Setting Sun highlights need for web figures

It feels like the end of an era: 33 years and 11 months after the "Super Soaraway Sun" burst through the three million mark, its December 2007 sales figure fell below that for the first time, according to the latest figures from ABC.

Will News International's market-leading red top ever again have the confidence to assert "It's the Sun wot won it," as it did after John Major's victory in April 1992? Probably: December circulation figures are notoriously poor. With price-cutting and giveaways, 'The Sun' should soon creep back above three million.

Its rival, the Daily Mirror, may also recover from December's decline to just under 1.5 million daily sales, but the popular tabloids are in trouble. Now it's possible to imagine the Mail overtaking The Sun. With the Mail at 2,310,672 sales in December, their circulations are converging.

Competition is ferocious but paid-for papers are experiencing their bleakest years since broadcast news destroyed their monopoly in the 1960s. In the year from December 2006, national dailies' circulation fell by 1.99 per cent to 11,287,246. Sunday titles suffered more, shedding 4.74 per cent.

The Financial Times, though, continued its rise, increasing daily sales by 2.62 per cent on the year.

New Times editor James Harding may have experienced a moment of insecurity on glimpsing the latest figures. His title had a poor December, shedding 3.4 per cent of sales on the month before, compared to falls of 0.94 per cent at The Guardian, 1.06 per cent at The Daily Telegraph and 2.15 per cent at The Independent.

The good news is the mounting proof that established brand names have huge value in cyberspace. Online readers of The Independent and Independent on Sunday rocketed in 2007. The Daily Mail boasted nearly 14.5 million unique users in November, putting it ahead of and Times Online, but behind Guardian Unlimited.

Digital publishing lets papers expand their readership, and last week the World Association of Newspapers launched a website to promote the use of cross-media audience measurement. There is the revenue out there to support quality journalism, but until advertisers grasp the value of combined print and digital papers, they will not pay top rates for online campaigns.

Tim Luckhurst is professor of journalism at the University of Kent