Tabloids suffer as the qualities gain ground

The National Readership Survey provides editors with an alternative source of comfort - or concern
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The Independent Online

Lies, damned lies and statistics: the well-known saying is never truer than when it is applied to newspaper data. There is truth in there, of course, but the reality is that there are many truths. The trick of the circulation and marketing departments, not to mention the editors and managing directors, is to select the most useful truth. No different from politics or many other areas of life. You can spin a newspaper sales performance just as you can spin a policy.

Each month I write here about the sales figures provided by ABC, the Audit Bureau of Circulation. These are pored over by editors and management, whose only aim is to present their own figures in the best possible light, and their rivals' in the worst. Typical comments if a rival has done rather well this month: "Do you know how much they spend on giving away DVDs and free books, free lunches, free Eurostar tickets? They are just buying readers." However much managements like to massage the figures, they are independently produced, audited, and compare like with like. They tell us how many copies, full price, discounted price, no price, home and abroad, reached the public.

But the circulation figures tell us only that the newspaper passed into the hands of the public. There is another set of figures called the National Readership Survey which tells how many people read a particular title. The newspaper and magazine publishers and the advertisers jointly fund it.

Unlike the sales figures, which are based on audited returns, the readership figures are gathered by opinion survey. A large sample of the public is questioned throughout the year, and the data tells us not only how many picked up the paper, but which parts they read. It also tells us a lot about the readers themselves.

As we all know, most copies of a newspaper are read by more than one person. In families, common rooms, waiting-rooms and offices, papers are passed round. More people read papers than buy them. Example from the latest set of readership data, just released: The Sun sells about 3.3 million copies a day; but about eight million people read the paper.

The latest NRS data reinforces what we see in the sales figures, that the original tabloids are suffering most. They may still be the dominant sellers, but the numbers are getting smaller. The Sun and Daily Mirror have lost 10 per cent and 11 per cent of their readers; that is nearly 1.5 million fewer over the course of a year.

In the mid-market, the Daily Mail is about stable, while in the quality sector, readership is up for all but The Daily Telegraph (down 1 per cent). These figures cover the year to July, with The Guardian still a broadsheet and losing sales although the readership survey shows an increase of 7 per cent, while The Independent is up 2 per cent and The Times up 6 per cent, the last two also increasing sale.

In the Sunday market, the readership of all the quality titles is up, The Observer by 13 per cent, The Independent on Sunday by 8 per cent, The Sunday Times by 5 per cent and The Sunday Telegraph by 2 per cent. The Sunday red-tops' performance reflects both their daily counterparts and the downward circulation. According to NRS, they lost more than 1.7 million readers over the year, while the qualities gained 400,000.

NRS also investigates readership of different sections of newspapers. Of all the supplements in Sunday newspapers, the one to achieve the second-highest increase in readership over the year, 24 per cent, is the Business section of the IoS, the one you are reading at this moment. Such discernment!

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When Jeff Randall joined the BBC four years ago as business editor, he had a less than confident start. Having worked with him at The Sunday Times and enjoyed his company, I was surprised to see how hard he found it to come to terms with the new medium. He is gregarious and fun and has a huge City contacts book, but the techniques of TV got to him. He used to compare himself most humbly, and unfavourably, with Andrew Marr, whom he claimed to have appointed as his TV tutor. Whatever the truth, Jeff then changed rather suddenly into an assured performer. And he used his hands less than Marr.

Now he is returning to print with business columns in The Daily Telegraph. Clearly, newspapers are where his heart lies, though I am pleased he will continue his Five Live radio business show, where he showed during the M&S turmoil how business and finance could be made entertaining and accessible.

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield