Never mind the web, guv, it's the quality papers what count

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The Independent Online

Last month I speculated that, amid declining newspaper sales, there is some evidence that the market for serious journalism remains strong. October's figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulations have reinforced my optimism. Total sales are down across the board, but quality titles have suffered less than their red-top rivals.

The Financial Times has increased its circulation again, up by 1.85 per cent since September and by 2.19 per cent since October 2006. Among the Sundays, outgoing editor Roger Alton's Observer achieved a month- on-month sales increase of 3.17 per cent and an annual circulation boost of 0.15 per cent. The Sunday Telegraph recorded a month-on-month sales increase of 1.03 per cent. The Sunday Times sold 2.43 per cent more copies.

If this is a trend it is very fragile. Year-on-year comparisons show the quality daily market smaller by 2.4 per cent – from a combined daily sale of 2,768,277 copies in October 2006 to 2,701,701 last month. Sunday qualities slipped by 2.1 per cent, the Sunday red-tops by 2.27 per cent and the mid market Sundays by 3.64 per cent.

The popular daily titles lost just 1.24 per cent of their circulation in the year to October 2007. Last month the Daily Mirror, Daily Record, Daily Star and The Sun sold a combined average of 5,825,499 copies per day, down from 5,898,752 last year.

The Sun deserves special mention. It posted its first annual sales increase since 2003 – just 0.63 per cent, but on a circulation of more than 3 million that's nearly 20,000 extra daily sales. No wonder Rupert Murdoch is investing in all-colour presses. At this rate, predictions of printed news's demise are foolishly premature.

There was another fillip for my theory about quality journalism. The London Evening Standard, made more sophisticated to differentiate it from the free papers, achieved a month-on-month sales increase of 0.48 per cent and an annual rise of 3.77 per cent. The war is not won, but neither is the decline inexorable.

The mid-market titles confirm that. Despite small monthly sale declines the Daily Mail and Daily Express posted annual circulation rises: leaving national mid-market dailies up from 3,139,449 sales to 3,143, 674 since October 2006. It is just a 0.13 per cent rise, but the contrast with commentaries which daily predict the demise of newspapers is stark.

Of course, cynics attribute such achievements to promotion, not content. Their point is facile. In my office I have a copy of a Sidney "George" Strube cartoon from a 1931 edition of the Daily Express. It depicts an editor, seated beneath promotional billboards, telling his journalists: "I've got no room for news tonight Boys." Such gimmicks were part of the newspaper market long before that was published.

So, yes, October's ABCs confirm The Independent on Sunday sold fewer copies in October than in September. So did The Daily Telegraph, Times, Independent and Scotsman. And yes, beneath headline optimism are evidence of hugely increased bulk, discount and overseas sales, traditional devices for massaging circulation.

But if British journalism is not to be undermined by those who should care about it most, something more than a bleak dichotomy between printed pages and websites is required. The internet is fantastic. My students will learn to use it for audio, visual and text-based reporting. But I am convinced the convenience of printed pages makes them too useful to kill.

The Victorian journalist Charles Peabody began his 1882 history of British journalism by praising it for making bribery and corruption impossible. To his generation, newspapers were instruments of progress, servants of the public good. Such pride is sneered at now, but it has additional relevance in the new era. Britain's popular news websites belong to trusted papers and broadcasters; users understand they are an extension of printed parents. Journalists owe it to their profession to promote the underlying economic truth that without the print, the web could not support quality reporting.

Tim Luckhurst is professor of journalism at the University of Kent