FORUM: Are the tabloids in the grip of long-term decline? - Keep taking the tabloids? September’s circulation figures hold little cheer for mass-market titles. In a month when newspapers were the focus of attention in more ways than one, the popul

September was an exceptional month for the newspaper business. Exceptional as in unique, rather than excellent, although for many titles it was both.

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

reader offers.

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.’


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