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
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
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