September was an exceptional month for the newspaper business.
Exceptional as in unique, rather than excellent, although for many
titles it was both.
Sales weren’t bad and that doesn’t happen often these days. But the
really exceptional factor was the fact that, for a good part of the
month, newspapers themselves were in the news almost every day.
The news wasn’t good. The big issue was - and still is - invasion of
privacy. The medium is being asked to undertake a fundamental
reappraisal of its role in society, with media owners and their editors
being asked to wrestle with concepts such as ethics and integrity - and
they are always likely to be an uphill struggle.
Legislation could still be on the agenda. So, is it a medium in
Not exactly. It’s more localised than that. In a month where the
public’s appetite for news was undeniably strong (Diana’s death at the
beginning of the month filled the papers for weeks afterwards) and the
broadsheets turned in some excellent figures, the downmarket tabloids
had pretty ropey results. The revamped Mirror was up by 2.8 per cent,
the Sun was treading water, up a mere 0.6 per cent, and the Star was
sinking, down 1.18 per cent.
Few will deny that the tabloids badly misjudged the mood of the nation
last month. They say they’ve learned their lesson. Have they? ’Pull the
other one,’ as one prominent commentator, Simon Jenkins, put it last
We shall see.
Meanwhile, the tabloids have another big problem - promotions. This
where the circulation war is being fought and the conflict is rapidly
escalating in intensity. Risks are being taken. So much so, that last
week the Advertising Standards Authority stepped in to reprimand both
the Sun and the News of the World over chaotic promotions and misleading
Great timing. That will hardly help to build confidence in this sector
of the market. Are the mass-market tabloids now saddled with a huge
long-term credibility problem? Are we seeing the start of a serious
If so, what implications would there be for the advertising market?
The papers with the best month on month increases were the Independent,
up 11.8 per cent, and the Guardian, up 10.6 per cent. The Independent
had the added boost of relaunch promotions. But what was the Guardian’s
excuse? Were readers trading up to quality titles?
Perhaps, a cautious Stephen Palmer, marketing director of the Guardian,
concedes. He points out that performance across the broadsheet market
was patchy - the Telegraph, for instance, didn’t do all that well. He
adds: ’The tabloids got it wrong but it’s impossible at this stage to
work out from the figures exactly what the market dynamic is.’
He agrees it’s eminently possible that tabloid readers were either not
buying their normal title or were buying a broadsheet instead and that
may be a short-term thing. ’The tabloids picked up on the mood and are
starting to do something about it. What we can say was that in September
there were huge sampling opportunities right across the board, with
people looking at different titles, not just because of news events but
also promotions and marketing exercises. If you encourage people to
sample and there are things in your paper that they like, the chances
are they will stay. Our marketing efforts in September paid off.’
Colin Gottlieb, the managing partner of Manning Gottlieb Media, agrees
it is difficult to draw any general conclusions from these figures. He
adds: ’Look at the Mail and the Mail on Sunday. They have never been
In that respect, the Mirror has double worries, with the Mail breathing
down its neck. But the Sun has its worries too. This whole concern about
irresponsible journalism is directed more at the Sun - the laddish,
opinionated, Gotcha Sun - than any other title. It has the most to lose,
put it that way.’
Gottlieb thinks that problems with promotions are symptomatic. ’As more
and more things are available online and there are new information
sources coming along almost every week, newspapers are asking
themselves, ’where are we going?’ Perhaps the tabloids fear that in 20
years’ time they will have moved closer to their American cousins, the
weekly celebrity and entertainment gossip sheets.
’While they look for an answer they are leaning heavily on promotions -
some of them smack of desperation and should come with a health warning
disclaimer. They promise so much - there’s an accident waiting to
Not everyone is gloomy. Neil Jones, a director of TMD Carat, is sure
this is merely a blip. He comments: ’A lot of the problems are
associated with the popular tabloids, and a lot of anger has been
directed at them, but the truth is that these are problems the whole
newspaper sector faces.
It’s just that people don’t see it that way. But I can see this dying
down as an issue fairly quickly. I think they have all learned their
As for promotions, they are a vital tool for most titles in providing a
short-term circulation boost. If you consider the number of people these
titles reach, the small number of complaints is nothing in the great
scheme of things. This is a storm in teacup.’
But Robert Ray, the joint managing director of MediaVest, thinks
mass-market titles face major long-term problems. ’Research we’ve done
shows that younger readers don’t find popular tabloids credible. They’re
not reading them in the numbers they might have been until recently.
’In that situation, promos are no use in trying to attract younger
A cheap promotion might attract them for a while but, if they don’t
believe in the product, they’re not likely to stay. That’s a fundamental
problem publishers must address. Tabloids are not performing and the
reasons for that are not down to just a single issue. Look at football.
At one time, that was a terrifically strong foundation to their
offering. People at the younger end of the market seem to be going
elsewhere for their sports information. Publishers should try to
understand where they are going and why. They need to ask themselves
some pretty fundamental questions.’