MEDIA: Distribution is key to resolving the paper chase

Understanding how newspaper distribution in the UK works is the 20th century equivalent of the Schleswig-Holstein Question. The small number who ever actually understood it have probably already forgotten.

Understanding how newspaper distribution in the UK works is the 20th

century equivalent of the Schleswig-Holstein Question. The small number

who ever actually understood it have probably already forgotten.



But for all the talk of nightly miracles, about how national newspapers

get from London to the Shetlands by 3pm at the latest on the day of

issue, there is more than the odd scrap of evidence that newspapers are

neither distributed, nor indeed marketed, as well as they could be.



At a time when newspapers are, or at the very least ought to be,

fighting to hang on to every sale, it is very noticeable that

publishers, wholesalers and newsagents have little good to say about

each other - to the extent that they talk to each other at all.



Historic animosities, and accompanying tensions which seem to be getting

worse, are surely a luxury given the intense and growing competition

that the newspaper industry faces.



Committees are of course meeting to draw up codes of conduct and best

practice, but some of the best brains in the industry appear to be

concentrating on giving away electronic information for free to the

inhabitants of Ascension Island instead of getting paid-for copies to

Bootle.



Newspaper publishers should surely be rather more concerned than they

are that an estimated 200 traditional newsagents are closing each month

and that the amount of space being given to newspapers and magazines is

falling because newspaper margins have been falling relative to other

CTN products. Then there is the ‘boxing out’ problem where newsagents

get large numbers of unwanted magazines dumped on them by wholesalers.

The newsagent has to carry the cost until they can get the returns

through the system.



But for more chilling information by far, talk to the directors of

Martins, the large newsagent chain. They say they frequently run out of

newspapers by 10.30am and cannot get the supplies they need. This is

despite the fact that research shows that a surprising proportion of

national newspapers - perhaps as high as 10% - are purchased later in

the day.



It seems a hell of a way to run a business. Ironically, however, apart

from the cost-of-newsprint problem and the trying-to-shave-the-wastage

problem, the ‘shortage’ of papers for sale may partly stem from the

activities of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. The MMC struggled

mightily to open up newspaper distribution further to non-traditional

outlets. New outlets have to guarantee to take a useful minimum to

justify the exercise and as such they apparently have guaranteed

supplies from the wholesalers.



It might be worth asking one of the bright young things busy on the

latest Web site to spend a week or two looking at the conventional news

chain and why many of its most important links are so angry. It might

turn out to be an intellectually stimulating exercise.



Raymond Snoddy is Financial Times media correspondent



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