So that was the silly season. Now it's time to take stock

Big questions loom after a summer of contrasting fortunes at either end of the market

You know the silly season is over when the politicians are back on the airwaves, Humphrys is in full cry, football managers are being sacked and there are no longer articles in your quality newspapers about the decline of Chianti classico or the cost of villas. On newspapers the B-teams who have struggled across the news desert, gently feeding in the timeless rainy-day stories prepared in July, stand aside as the villa-dwellers re-enter, talking of presidential and general elections to come.

You know the silly season is over when the politicians are back on the airwaves, Humphrys is in full cry, football managers are being sacked and there are no longer articles in your quality newspapers about the decline of Chianti classico or the cost of villas. On newspapers the B-teams who have struggled across the news desert, gently feeding in the timeless rainy-day stories prepared in July, stand aside as the villa-dwellers re-enter, talking of presidential and general elections to come.

The newspaper year, like the academic and political years, starts in the autumn, which is traditionally the time when significant changes - new sections, new signings, new features - are unveiled, and money is spent on promotion. It is also a time when editors, and proprietors, take stock, look at overall performance, and decide what needs to be done. The circulation figures provide a basis for such stock-taking.

The August figures are just out. They show that in the daily market the situation is grim for the major red-tops, steady for mid-market, and divided in the quality sector. August, for obvious reasons, is not seen as a good time to sell newspapers, but this year sales have held up, with only two titles losing more than 1 per cent of sale (The Guardian and the Financial Times) and five actually selling more in August than July. The Olympics, perhaps?

The situation was similar on the Sundays. Of the four quality Sundays, only The Observer lost sale month-on-month, with The Sunday Times, Telegraph and The Independent selling, respectively, 1.6 per cent, 2.2 per cent and 4.6 per cent more copies in August than July. (The Independent on Sunday recorded its highest sale for more than year.) Sunday success might confirm the Olympic factor, since Pinsent, Holmes, Ainslie and Wiggins all won their gold medals on a Saturday.

The two issues that will dominate the new newspaper year will be the decline in the tabloid market and the compact factor in the quality market. Consider the five dominant tabloids, and their loss of sale. Using circulation figures giving an average over the past six months compared with a similar period a year ago (this gives a more accurate picture of the trend than the month-on-month snapshot), we see the following: Daily Mirror: down 5.9 per cent; Sun: down 4.9 per cent; News of the World: down 2.1 per cent; People: down 7.7 per cent; Sunday Mirror: down 2.7 per cent. In terms of numbers of copies, the daily tabloid market is down by 240,000 and the Sunday market by 275,000. This is a serious decline, and shows no sign of slowing.

At the other end of the market the story is quite different. The total average daily sale is slightly up, and the compact Independent continues to make an impact: a year from the launch of the small version of the paper, sales are up 20 per cent. The Times, the other quality paper to produce a compact, although it still publishes a broadsheet, has also gained sale by around 3 per cent, and that is from a much higher base. The two titles in between, the Telegraph and Guardian, both remaining broadsheet, have both lost sale, the Guardian most significantly.

The Telegraph's new management, the Barclay brothers, will be the ones to watch in the coming year. Will they, won't they? Go compact that is. And how rapidly will The Guardian be able to progress its "midway" format - bigger than a compact, smaller than a broadsheet? Size does seem to matter.

The Beslan school siege reminded me that the written word can still be the most powerful way of communicating news. I watched the live TV pictures of the horrific denouement for two hours or so. No one could fault the courage of the camera operators and reporters, but as events unfolded they could not know what was happening. And back in the studio they ran the same pictures again and again, because there were no new ones that developed the story.

By contrast, I found the long - descriptive narratives, particularly in the Guardian and Independent as moving, and gruelling, as anything I have read in newspapers for a long while. Somehow they were able to put across the excruciating ordeal of those inside and outside the school in a way the continuous pictures could not.

There are times when the reporting of sport and politics has much in common. You report a match like you report a debate, describing the action. And when it comes to the deep sources and the informed speculation, usually presented as more factual than that, the two disciplines often get it wrong, and are seldom embarrassed by post mortems.

So it is that for day after day Steve Bruce or Terry Venables was going to manage Newcastle United, but the unmentioned Graeme Souness got the job. And Alan Milburn was going to replace Ian McCartney in the Cabinet as chairman of the Labour Party, whereas in fact he became Chancellor (not a word Gordon Brown will enjoy seeing associated with Milburn) of the Duchy of Lancaster.

Good news that England footballers are refusing to talk to the press. Bad news that it seems to be only a one-off protest against some football writers saying some rude things about England players who had played badly in Vienna and achieved only a messy draw. I had hoped we would be spared the inarticulate clichés of the post-match interview for a longer period. This petulant foot-stamping (they should put their feet to better use) by the £40,000-a-week brigade underlines once again how comprehensively they don't get it.

Football is maintained as the huge entertainment industry it is today by being talked about, argued about, read about, listened to and watched. Sky, Radio 5, BBC TV, ITV, talkSPORT, as well as all those sports pages in all those newspapers, turn it from 90 minutes a week into 24/7. Every Ferrari, every cocktail, every bet, every ... no, I shouldn't say that ... for the spoilt, self-obsessed young football millionaires derives from being constantly in the spotlight, thanks to the media.

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield

DIARY

To lose one editor's careless

Has The Observer lost the services of its one-time news editor, Andy Malone, or not? Malone walked out of his job in protest at what he felt was interference by the former political editor, Kamal Ahmed, who now has an undefined role but goes to an awful lot of meetings.

Staff were told that Malone had taken time off to dampcourse his house, but it is official that he won't be returning in his former capacity. Whether he returns at all depends to some extent on the views of the managing editor, John Duncan. Sadly, Mr Duncan has been taking his summer break this year in Florida, and has been trapped there by Hurricane Ivan. So the present state of play is that The Observer has no managing editor, no news editor and no political editor - a rare case of too many indians and not enough chiefs.

A stairlift for Kelvin?

A fantastically tasteless ad appears on behalf of talkSPORT in the latest edition of Marketing Week. The radio station seeks to denigrate rivals Classic FM - rivals for the hands of advertisers, that is - by pointing out that 78 per cent of the latter's listeners are aged over 55.

The ad drives the point home with a photograph of an elderly woman in a stairlift, under the headline "Chairway to Heaven". Charming. Yet it turns out that Kelvin MacKenzie - chairman and chief executive of The Wireless Group that owns talkSPORT - belongs to this apparently benighted group himself. He is 57.

Time to be bravo, Rio

It was the way The Sun compared England goalie David James with a donkey last week that led to the England players' refusal to talk to the press after their World Cup match in Poland. Where, one wonders, does this leave Rio Ferdinand, star defender and close friend of James who is soon to return from an eight-month ban? For who does Ferdinand have a contract to write a column for? The Sun, of course. Almost as embarrassing as the moment in Katowice when a group of football writers gathered round a restaurant table started grumbling about David Beckham. An aggrieved Englishwoman, sitting nearby, suddenly accosted them. She was none other than Beckham's mother Sandra. Oops.

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