What’s happening at the Daily Telegraph? The question is spurred by today’s readership and circulation figures, in which the paper that for years has boasted it understands mainstream Australia seems to have fallen over a waterfall.

The circulation figures aren’t the only reason for the question. Over the last few months, to this reader at least, the Tele seems to have subtly changed editorial direction.

Always Australia’s most self-consciously tabloid tabloid, it no longer screams quite as loud, or as raucously. It has become a less aggressive newspaper, with a less combative, red-neck edge – slower to slag people off, and quicker to be hopeful.

Witness the reporting of the Stolen Generation apology, which was led by a lucid piece of reportage from Wilcannia by Garry Linnell, (formerly editor of the Bulletin and head of Channel Nine News). It is hard to imagine this piece in the Tele of a year ago.

Is this change a response to previous ordinary circulation figures – an attempt to catch and respond to a change of public mood, including a change of government?

The paper backed a vote for Rudd in the federal election saying we had been lucky to have been led by Howard for eleven years, but now it was time for freshness and optimism. Is the paper trying to take its own advice? (And in case you are wondering, editor David Penberthy told readers of his blog that Piers Akerman hated this editorial. “He thinks our editorial is crap. And he’s blogging about it now telling the readers why I’m off with the Pixies.”)

Or perhaps the change in editorial tone is the cause of circulation slippage?

The two explanations are not mutually exclusive – both could be true. It may be that, just like John Howard, the Tele took its connection with mainstream Australia for granted for a little bit too long and will not be able to regain its position.

Whatever the explanation, The Tele is the notable poor performer in the figures published today, with weekday sales down 4.3% and Saturday sales down a massive 6.7% at a time when the Sydney Morning Herald is holding steady. This is the second poor result in a row for the Tele.

Steve Allen of Fusion Strategy says he has no idea for the reasons behind the poor figures, but is looking, among other things, at whether the previous results were unusually high for some reason.

As for the change in editorial direction he has noticed it as well. He wonders if Penberthy, notoriously shrewd but also headstrong, has concluded or been told that the aggression needs to be pegged back a bit to stay in touch with the public mood.

Editor David Penberthy did not return calls from Crikey before deadline today.

Meanwhile the good news in the circulation figures belongs to the Australian Financial Review (up 2.3% on weekdays) and, to a lesser extent, The Age (up 1% on weekdays), while the Sunday Age is rocketing away with a 5.6% increase.

Why? Allen thinks it is marketing rather than any stunning editorial initiatives. Fairfax has “discovered” marketing over the last few years, he says, and in Melbourne in particular “they seem to have found the magic formula”.

Meanwhile, Glenn Dyer writes:

Being serious is obviously in fashion and being a shrill tabloid is out, judging by the latest newspaper circulation figures. The most hysterical daily in the country, Sydney’s Daily Telegraph, suffered sharp losses in circulation in the latest reporting period, while the “boring” nationals, The Australian and The Australian Financial Review, had the strongest gains.

The Monday to Friday Daily Tele shed 4.30% of circulation in the December quarter and a huge 6.70% for its Saturday edition. The losses were 3.53% and 4.63% in the the December half year.

They will deny it at News Ltd but there is obviously a limit to how loud you can get as a tabloid before readers started ignoring you. There’s an obvious message for editor David Penberthy and his bosses, all the way up to executive chairman, John Hartigan.

However, according to the Roy Morgan Research readership figures, the Daily Tele lifted the number of readers for both its weekday (up 2.8%) and Saturday editions (up 5.3%) despite the falls in sales. The 6.70% drop in Saturday sales is hard to square with a 5.3% rise in Saturday readership.

The best performed papers were the most serious: The Australian Financial Review and The Australian both had circulation gains. And the best performed of the Sunday papers was the somewhat serious Sunday Age (although its circulation is still smaller than some of its louder competitors around the country). It lifted circulation 5.61% in the quarter and by 7.25% in the half year.

The Monday to Friday AFR lifted its Monday to Friday circulation by 2.27% and the Saturday by 3.65% in the December quarter (compared to the 2006 December quarter). In the six months to the end of December, the AFR lifted Monday to Friday circulation 2.21% and the Saturday by 5.86%. (Weekday readership rose 3.9% but the Saturday readership fell 13.9% despite the improvement in sales.)

It was an effective reply to The Australian which raided the AFR for senior staff last year. The Australian‘s Monday to Friday circulation rose 0.29% in the December quarter, while The Weekend Australian was up 0.64%. In the December half, the Monday to Friday circulation was up 0.89% and the Weekend Oz was up 0.96%.

Generally it was a better audit for Fairfax than News Ltd. The weekday Herald Sun lost ground but had a small Saturday gain in the quarter. The SMH lost ground in the quarter but The Age was up across the board in both the quarter and half year.