To believers in the Fourth Estate orthodoxy that newspapers exist to inform public opinion in the interests of democracy, August was a month that should have delivered readers in abundance. Russian forces in-vaded Georgia. The British economy tipped into recession. US politics came alive.
Britain's quality press responded with superb reporting, analysis and commentary. But the story that emerges from last month's ABC circulation figures is not one of anxious citizens seeking information, at least not from the printed page. Circulation of quality dailies declined by 0.28 per cent. Their Sunday counterparts fared worse, shedding a cumulative average of 0.5 per cent since July. The mid-market dailies were down 5 per cent year on year.
There was not much joy for tabloids either. The Sun did not overtake the News of the World to become Britain's biggest selling paper. Its run of month-on-month increases continued with a rise of 0.48 per cent, but the annual comparison, which has been defying gravity for six months, fell by 0.29 per cent. The Daily Mirror, Daily Record and Daily Star all saw monthly increases, but lost on the yearly comparison.
The popular Sundays managed a collective improvement of 1.55 per cent on the month, which disguised sharp year-on-year declines. The Daily Star Sunday has shed 24.28 per cent of its sales since August 2007. The Sunday Sport lost 16.69 per cent in the same period.
Many 18- to 35-year-olds have never bought a paper. If they consume news at all, they either grab one of the free publications – which have done nothing to persuade their readers to sample the better-quality journalism available in paid-for titles – or consume it online.
The internet is an unstoppable force capable of bringing benefits to billions, but it is also massively disruptive. It has eroded the relationship between professional reporting and informed public opinion. A democratic deficit looms.
Tim Luckhurst is professor of journalism at the University of KentReuse content