The end of newspapers? Never on a Sunday

On The Press: With the growth of the iPod, the internet and Saturday papers, the quality Sunday market is said to be waning. The figures tell a different tale
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The Independent Online

Take out the earplug and stop listening to the podcast. Lift your eyes from the blog you are so eloquently creating. Just log off for a moment: there's a rare bit of good news about print.

The Independent on Sunday and The Observer are on a roll. The Sunday quality sector as a whole is up 2 per cent year on year despite the fact that this year April included the Easter weekend and last year did not.

This is not "crisis over" time for newspapers. Many are suffering badly. I am not sold on the significance, or indeed novelty, of blogs and pods, but they are with us. Yet equally I believe that the death of print is being overstated, and it is timely to have a little evidence that this is the case.

You'll understand that there is a delicacy to this, in that it involves me talking about the newspaper in which I write, which is always difficult for a columnist. You must take my objectivity as unquestionable.

The latest circulation figures show the IoS increased its sale in April by 10.8 per cent compared with March, to 258,000, a year-on-year rise of 22.9 per cent. The Observer is up 6.3 per cent month on month and 11.1 per cent year on year. Its sale was 504,000 in April.

"The Sindy is good, well developed, tight," says Roger Alton, The Observer editor. "Tris (Tristan Davies, IoS editor) has done a great job. The paper is jaunty and bright with skilful presentation."

"I do like the Observer," says Ivan Fallon, The Independent's chief executive. "Its personality has changed with its change of size - The Independent on Sunday the same. Alton is a very switched-on editor."

Whatever happened to the tradition of one newspaper excoriating a competitor? Such mutual appreciation is unusual.

Fallon believes size is important, and that some readers find too much bulk, particularly after Saturday, intimidating. He is in that category himself. He thinks the IoS works better, feels better value, as a compact. "The scoops have been an important factor for the paper. It led the field on the cash-for-honours story and David Blunkett had to resign as a result of an IoS story."

Alton agrees that the dividing line between quality and mid-market is much less clear, and also mentions The Mail on Sunday. "We've invested. I've had great support from management. The women's magazine has made a difference.

"You do have to try a bit harder on Sundays; you have to bite harder. It's a different market with The Sunday Times having a 50% market share. I don't think there is any other industry where there is such a dominant force. It makes life tricky."

Davies, a happy editor this weekend, points to a market place in which there has never been more choice. "When it was four broadsheets there was much more similarity between them. Now there is a genuine choice," he says.

"The four titles are very different. Our progress is down to breaking really big stories, presenting them differently, and having strong commercial backing."

Three factors link The Observer and IoS. Both have a left-of-centre outlook; both have relaunched in compact form since last autumn; both sell fewer copies than the two right-of-centre titles, The Sunday Times and The Sunday Telegraph. But while the latter two are in a steady state or declining, The Observer and IoS are growing.

All four titles have weekday and Saturday stablemates - The Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Independent and The Guardian - but also retain distinct identities. Last month all the Sundays except the Telegraph sold more copies than their sister titles averaged Monday to Saturday.

That word "averaged" is highly significant. When we publish a circulation figure for a daily paper, those out in the real world might be forgiven for thinking this is a consistent sale over six days. Nothing could be further from the truth; there is considerable variation, good days and bad, determined by the days on which specialised supplements (like education, media, arts and books) are published, or specific classified advertising or bolt-ons like DVDs.

Publication days for the specialised supplements are chosen carefully in an attempt to make the day-by-day circulation more consistent. Regular daily sections, like The Independent's Extra or Times2, also seek to combat daily sales variation.

None of this can disguise the fact that, particularly in the quality sector of the market, the Monday-to-Friday average sale of all these papers is way below the Saturday sale.

Is that because the Saturday papers are a different breed from the weekday versions - bulkier, more sections, and, of course, more expensive?

Is it because, in some ways, Saturday papers are more like Sundays? We have a market these days which is not divided into dailies and Sundays, but one that is divided into three - weekdays, Saturdays and Sundays.

The fact is that the Saturday sale inflates the audited circulation of the daily papersvery significantly. The Saturday edition of the Daily Mail, with its popular Weekend celebrity interview and TV listings magazine, sells around a million more than the Monday to Friday sale. For The Guardian that figure is more than 200,000; for The Independent, 40,000; for The Daily Telegraph, 300,000, and for The Times, 230,000. The publishers exploit this fact to cross-promote from Saturday into Sunday.

The Daily Telegraph, for example, last month put a DVD of the Macbeth movie in a double wallet in its Saturday edition. One part of the wallet was empty, but was prominently labelled King Lear. That DVD was in the following day's Sunday Telegraph.

The Independent has recently tried something different, offering a learn-a-foreign-language CD on Saturday followed by an accompanying book on Sunday.

"Joint marketing has been absolutely brilliant for us," said Fallon. "The uplift with the language CD and book was double what we expected. We've been doing innovative promotions which are better than just doing DVDs, and cheaper. Who knows, it could be Chinese next."

Twenty years ago Saturday papers were anorexic with few pages, not much news and poor value. They were the forgotten papers, produced by the B-team for readers who had something else to do on what was then a different kind of Saturday, itself based on a different kind of Sunday with no sport or shopping.

Then came the fat Saturdays, and the doom brigade said it would seriously damage the quality Sundays. We now seem to be in a situation where quality Sunday sales in total are being maintained, and even expanded, in an overall market that has declined. Sales are back to around the levels of 10 years ago.

Roger Alton is not preoccupied with new media. "I love newspapers. I spend most of my time thinking about newspapers," he says. Tristan Davies says: "I love newspapers."

There they go again. But they have both known bad times so they should be permitted a little rejoicing when things look good. Weekends, Saturdays and Sundays, without the free Metros on the way to work, are really rather buoyant. Tough times, certainly. But death-of-print crisis, certainly not.

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield


Out there, on that different planet called Express, the inhabitants have just three main interests in life - house prices, absurd examples of political correctness and Princess Diana.

I was relieved to read that one of these was done and dusted, completed, had reached its denouement, was over. I have remarked here before on the paper's obsession with the long-dead princess. Seldom a week passes without a death-of-Di story not just in the paper but leading it.

True, there were echoes of 27 March ("Death of Diana: Doctor who knows the truth") in last Monday's splash. But there was more of a note of finality in "Diana death: Truth at last".

While rivals were boring on about government crises, reshuffles, deporting prisoners and the like, "The world's greatest newspaper, and proud of it" (as it proclaims every day) was reporting the illegal embalming of Diana to cover up her pregnancy conspiracy theory, sorry, "truth".

And, do you know, nobody paid a blind bit of notice. No follow-ups or catch-ups, no questions in the House, no ripples, nothing. Except on the distant planet.


Sporting bets still on

Anyone wishing to bet how long The Sportsman will last might want to take a tip. Well-informed sources say the paper won't make it past the six-month hurdle in September, and that contingency plans are being made to shut it by then. Sales of 22,000 fall short of the 40,000 chairman Jeremy Deedes has been touting as the break-even point. "I can promise you there has not even been a suggestion of it," said Deedes buoyantly. "You can dismiss it from your mind."

Brutal to Boris

Former Spectator editor Boris Johnson was peeved to learn he had been uninvited to the launch party of new editor Matthew d'Ancona's thriller Tabatha's Code, held at the mag's Doughty Street offices. Having nonetheless charmed his way in, he was then to be found complaining bitterly to former colleagues.

"Mary Killen took my name off the list," he told one of his old guard. "My name was struck off the list. Can you believe it?"

Killen, who writes the Dear Mary column on etiquette, denies responsibility. "I saw Boris outside. I must have been joking and said I'd done it, but it wouldn't have been me," said Killen.

Keep write up close

As Michael Corleone says in The Godfather, "Keep your friends close but your enemies closer". Piers Morgan seems to be taking the tip. This week's Press Gazette, of which Morgan is a major share-holder, features a piece on the British obsession with betting by arch-enemy James Hipwell. There is no love lost between the two, particularly as the evidence of City Slicker Hipwell - jailed for six weeks for his part in the Viglen share-tipping scandal - might have implicated Morgan, who had himself purchased shares worth £67,000. "I've written a few pieces for them in the past 10 days," says James. "I'm not quite sure why I keep getting commissioned. It's a bit weird because we are not on speaking terms. But it's very good of Piers to give me a foothold in journalism again. I'd like to extend my thanks to him."

Oh do keep up

The Telegraph Group's marketing department is having trouble keeping up. After the departure of Sarah Sands from The Sunday Telegraph they were still sending out broadsheet-style brochures with her picture all over them. Their latest mail-out features Tom Utley, who has just decamped to the Daily Mail. "We change our material every three months," said the marketing department. Every week might be more appropriate.

Dancing in the dark

The plea to staff by BBC director general Mark Thompson to fill the audiences of Top of the Pops might be a touch hysterical. It came because the BBC hadn't acquired an entertainment licence for its studio from the London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham. But now the council's newly elected Conservative leadership has said it does not intend to prosecute.

"We are in the early days of the new administration," says Councillor Mark Loveday, "but we have already issued instructions to our officers that we considered their interpretation of the law was absurd and that the BBC weren't to be pursued on this. So I don't know why the BBC made this announcement." Do follow your local politics, Mr Thompson.

Birdcage twitchers

Spectator staff are twittering about their new offices in Birdcage Walk, alongside St James's Park. A shame Boris Johnson won't be there to admire all the wildlife.