Peter Cole On The Press

Journalists may live to fight another day but the sun is setting on soaraway red tops. As newspapers adapt to survive, we're looking at the end of the three-million-copies-a-day tabloid
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The Independent Online

At the Society of Editors' annual conference in Glasgow last week the inevitable debate was about whether newspapers have a future and in what media landscape they will exist if they do manage to survive.

It was all rather upbeat considering the data told of a decline in sales and advertising revenues. Editors were getting on and doing something - giving the paper away rather than charging for it, turning an evening paper into a morning paper, adding new features to the website, turning their reporters into multimedia journalists.

Nobody knows whether any of this is going to work - there is a bit of hysteria in the air and certainties come from those who cannot have any - but you feel better if you are active and "managing change". Jargon can be an antidote to depression, so there was much talk of aggregation, monetising, eyeballs and platforms.

The most disarmingly realistic comment of the conference came from the editor who has done most in developing alternatives to print, Alan Rusbridger of The Guardian. His answer to the question "Where will we be in 2020?" was: "Nobody knows. I don't spend a lot of time thinking about whether or not there will be a paper in 2020 because there's nothing I can do about it."

Scrutinising the latest audited sales figures for the national papers, there is some support for the conference prophets of doom. Andrew Neil, who made his journalistic name editing newspapers and his quasi-celebrity name on television, was bullish about the future of the quality press but pessimistic about the red-top tabloids.

The starkest message from the October circulation figures is how grave is the situation for the red tops and how rapid and seemingly irreversible is the sales decline. It won't be long before The Sun drops below three million. On all the measures - month on month, year on year, six-monthly periods - the best-selling daily in Britain is losing that sale. It is down 3.6 per cent year on year. The Daily Mirror is down 5.0 per cent and the Daily Star 6.0 per cent. Month after month the story is the same.

The Sunday tabloids fare worse. The News of the World, the best-selling paper in the country, is down 8.7 per cent year on year; the Sunday Mirror is down 5.6 per cent, and the real basket case, The People, has crashed 12.9 per cent in a year.

Why should the mass circulation papers be the ones suffering most? Aren't their readers less likely to be migrating to the web?

Young readers and newspapers tend to avoid each other, but this is probably more evident at the red-top end of the market. The diet of celebrity is available elsewhere; sport is better treated on the web; sex coverage, whether it is Page Three, kiss-and-tell or scandal in high places, seems tired. We either fail to be shocked or feel increasingly uncomfortable about press intrusion into private lives.

While you would rather be editing a paper in the quality sector than editing a tabloid, even here you would not find yourself immune from the bad news about circulation. In the daily market, all titles are down year on year, with the exception of the specialist and international Financial Times. All serious Sunday titles are up a bit, apart from The Sunday Times, whose price is now £2.

The Observer is the best performer, still enjoying the positive impact of its smaller format. The Independent on Sunday has moved out of that phase, having been compact more than a year. All the daily and Sunday compacts are selling 30,000 to 50,000 more copies than they did as broadsheets.

The editors in Glasgow agreed that multi-platform publishing - on the web, mobiles, pods, blogs, radio and TV, as well as newspapers - is here to stay. So, probably, are newspapers, free or paid for. Journalists will work across several of these platforms, providing and editing video for the website as well as words for the page. There is demand for content, wherever it is published - and that requires investment in journalism.

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