You've got to hand it to those plucky national newspaper publishers.
They refuse to go quietly. After all, the turn of the century arrived with observers, even at the more cautious end of the spectrum, predicting dire things for newspapers in the 21st century.
The internet, mobiles and digital television have condemned newspapers to the inevitability of a slow decline, especially those with a reputation as primary purveyors of news. It's obvious, isn't it?
Not to the publishers, it isn't. And as the industry rages against the dying of the light, it's managing to convey a more than passing impression of a medium in exciting intellectual ferment.
Over the past couple of years, we've seen more relaunches, revamps, format changes and new business models than you can shake a stick at. Last week, we not only had The Guardian unveiling its Berliner format but also the spectacle of City AM getting into full swing. More innovations - for instance, yet more tightly targeted freesheets - are on the way.
In short, the medium has responded to multiple challenges in the best possible manner and is emerging as the proverbial lean, mean fighting machine.
Or is it? Behind all the colourful hullabaloo, there's a sadder, greyer picture. Last week's warning from Daily Mail & General Trust, the parent of Associated Newspapers, that there had been "further weakening" in the ad market cast some gloom over the sector.
1. The Guardian's sale for its first day in new Berliner guise was thought to be good - around 450,000, compared with its August Audit Bureau of Circulations figure of 341,689. A relaunch always stimulates trial purchase but the industry will be watching to see how much gain there has been when the figure settles down. The best it may be able to hope for will be a small advance. For instance, when The Times went wholly tabloid in November 2004 it was selling 640,000. August's figure was 642,160.
2. But Guardian Media Group revealed the true extent of its gamble when it released financial figures at the start of August. Its £104 million investment in the new plant required to print the Berliner format has eaten into profits for the year to March 2005. At £22.9 million, they are half those for the previous financial year - and even this figure owed much to the performance of properties outside the national newspaper sector, for instance, Auto Trader.
3. The Independent's tabloid circulation revival, meanwhile, has also stalled. Since November 2004, its daily sale has declined by around 7,000. In the latest ABCs, its headline circulation was 255,906, with 191,117 paid for at full rate.
4. That said, The Independent has been bucking the trend when it comes to its financial figures. Though it and The Independent on Sunday still make a loss, they reported an 18.5 per cent rise in ad revenues for the first six months. Ivan Fallon, the chief executive of Independent Newspapers, said the titles may break even next year (they lost £10 million last year) but admitted that the titles had targeted a 20 per cent ad revenue growth.
5. The day before, the announcement from DMGT showed the other side of the coin - display advertising revenues at Associated Newspapers, it revealed, had increased by just 0.4 per cent over the 11 months to the end of August. Worryingly, total display advertising revenues actually fell at the Daily Mail and The Mail on Sunday and the overall figure was buoyed by display ad revenues on Metro, up 19 per cent.
6. The Sun and the Daily Mirror had a decent August in circulation terms but the Sunday red-tops continue to look weak; and while the Mail and the Daily Express have shown some growth, the keenest struggle for supremacy is at the quality end. The Times says it is now ahead of The Daily Telegraph in terms of full-price sales - if you disregard 300,000 cheap-rate, long-term Telegraph subscribers. They are technically bulks - but very high-quality bulks.
7. And the cost to News International of supporting the circulations of its titles, particularly The Times, is arguably horrendous. Back in February, it revealed that operating income had slumped 24 per cent year on year, as it contemplates a further £600 million investment on new print plants.
WHAT IT MEANS FOR ...
- Media owners insist national newspapers are in rude health - after all, it's an industry that shifts 12 million units a day.
- They argue that there are enough cover-price revenues around for astute publishers to face the future with confidence.
- Media buyers will continue to seek ways to exploit perceived fragility in the general business outlook of newspaper publishers.
- This goes especially for the publishers that have historically used decent circulation performance to justify an uncompromising stance in negotiations. Associated Newspapers springs to mind.
- For many advertisers, such as national retail chains, national newspapers offer benefits to be found in no other media.
- However, they will be less than happy if they start to suspect that the medium's underlying business model is less than sound.