

NATIONAL newspaper sales are continuing to fall despite the apparent end of the recession, and the Murdoch newspapers are seeing if there is anything they can do to stop the trend. On the heels of the Sun's summer 5p price reduction comes the Times experimentally reducing its price by 15p, to 30p, in parts of Kent.

News International seems to have identified pricing as the key to keeping readers and attracting new ones. Is this just another example of the broadsheets doing today what the tabloids did yesterday, or does the Times have a special insight into the cost-recession psyche of broadsheet readers?

The evidence suggests that News International's strategy is misguided. Newspaper readers, especially readers of broadsheets, are singularly price insensitive.

According to the Henley Centre's research for its Media Futures study, 10 per cent of readers changed their newspaper last year. Of those, just 5 per cent cited price as the reason for defecting from their former favourite.

More important reasons were style of reporting, content and simple weariness with the politics of the newspaper. Indeed, there is a surprising level of ignorance among readers about the cost of their daily paper. Since 29 per cent of them have their paper delivered (rising to 48 per cent among daily broadsheet readers), many are not reminded daily of how much they cost. There is evidence to suggest that small but frequent price increases are largely unnoticed by a high proportion of readers.

The main impact of price cuts is to create publicity that can be used to chide rival titles. Hence the Sun could deride the Mirror's increase to 27p as a levy to finance the aftermath of Robert Maxwell's fraud and then attempt to deliver the killer blow to its rival with its summer price cut. While this strategy may work for popular tabloids, it seems unlikely to be as effective in the Times' three-pronged battle for readers with the Independent, Guardian and Telegraph.

Wider social issues, rather than price, explain the broadsheets' continued circulation decline. The breakdown of traditional patterns of employment has meant the reduction of home delivery and the increasing vulnerability of newspapers to sporadic 'whim' purchases of different titles. And with more professional people working from home, they are no longer in a position to pick up their newspaper from the railway station every morning.

This has been exacerbated by television's role as the principal purveyor of national and international news. The electronic media can offer greater immediacy and a sense of occasion and excitement that is beyond the capacity of print.

This is particularly true where young people are concerned. The problem here is the emergence of widespread aliteracy - a growth in the number of people who, although they can read, do not see reading as a pleasurable activity.

Many younger consumers now appear to regard reading newspapers - especially broadsheets - as involving hard work rather than pleasure. This phenomenon began in the United States and has spread here. In 1976 in Britain, 83 per cent of those between the age of 15 and 24 regularly read a daily paper, but by 1992 this had fallen to 59 per cent.

The other main cause of falling circulation is self-inflicted. The number of pages in national newspapers increased by up to 50 per cent during the Eighties. The expansion of the Saturday broadsheet packages, with magazines and extra leisure sections, has threatened the circulation and advertising of the Sunday broadsheets.

The Sunday broadsheets in turn have so much reading matter that people may still be reading them on Monday, the lowest sales day for most quality dailies. And the addition of specific subject sections - media, health, etc - means that readers sometimes cherry-pick and buy a paper only on the days that they are interested in a particular section.

For all these reasons, price cutting is unlikely to arrest declining circulation in the long term. Instead, broadsheet papers will need to attract and retain new young readers and persuade them to persist with the newspaper habit. They have to perform a careful balancing act, by appealing to the higher visual literacy of youngsters weaned on video and computer games, while retaining the allegiance of their ageing existing readers with different values and interests.

The writer is an analyst at the Henley Centre and co-author of 'Media Futures'.