Media Forum: Is The Sunday Times in trouble?

Should The Sunday Times' recent sales slide worry advertisers, Alasdair Reid asks.

It's unlikely that many senior executives at The Sunday Times have ever claimed membership of the Lord's Day Observance Society - the single-issue evangelical pressure group fighting a rather forlorn battle to keep the Sabbath sacred. The paper, after all, has always seen itself as unapologetically progressive in its outlook. Liberalisation in all things, not least commerce, has always been its mantra.

But what's good for business is not always good for The Sunday Times. August will see the 13th anniversary of fully legalised Sunday trading, and the 15th anniversary of the launch of the FA Premier League, with its Sunday afternoon live televised showcase matches. So, in consigning the notion of a lazy Sunday afternoon to the dustbin of history, the paper (and the viewpoints it stands for) has arguably helped to diminish the importance of the Sunday newspapers.

People used to buy two or three of the things. Now they're lucky to flick through one. It's hardly surprising, then, that we've seen circulations slide in recent years. And in the quality sector, the one with the most to lose, is the one that's traditionally had the biggest sales - The Sunday Times. In the latest Audit Bureau of Circulations figures, its sales fell by 8.79 per cent year on year, from 1,356,042 to 1,236,911 copies.

True, that's still almost twice the sales of its closest quality rival, The Sunday Telegraph. And it might seem unfair to single out The Sunday Times for close scrutiny. For decades, the whole press sector has been under relentless pressure from other media, not least, in recent years, the web. But isn't it alarming for advertisers when the market leader seems even weaker than its rivals?

It's certainly worth watching, Ian Armstrong, the manager of customer communications at Honda, says. Press, though, remains an integral component of the media schedule. He explains: "Car manufacturers tend to use press in general for product familiarity and tactical messages - and the medium offers an efficient way of doing that. The fact that people are increasingly researching car specification online is becoming an important factor, but we still need to use press, and The Sunday Times is an important part of that."

On the other hand, Dominic Williams, the Carat press director, argues, even The Sunday Times has a threshold below which it must not drop. He says: "It's true that advertisers are concerned in general about newspaper circulations, but I don't think The Sunday Times is a cause for serious concern yet, because it is coming from such a high base. I would say it needs to stay above 1.2 million. Times Media has been investing a lot in digital (approximately £10 million), but it's time it refocused its attention on content where the print products are concerned. On The Sunday Times, sport and business remain strong, but I think it has to take another look at the magazines and supplements, especially Style."

But Nik Vyas, the group press director at ZenithOptimedia, maintains that we're a long way from any need to panic where the paper - or the group's family of brands - is concerned. He adds: "Digital media is having an impact on The Sunday Times, since it is across a huge swathe of traditional media. We do need, however, to stop putting the component parts of Times Media into silos and focus on the performance of its business as a whole, including growth areas. Our conversations with them in the future will be increasingly focused on the brand and its total net delivery."

It's no surprise to find Paul Hayes, the managing director of Times Media, ready with some reassuring words, too. He points out, for instance, that The Sunday Times' readership figures in the National Readership Survey have been improving. What this shows, he argues, is that, while frequency of purchase may be down, the "purchase pool" is the same size. That must be good news for advertisers, he suggests.

He has good news on the investment front, too. The paper is introducing a customer management data system that will allow for more personalised marketing communications with its readers and potential readers. But the really big story is the new £600 million print plant that will come on-stream in 2008. He says: "We are maybe guilty of not talking about that enough. There will be full colour throughout, and the quality we will be able to offer to advertisers will be phenomenal. It will produce advertising cut-through the likes of which you have never seen before."

MAYBE - Ian Armstrong, manager of customer communications, Honda

"No-one is happy to see circulation declines, but while digital is increasingly important, we still need to use press, and The Sunday Times remains important. Its circulation isn't yet at a level where we'd have to review it."

MAYBE - Dominic Williams, press director, Carat

"There's a lot of noise in the newspaper market through the week, with paid-for titles competing against the freesheets. Then the Saturday packages have become so strong, so it doesn't get easier. The Sunday Times has to look at stabilising things."

NO - Nik Vyas, group press director, ZenithOptimedia

"The Sunday Times still delivers a huge proportion of a valuable audience - 3.1 million ABC1 adults. The trend, of course, is down - but it's unlikely, in the immediate future, to reach such a critical level that its inclusion on our plans would be in serious doubt."

NO - Paul Hayes, managing director, Times Media

"The performance metric for papers is if we can deliver more of what advertisers want. They'll be more interested if 40,000 more London-based businessmen are reading it, than if it's 60,000 (members of a less-interesting demographic)."

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