MEDIA PERSPECTIVE: Publishers should call a truce in the battle of the bulks

The commercial chiefs of our national newspapers have never exactly prided themselves on being the most sober members of the industry and indulging in a bit of jaunty rivalry is part of the job spec. But it can’t have escaped anyone’s attention that there has been some rather pathetic tit-for-tatting in the newspaper arena recently and the professional demeanour of its most respectable individuals has wobbled as a result. This week things wobbled a bit more.

The commercial chiefs of our national newspapers have never exactly

prided themselves on being the most sober members of the industry and

indulging in a bit of jaunty rivalry is part of the job spec. But it

can’t have escaped anyone’s attention that there has been some rather

pathetic tit-for-tatting in the newspaper arena recently and the

professional demeanour of its most respectable individuals has wobbled

as a result. This week things wobbled a bit more.



The prime cause of the rumpus is the basis on which newspaper sales

figures are calculated. As competition in the market reaches fever

pitch, the marketing war has become fiercer and the industry’s official

circulation figures have become the prime battleground.



And bulk copies of national newspapers - thousands of issues distributed

free through hotels, airlines, shops and so on as a sampling exercise -

have become the preferred weapon of choice for many publishers.



Boring though it might sound, the issue has generated a real

bun-fight.



With newspaper sales under pressure, bulk sales have taken on a new

mantle.



Far from being a smart marketing initiative, bulks have come to be seen

as a cynical and calculated ploy for defending market ranking and

avoiding embarrassing PR.



As a consequence, the press has been full of claims and counter claims

which have seen newspaper publishers engaging in some rather unseemly

knocking, serving only to dent the reputation of the industry as a

whole.



The latest spat came when News International accused the Mirror of

bulking more than 100,000 copies to Ladbrokes on 28 March. No surprise,

then, that the Mirror managed to cling on to its position as Britain’s

second biggest-selling paper, fending off the Mail’s advance. Identified

by News International as an example of ’the cynical ease with which a

determined publisher can manipulate reported sales’, the debacle threw a

critical spotlight on the role of the Audit Bureau of Circulations.



The ABC is hardly blameless. All too often its movements have been slow,

shrouded in confusion and bureaucracy. It’s not surprising that the

publishers have had little regard for the credibility of the bureau.



Nor was it surprising to hear this week that the ABC had parted company

with its chief executive, Ray Hall; his job was clearly a poisoned

chalice to challenge the strongest of stomachs. Before a replacement is

rushed through there surely needs to be a fundamental reappraisal of the

ABC’s role and its powers. It has to regain and retain the respect of

the newspaper publishers.



More crucially, the publishers need to prove they are capable of

policing themselves when it comes to bulks and can rise above the

temptation to be economic with the facts. If not, then perhaps bulk

sales should be outlawed. Which would be a pity, because, in case

anyone’s forgotten, their origins lie in some sensible marketing

thinking and that’s what the industry needs right now.



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