MEDIA FORUM: How will The Express survive its circulation drop? - How worrying are the latest circulation figures for The Express? It is a major embarrassment at the least to drop below the million mark. Will it drop off the radar altogether?

Halcyon days. Cambridge won the boat race by five lengths. Bolton Wanderers took the FA Cup and Huddersfield Town edged out Arsenal to take the First Division Championship. England snatched the Ashes in the final test at the Oval. Oh, yes, and there was a General Strike.

Halcyon days. Cambridge won the boat race by five lengths. Bolton Wanderers took the FA Cup and Huddersfield Town edged out Arsenal to take the First Division Championship. England snatched the Ashes in the final test at the Oval. Oh, yes, and there was a General Strike.

1926 was also a good year for The Express - it broke through the one million barrier for the first time and had The Mail and The Herald (now known as The Sun, of course) in its sights. In 1934, following one of the most aggressive circulation wars ever seen, it overtook its two main rivals with a sustained sale of more than two million.

In the post-war years, Lord Beaverbrook's baby went from strength to strength, passing the four million mark in 1949. And although it doesn't hold the British all-comers daily circulation record (that honour goes to The Mirror, with a sustained sale of more than five million in the mid-60s), by the late 50s, The Express was part of the fabric of the nation, lauded not just for its innovation in design and journalistic style but also for cartoon strips such as Rupert Bear and humorous columnists such as Beachcomber.

'How things have changed,' as a front page Express headline splash (the story wasn't about circulation figures, naturally) put it last week Things have indeed changed. The Express-Mirror popular newspaper duopoly lasted until the bloom started coming off flower power but since the early 70s it has been downhill all the way. The Express has been through a number of hands in the past couple of decades, obviously, but its circulation decline has been seemingly inexorable. Last week, the Audit Bureau of Circulations figures revealed that its average daily sale had dropped below one million.

The Express, some argue, is now quite clearly an accident waiting to happen. Is the unthinkable now thinkable where this once mighty title is concerned? The big historical picture doesn't look good, especially if you believe that some products and brands have natural life-cycles.

Just how seriously should we regard the passing of this latest unfortunate milestone?

Will planners, for instance, find it tempting to drop The Express off certain schedules?

Certainly not, Jon Wilkins, a partner in Naked Communications, says.

He remains relatively upbeat: 'It's not the end of the world - of course it isn't. One million copies a day out there means it still has a phenomenal reach and as long as it still delivers an audience, it will be used. But that doesn't mean that it isn't in a dangerous position. It has to be alarming when everyone seems to be deserting you.'

But he does admit that press buyers might be less charitable. 'This sort of thing gives buyers even more excuse to bully The Express and in that sector of the market it has been bullied for years. This just creates another stick to beat it with. There's possibly an internal morale issue here too. A lot of staff seem to be leaving and there's a lot of bad-mouthing going on. There's supposedly going to be a change in editorial direction and The Express people will say that all of this is just a glitch and that we should give them time to deliver results. I hope they're right.'

Stan Myerson, the Express Group's managing director, declined to take part in Forum but Express sources continue to urge the advertising community to think positively. Watch this space, they say. Ivan Pollard, a partner in Unity, agrees that the market will see this as a psychological water-shed - but it's hardly a disaster. He states: 'It has lost a few thousand more sales but it's still circulating more than 970,000. What is the real difference between this week and a couple of weeks ago?'

But he agrees that everyone will be watching to see what the effects are on internal morale. 'Obviously, everybody hopes they can turn it around but I don't think this is a surprise - it has been in decline for the past 15 years at least. But would I use that as a reason to take it off the schedule? Absolutely not. I can remember a time when people argued that no national newspaper could survive with a circulation of less than 400,000. So how come The Independent is still on schedules? How come people aren't talking about The Guardian being in real trouble? They are still there in proportion to their worth and that will be the same with The Express. Its brand certainly hasn't changed overnight. It's true that successful advertisers want to be associated with successful brands and that The Express tends to be added to the schedule as a makeweight, but as long as its rates are adjusted accordingly it will continue to do the sort of job that it has been doing for advertisers.'

Tim McCloskey, a managing partner of OMD UK, points out that The Express is in this situation partly because the Daily Mail has taken the new management at The Express seriously. That, in itself, should be seen as a plus point. 'The people at the Mail have watched how OK! has managed to out-manoeuvre and outsell Hello!. Associated will also know that (Express owner, Richard) Desmond and Myerson are wily streetfighters not prone to pulling punches. Hence The Express's circulation has been hit by a barrage of marketing salvos.'

And McCloskey says that Associated is right to take The Express seriously. 'Forgetting January's figures, The Express appears more focused and more lively than in the past. It is targeting a younger fortysomething reader, is less slavishly conservative than its rival and promises readers a big value-for-money paper on a daily basis. We should support it - as long as the price is right - because advertisers need more, not fewer, papers and readers.'

The Express has plans for a new marketing push, of course. Laura James, the director of press at New PHD, reckons it might be an uphill struggle: 'We've known for some time what The Express's true circulation was, so I don't think this is a great shock and it certainly won't mean people will pull it from the schedule. But it does raise long-term question marks.

The paper has changed almost every single element of its mix and if you do that you have to make a significant investment to get it back on the radar. It needs to re-establish its editorial integrity and its position in the market. The question is whether there's still an Express-shaped hole in the market. Can they take on the Daily Mail? The Mail is incredibly strong. Both The Sun and The Mirror have their place and you can't see them losing readers to a new-look Express. In the long term, you'd have to start questioning whether there's a role for The Express in the traditional newspaper format.'



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