Media: Saucy scoops fail to cure weak circulation: Led by mass-market tabloids, most of the national papers continued to lose readers in 1992

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The Independent Online
THE PRESS is supposed to be a mirror of society, so it is appropriate that the national newspapers should, like nearly everyone else, have had a rotten year and be looking forward to a worse one. Even the voluminous chronicling of disasters in other quarters - the Royal Family, the Government, the Balkans - has failed to halt the long-term decline in newspaper sales.

The unrestrained tabloid coverage of the first two of those subjects has made it almost certain that there will be powerful pressure this year for legislation to curb perceived excesses. And the recession has meant an ever-deeper slump in advertising revenue.

The most recent figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulations, covering the six months to 30 November, tell a depressing tale, particularly for the mass-circulation tabloids. Between them, the Sun, Star and Daily Mirror (with the Glasgow Daily Record), were down by 274,661 copies a day, compared with the same period a year earlier - a drop of 3.4 per cent.

On Sundays, the mass-market picture is even bleaker. The News of the World, Sunday Mirror and People dropped by 430,657 copies between them, a 4.3 per cent fall.

When critics accuse the press of dabbling in sensationalism to increase sales, they might reflect that this aim, whether defensible or not, is not always realised. A particularly saucy scoop, such as the Daily Mirror's discovery of taped conversations between the Prince of Wales and Camilla Parker-Bowles, may result in increased sales for a day or two, but unless the higher circulation is sustained - and it seldom is - it does not translate into extra advertising revenue.

The papers facing the greatest and most painful changes are those of the Mirror Group, still in the hands of the official receiver after Robert Maxwell's death more than a year ago. Since David Montgomery, former editor of the News of the World and Today, was appointed chief executive, there have been many changes, including the loss of scores of casual jobs.

Two of the group's three papers already have new editors. Richard Stott was never likely to stay long at the Daily Mirror after trying to lead his own management buy- out. It is too early to tell whether his successor, David Banks, will be able to grab Sun readers by an apparent strategy of moving the paper marginally down-market.

Bill Hagerty's departure from the People can be put down to its year-on-year circulation fall of 7.2 per cent, the worst performance of any national paper except the desperate Sunday Sport. It was, though, surprising that he should be succeeded by Bridget Rowe, whose tenure at the Sunday Mirror was marked by a year-on- year fall of 4.3 per cent.

In contrast, the middle-market tabloids have had a good year. There have been strong performances from the Daily Mail, up 3.2 per cent, and, in particular, Today, up 15.4 per cent, although still by far the weakest tabloid with a circulation of 539,284.

The Mail on Sunday also did well, but not as well as its chief rival. The Sunday Express, which switched in July from broadsheet to tabloid under its new editor, Eve Pollard, has cut the Mail on Sunday's lead to 218,845. The Mail on Sunday enjoyed an exceptionally strong November, however, increasing its weekly circulation by 73,962 in a month when the Sunday Express's circulation fell by 25,261.

The year has been mixed for the broadsheet papers: they have done well on Sundays but poorly during the week. The total market for quality dailies has contracted by 29,329 year on year, or 1.16 per cent. The Daily Telegraph and the Times fared worse, down 2 per cent and 1.8 per cent respectively, although the Telegraph remains a long way ahead of its three rivals, with sales of 1,038,792.

The Guardian's introduction of a tabloid second section every day, and a revamped Weekend section on Saturdays, has been well received, defending the paper's circulation from the erosion affecting all its rivals except the Financial Times. At the Independent, work on the daily paper's first significant redesign since its launch in 1986 is at an advanced stage.

The Times's circulation has not responded to changes made by its new editor, Peter Stothard. A plan to relaunch the Saturday Review on glossier paper with a content less like a Sunday supplement and more like the Independent's Saturday magazine has been postponed.

On Sundays the broadsheet picture is rosier, with a net increase of 57,080 copies. The only one of the four competing titles not to share in this gain is the Observer, down 4.2 per cent despite an expensive relaunch of its colour magazine. Nude pictures of Madonna, published in the second week of the relaunch, won many extra readers, but they did not remain with the paper.

Best performer of the Sunday quality quartet was the Independent on Sunday, up 7.7 per cent, although still with the lowest circulation of the four at 404,534. The Sunday Times, at 1,195,227, remains dominant, with a 3.9 per cent gain partly attributable to its serialisation of Andrew Morton's book on the Princess of Wales.

The explanation for the slow drift of readers away from the mass-market tabloids could be their increasing stridence and intrusiveness in reporting scandals involving politicians and the Royal Family. With their circulation base dwindling, the papers vie to provide ever-more-hysterical revelations. This appears to alienate more readers, making the market still more competitive.

At the end of its second year, the Press Complaints Commission has given a confident account of itself to Sir David Calcutt, who next month will deliver to the Government his second set of recommendations on preventing press intrusion into privacy. The commission's self-satisfied view was not endorsed by most of those giving evidence in the past few weeks to the Commons committee looking at the Labour MP Clive Soley's Press Freedom and Responsibility Bill.

Senior press executives believe Sir David will recommend legislation to ban the use of secret recording devices and long-lens cameras on private property - as he has suggested before - and perhaps the establishment of a press authority with statutory powers. The Government ignored his earlier recommendation, but recent lobby leaks suggest they might feel obliged to act this time, especially as the Conservative papers have become less loyal allies since the general election.

Such restrictions - although loudly opposed by editors on principle - would be unlikely to affect the papers' commercial future as much as changes in the economy would. An end to the recession would increase advertising revenue and help pay for promotion to increase circulation.

So when the papers aim editorial darts at the Chancellor of the Exchequer they are driven by that most potent of motivators - self- interest. Until the green shoots of recovery burst into flower there will be no return to the expansive mood of the late Eighties and no return to prosperity in the print.

----------------------------------------------------------------- NATIONAL NEWSPAPERS: average sales ----------------------------------------------------------------- June-Nov 1991 June-Nov 1992 % change DAILY Sun 3,687,455 3,554,833 -3.6 Daily Mirror/Record 3,656,549 3,558,753 -2.7 Daily Mail 1,681,789 1,735,737 +3.2 Daily Express 1,540,357 1,529,273 -0.7 Daily Star 849,814 805,571 -5.2 Today 467,407 539,284 +15.4 Daily Telegraph 1,059,546 1,038,792 -2.0 Guardian 411,324 411,509 0.0 Times 388,819 381,854 -1.8 Independent 375,110 372,243 -0.8 Financial Times 287,423 288,495 +0.4 SUNDAY News of the World 4,847,850 4,700,208 -3.0 Sunday Mirror 2,814,607 2,692,654 -4.3 People 2,240,964 2,079,902 -7.2 Mail on Sunday 1,944,047 1,984,123 +2.1 Sunday Express 1,657,114 1,765,278 +6.5 Sunday Times 1,150,010 1,195,227 +3.9 Sunday Telegraph 567,672 573,897 +1.1 Observer 556,505 533,325 -4.2 Independent on Sunday 375,516 404,534 +7.7 Sunday Sport 366,091 299,477 -18.2 -----------------------------------------------------------------