Australia doesn’t have enough newspapers. This is the rather surprising conclusion reached by the editor of Australian Policy Online, Peter Browne, who has recently done some work analysing newspaper sales figures. He concludes that lack of diversity, not the internet, is the main threat to total Australian newspaper sales.

Browne draws on figures published by Rodney Tiffen and Ross Gittins in their book, How Australian Compares to show that Australia has low newspaper sales per head of population compared to other countries.

Newspaper titles per thousand population and newspaper tiles per million adults, for selected OECD countries

Circulation per 1000 population 1970

Circulation per 1000 population 2000

Number of titles per million adult population

Norway 397 573 21.1
Sweden 539 464 12.06
Finland 434 443 12.27
Switzerland 375 365 14.88
Britain 453 320 2.03
Austria 312 309 2.46
Germany 289 5.26
Denmark 363 279 6.8
Netherlands 319 279 2.53
New Zealand 375 201 7.25
USA 296 197 6.83
Canada 197 166 3.71
Australia 321 162 3.04
Belgium 228 153 3.25
Ireland 232 151 2.2
France 238 142 1.72
Italy 144 110 1.82

Browne concludes that total newspaper circulation figures correlate broadly with the number of titles available. The steepest fall in newspaper sales in Australia occurred between 1990 and 2000, before the internet was established as a significant alternative source of news, he says. The fall was because of a reduction in the number of titles, with the death of all afternoon newspapers and some morning newspapers:

Two related factors contribute to low total newspaper sales in this country: Australia has relatively few titles in relation to population; and the population is dispersed among a number of medium-sized cities. Cities the size of Melbourne, Sydney or Brisbane can only support one or two metropolitan newspapers, whereas the larger capital cities in a number of European countries provide the base for a larger number of papers and effectively create a national market.

For newspaper publishers in Australia, this data shows that the potential exists to increase overall sales by giving readers extra choice. At the moment, newspapers try to do this by offering more “choice” within a single title via thematic supplements and sections, but this doesn’t offer a choice of title or overall editorial tone.

Perhaps the answer to declining circulations might well be more choice and more specialisation – more extremes of high and low brow, and a vacation of the middle ground.

Certainly there is no reason to think that taking broadsheet newspapers down market – making them more substitutable with tabloids and so reducing diversity – is likely to work in the long term.