The latest newspaper audited circulation figures were dreadful and there was some tacit acceptance of that in the way they were reported this morning.

It was a bad audit for all publishers, but News Ltd suffered in Sydney and Melbourne and West Australian Newspapers in Perth bled sales in every publication measured. Fairfax had a bad audit in Sydney with the Sun-Herald weakening noticeably.

The media groups all seemed to blame high petrol prices — “Weekend papers pulped at bowser” was the headline in The Australian this morning. Sales were down in petrol stations and convenience stores according to the report of News Ltd sales.

None went as far as analysing the decline over the past couple of years. But Fusion Strategy in Sydney did.

It pointed out that the decline is accelerating: “We are now up to the second cycle of September quarterly audits and its not a very good result. The trends are worrying, as Newspapers are again moving beyond their long term trend.”

Fusion said the September quarter figures showed “an accelerated decline”.

From a drop for papers in the December 2006 half of 0.54%, Fusion’s Steve Allen said the decline had quickened to a drop of 1.95% in the September 2008 quarter.

“Newspapers are facing twice the decline of previous periods. Nationals continue to perform the best and on this audit, Sundays the worst and by a fair margin.”

The Financial Review showed a slight fall in both the Monday to Friday and Saturday editions, with The Australian Monday to Friday up 2.2% and 1.3% for the Weekend Australian. But the full ABC figures reveal that over 11,600 of The Australian’s weekday edition was given away in hotels, airports and the like. That wasn’t mentioned in the report in the News Ltd papers this morning, but was in the Sydney Morning Herald.

In the three months to the end of September, sales of the weekday SMH dropped 1% to 209,508 compared to the same period last year. Circulation of the Saturday paper fell 2.4% to 347,299. News Ltd’s Daily Telegraph saw sales off 2.1% in the quarter, compared with the quarter in 2007, while the Saturday paper slipped 3.4%.

News Ltd’s Northern Territory News lifted weekday sales 5.6%, The Age was up weekday 0.1%, the Sunday Age was also up by 0.1% and the Courier-Mail’s weekday sales rose 0.3%.

News Ltd’s Hobart Mercury lifted sales 0.5% and the Saturday and Sunday papers rose 0.2% and 0.3% respectively.

The Mercury was up 0.5% to 46,000 and sales of its Saturday and Sunday editions also rose. The Saturday Age lost 1.4%. The Herald Sun in Melbourne shed 2.4% of its circulation in the quarter: is this why Bruce Guthrie is departing? The Herald’s Sunday edition lost 1.2% and the Saturday paper, 1.3%. In Sydney, the Sun-Herald shed 4.2% and is now decisively below half a million copies each day. The rival Sunday Telegraph slipped 2.8% to a rounded 650,000 copies. Editor Neil Breen will be under pressure after all the staff losses.

But News Ltd’s Sunday Mail fell 4.7% in Brisbane, while the Adelaide-based paper of the same name fell 1.5%. In Perth, the West Australian fell 2.7%, which goes some way to confirming the criticisms launched at the West Australian news board by its newest board member, Kerry Stokes, when he was outside the tent and wanting to get in earlier in the year. He will now have to help find a way to stop the rot. The West’s Saturday edition lost 3.7%.

News Ltd’s Sunday Times in Perth shed 5.9%, which was the biggest loss of any newspaper in the quarter. The Sunday Mail in Brisbane was next, followed by the Sun-Herald, the West Australian‘s Saturday edition and the Sydney Saturday Telegraph.

Except for Adelaide, all the News Ltd papers were rounded totals: Adelaide were like Fairfax and the West Australian which reported price totals. The rounding is usually a sign of “publisher’s estimates”. The News Ltd titles with rounded figures were marked with a cross, just like the weekly Grazia magazine from ACP, which was a publisher’s estimate for that title.

Peter Fray

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