The latest newspaper circulation figures are out tomorrow and soon we will doubtless be subjected to the usual hype and spin on the figures by the various mastheads. A superficial look suggests things are going quite well, for some titles at least, with modest increases from the previous quarter.

Don’t believe it – or not without reservations, in any case. Steve Allen, head of the media analyst company Fusion Strategy, has been crunching the figures on behalf of his clients, looking at the total number of covers sold over the half year.

He says the real story is an increased rate of decline in total newspaper sales – down 1.26%, compared to more modest declines of around 0.5% in previous periods.

All this comes just before the launch of a $10 million marketing campaign by the Newspaper Works, Australia’s newspaper marketing body, formed last year to spruik the continuing powers of print.

The advertising campaign will begin in Saturday in all national and local dailies, with the theme “imagine the story you could tell”. It’s an apt slogan. When it comes to spinning circulation figures, newspapers know only too well how to tell tales.

But how can it be that figures that look okay at first sight actually tell a disappointing story? The answer, says Allen, is the new system of quarterly reporting. It has always been thought that the onset of winter and the beginning of the football season lifted circulation figures. Now quarterly results make it clear that this is indeed the case. Thus the quarter to quarter figures look better, and mask the longer term decline.

The picture isn’t uniform, says Allen. The national newspapers – The Australian and the Australian Financial Review – are doing better than the metropolitan dailies. Meanwhile, the weekend Australian Financial Review is a star, continuing to lift its game – albeit off a low base.

Why is it so? Perhaps because all the people who share the office copy of the Fin during the week are having to go out and buy a copy to get their weekend fix. Or perhaps because, as the broadsheets cut the space for serious essay-style pieces, those who like some meaty reading with their weekend latte are seeking the more weighty title.

Allen describes the figures for newspapers overall as “a bit disappointing” but “nothing disastrous”. If the decline continues at these levels or worse, then advertisers will be concerned.

But he points out that Australian newspapers are doing better than their counterparts overseas. The decline is happening everywhere, but is slower and lower in Australian than elsewhere.

Perhaps this is because our editors are better (!) or perhaps it is because our distribution network is better and marketing is therefore easier.

Newspapers Apr-Jun 2007 Jan-Mar 2007
The Australian 133,000 129,000
Weekend Australian 299,500 299,000
AFR 88,264 86,529
AFR Weekend 92,194 91,428
Canberra Times 38,937 39,736
Sydney Morning Herald 212,700 212,500
Saturday 364,000 370,000
Daily Telegraph 392,000 372,000
Herald Sun 535,000 525,000
The Age 207,000 202,500