When Saturday comes, it's time for the big weigh-in

Dramatic sales increases on the sixth day reflect the opportunity papers have taken to try a radically new approach
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The Independent Online

I put the upmarket Saturday papers on the scales the other day, and found that they all weighed in at between 1kg and 1.3kg. That's a bulky package, often approaching or exceeding the size of the newspaper's Sunday counterpart. While I may be weighing, circulation, marketing and senior management of the publishers are counting. Counting sales, counting revenue. When Saturday comes they are very interested indeed. Saturday matters - a lot.

I put the upmarket Saturday papers on the scales the other day, and found that they all weighed in at between 1kg and 1.3kg. That's a bulky package, often approaching or exceeding the size of the newspaper's Sunday counterpart. While I may be weighing, circulation, marketing and senior management of the publishers are counting. Counting sales, counting revenue. When Saturday comes they are very interested indeed. Saturday matters - a lot.

The opposite used to be true. Saturday was a dog day. The papers were the thinnest of and worst seller of the week. Saturday was not a newspaper-reading day; it was family and shopping and sport and preparing to go out. Sunday was the dead day, and Sunday papers were there to compensate. Now Sundays and Saturdays are much the same. So Saturday newspapers have become more like Sunday newspapers.

When you look at the monthly circulation figures - last month's appear on this page today - you see a single figure for each paper. That represents an average across the week and across the month. But patterns of sale are far from even, with Saturday papers selling more than Monday to Friday papers, and sale on each of the weekdays varying, too.

The circulation figures usually given are known as the headline figure. It includes all copies distributed, whether sold as full price, discounted or free, in the UK and abroad. On a daily basis, editors and senior management look at what are known as UK news trade figures. These are the copies sold in the UK at full price or subscription rates. They are actively purchased, rather than lying in a pile in a hotel lobby or a train buffet car. These show how important Saturday sales are. If you examined the aggregated sales of The Independent, Times, Guardian and Telegraph on a typical Saturday in November, they amounted to a little over 2.5 million copies. The figure for Monday to Friday for the four titles was 1.8 million copies. Saturday sales are nearly 40 per cent higher.

Sales of individual titles in this sector also make interesting reading. We find the Telegraph selling 780,000 copies Monday to Friday, a figure that soars to 1.06m on Saturdays, an increase of some 35 per cent. The Guardian increase is even more dramatic at 70 per cent, from a weekday figure of 275,000 to a Saturday figure of 470,000.

The two compacts also show a sizeable Saturday differential. The Times, which had been unable to produce a compact Saturday paper when it was publishing in large and small formats, had a big Saturday uplift (to 800,0000) when it went compact during the week. That has settled at 690,000 or so, 30 per cent better than the weekday sale of 585,000. The Independent records 185,000 during the week, which rises by 20 per cent to 220,000 on Saturdays.

It is hardly surprising, then, that all four titles put a big effort into their Saturday products, some having a dedicated Saturday editor, all having special features or add-ons. It all started with the TV guides, which spawned magazines, and sales. The Daily Mail probably made the most of the Saturday potential with a magazine of celebrity interviews, lifestyle features and the most elaborate TV guide in town. Its Saturday sale uplift is around 1.2 million.

But as with the Sunday papers it was the quality sector that took the bulk route, with multi-section packages. The Telegraph has the largest package selling the most copies. Glossy magazines, arts and books review sections, sports, personal finance and motoring feature across the four titles.

There were those who assumed that fat Saturday papers would affect the sales of fat Sunday papers. Quite simply the Saturday package provided enough reading for the weekend and beyond. But each of the quality titles has a Sunday counterpart, Sunday Times (Times), Sunday Telegraph (Daily Telegraph), Observer (Guardian) and Independent on Sunday (Independent). The Saturday and Sunday titles have combined circulations of 2.5 million, with the Saturdays slightly ahead. Saturday sales are rising; Sunday's are falling, but not dramatically. The markets are different: on Sunday the Sunday Times is dominant, on Saturday sales are more evenly spread.

It is a market so competitive that a CD can make all the difference. It costs little to add one to the package; but the supporting TV commercials cost a lot. A combination of CD and TV promotion can put 10 per cent on sale. Personally, I usually junk the CD.

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield

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