Readers go cold on sex and celebrity as political intrigue boosts sales of the qualities

According to post-modernist doctrine, news is not a real commodity. It is invented by journalists who construct facts and invent contexts in which they make sense. There are many objections to this nonsense, but September's ABC figures for national newspapers are ideal.

Nobody except the Prime Minister believes he was not planning an autumn election. Throughout September the fact of his scheming was conveyed to readers by political correspondents, and analysed in commentaries and leaders. It may be coincidence, but quality newspaper circulations increased.

Average sales of quality daily titles rose by 2.02 per cent in September, with The Independent up a sector -leading 4.85 per cent and only the impoverished Scotsman suffering a net monthly decline (5.04 per cent). The Times sold 2.45 per cent more copies than in August, the Financial Times lifted its sales by 3.37 per cent and The Guardian climbed 3.32 per cent.

Performance in the quality Sunday market was similar. The Observer sold 6.69 per cent better than in August, The Sunday Times put on 4.55 per cent and The Independent on Sunday 0.92 per cent. The Sunday Telegraph recorded a marginal 0.54 per cent increase. The big loser was Scotland on Sunday, down 7.06 per cent to a mere 74,410 sales.

It might be possible to put this down to seasonal factors. September is the end of the holiday season. Nights begin to draw in and incentives to go out decrease, leaving more time for reading. But the performance of the red-top titles suggests that cannot be the whole explanation.

The Sun's price cut to 20p in the South-east propelled it to a monthly increase of 1.76 per cent, but the Daily Mirror was stagnant (plus 0.15 per cent) and the Daily Star and Daily Record both recorded declines.

It was a similar story in the Sunday market. The Daily Star Sunday's recent successes were marred by a monthly drop of 8.97 per cent. The People shed 2.55 per cent of its circulation and the Sunday Sport crept up by just 109 copies (0.12 per cent). Only the Sunday Mirror (up 1.81 per cent) and the News of the World (2.81 per cent) bucked the trend.

Can it be possible that political news appealed to readers and hyped gossip and naked speculation had less impact? I shall test the theory again next month, when the impact of the Diana inquest should, by this measure, work to the advantage of popular titles. However, one statistic already offers added reason to hope that serious news sells quality papers: the London Evening Standard increased its daily circulation by 4.9 per cent in September.

Assailed from all sides by lighter, less analytical free titles, it added 13,595 daily sales. Even more encouraging are the annual statistics: the Standard sold 0.66 per cent more copies in September 2007 than in September 2006, its first year-on-year circulation increase since 2005.

Standard insiders attribute this to scoops about Madeleine McCann. If they are right, the evidence still hints at interest in real news. Front pages such as "Official: Kate is a Suspect" had the virtue of being accurate and well-sourced.

My post-modernist colleagues will accuse me of "naive empiricism". But papers have long believed that news sells. Proprietor William Randolph Hearst was accused of fomenting the 1898 Cuban war of independence so his titles could profit by reporting it.

Annual figures remain bleak for paid-for titles. The Financial Times did well (up 2.13 per cent year-on-year), so did The Observer (3.11 per cent), reinforcing rumours that editor Roger Alton is being courted by other papers. But total sales were down in every sector of the paid-for market, leaving the "frees" to show their potential. Metro achieved a national circulation of 1,228,950 copies, up 10.29 per cent on August, while City AM neared its 100,000 target with an audited distribution of 99,108 copies.

Web obsessives take note: there are brighter prospects for print than are visualised in your philosophy.

Tim Luckhurst is professorof journalism at theUniversity of Kent

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