What began as a casual conversation with an old colleague over a pint ended up as today’s accidental ‘data blog’.
“We hear a lot about the collapse of newspapers,” he said. “But what’s the actual decline over a set period of time? Just how fast is this supposed ‘death’ of print?”
This prompted me to research the Audit Bureau of Circulation’s archives to find out the detailed circulations of ten leading daily newspapers back in 2005, and to compare those figures with the latest available today.
Why ten newspapers, and why a decade? I don’t know, but ten felt like a representative sample and a decade felt like a rounded period of time.
While I was at it, I also noted any changing proportions of paid-for and free copies, and – where possible – the steep rises in cover prices. Here are the results:
|Title||H1 2005||Paid-for 2005||Cover price 2005||H1 2015||Paid-for 2005||Cover price 2015||10 year decline|
|Eastern Daily Press||70,588||100pc||£0.45 to £0.60||39,821||100pc||£0.80 to £1.60||-44pc|
|Glasgow Evening Times||84,457||100pc||£0.35||29,951||100pc||£0.60||-65pc|
|Liverpool Echo||125,575||100pc||£0.38 to £0.45||58,388 (June)||98pc||£0.65 to £1||-53pc|
|Manchester Evening News||137,391||97pc||£0.32||54,953 (June)||60pc||£0.65 to £0.90||-60pc|
|South Wales Argus||31,058||100pc||£0.35||12,110||100pc||£0.65||-61pc|
|The News, Portsmouth||60,414||100pc||£0.35||24,251||100pc||£0.70 to £0.85||-59pc|
|Northern Echo||55,404||100pc||n/a||27,819||100pc||£0.70 to £1||-50pc|
|W’hampton Express & Star||158,130||100pc||n/a||67,745||88pc||£0.55 to £0.70||-57pc|
|Yorkshire Post||57,186||100pc||£0.60||27,903||95pc||£0.80 to £1.70||-51pc|
▪ All data from ABC records
Fairly sobering, isn’t it? Ten daily newspapers chosen at random – albeit roughly trying to reflect the UK’s geography and owners – have lost anything from 44pc to 65pc in circulation over the past decade.
I’m sure there will be certain papers with higher percentage losses (the Bolton News springs to mind) and others which are much lower (such as the Aberdeen Press & Journal), but the -55pc average of the above 10 researched titles is likely to reflect the sector nationwide.
For some papers, such as the Manchester Evening News, the decline of -60pc in circulation would be much worse if you only considered paid-for copies, as its proportion of free copies has increased from 3pc to 40pc since 2005.
And the changes in cover price raise the question of how much of the decline might be due to readers feeling that ink on paper has become unaffordable – for instance, The News in Portsmouth has seen a 100pc price rise, while the Saturday edition of the Eastern Daily Press has soared by 167pc.
What’s undeniable is that the decline has been steep; what’s certain is that the print circulation is not coming back; and what’s difficult but necessary to accept is that the industry itself is partly responsible for this disaster.
Yes, there’s been the double structural and cyclical hit of a digital explosion and the biggest recession since the 1930s, both of which have massively contributed to fast-declining revenues and profit, with all the painful but necessary cut-backs that this has caused.
But critics would argue that certain publishers have made deeper cuts than were necessary, coupled with a lack of investment, to meet stock market pressure for profit margins, and that this has resulted in more severe change than any product can cope with.
This strain of thought would include knock-on effects such as fewer staff than can properly cover some geographies and sectors, meaning lower than acceptable editorial quality and relevance, along with the complete absence of any serious marketing budget.
The same philosophy would point at other strategies that have contributed to this perfect storm, such as the consolidation of ownership at a rate that was unimaginable ten years ago.
Then there’s the switch to overnight publication that was still an anathema for ‘evening’ newspapers in early 2005 but that has now completely removed the live news that once helped sell them.
This, it would be argued, has also sacrificed an expensive and complex but working and community-minded local newspaper sales strategy to the circulation god that is WHSmith.
People can be too print-centric, of course, and often need reminding that despite the temptation to doubt and decry corporate enthusiasm for digital journalism, the regional industry is right to attempt to grow as big a digital audience as it can so that it can transfer as much revenue as possible to print titles’ online reincarnations.
But surely, the critics would counter, credible levels of resource and quality should be retained for both online and print, given that at best only 20pc of revenues are from digital.
“Ink on paper still pays the overwhelming majority of wages,” is their battle cry, “and so newspapers should be cherished, not treated like soon-to-be-extinct dinosaurs.”
The arguments will continue, but the facts and prospects are staring us all in the face: the sales of printed regional newspapers have more than halved since 2005, and could shrink by at least as much again by 2025 if we’re lucky – but perhaps by far, far more.