Much to the relief of Australia’s newspaper groups, the circulation losses of 2008 seemed to stabilise in the three months to March. But for the two dominant magazine groups — ACP and Pacific (part of the Seven Media group) — the news wasn’t so good.

For Fairfax (with its nasty profit and credit rating downgrade this week), News Ltd (with a rotten March quarter as revenue and earnings fell) and The West Australian (a second downgrade), the news from the audit was mostly good, or better than it has been for a year or more. Nor brilliant though.

But there’s none of the signs of continuing circulation drift downwards that publishers in the UK and the US are seeing, with slumps of just over 7% in the US in the six months to March, and 2% to 20% in the UK in the year to April and falls of 1% to 5% in April alone.

But looking at the way circulations have drifted lower in the two years to March 2009, the story shows a weakening trend. According to figures from Fusion Strategy in Sydney, sales of metro papers are down around 2.3% in the two years while national papers are up about 3.5%.

Where national papers have kept up with population growth of around 3% in that time, metro papers have fallen behind.

In the latest period the gains of tabloids in some markets (Melbourne for example) can be explained by the start of the AFL season. News’ Herald Sun is very close to the AFL while The Age didn’t get a lift from its return.

News Ltd’s The Australian lifted sales in the March quarter by 1.4% for the Monday to Friday paper and 2.3% for the weekend edition. Clearly Kevin Rudd has been good for Murdoch’s conservative flagship in Australia. In the year to March the weekday paper’s sales were up 3.6% during the week and 3.7% on the weekend.

But Fairfax’s national The Australian Financial Review saw a 3.9% slump in sales in March of the Monday to Friday edition, but a strong 4.7% rise in the sales of Saturday’s weekend edition. But over the year to March the weekday AFR saw circulation fall 6.5% and 3.9% for the Saturday edition.

Monday to Friday’s Sydney Morning Herald saw a 0.6% rise in the March quarter and a tiny 0.1% rise in the year to March. The Saturday paper fell 0.3% in both the quarter and the year to March. These were based on publisher’s estimates, as were they for The Australian and Weekend Australian.

But Fairfax’s The Age bled sales: down 3.2% in the March quarter, reversing gains earlier in the year to March which finished off 1.9%. The Saturday Age fell 0.8% and 1.6% respectively. The Canberra Times fell 0.8% and 2.0% for the Monday to Friday edition. The Saturday edition rose 1.5%, but was down 3.8% over the 12 months to the end of March.

Among the Fairfax Sundays the Sydney Sun Herald stabilised in the quarter, with sales up 1.4% (publisher’s estimate), but they were still down 4% over the 12 months. The Sunday Age fell 2.2% in the quarter, but was up half a per cent for the year.

For the News Ltd state-based papers, Sydney’s Daily Telegraph lost 2.3% in sales in the March quarter and was off 1.5% for the year to March: the Saturday edition rose 1.9% in the March quarter, but was down half a per cent over the year.

With sales of 359,000, the Saturday SMH still outsells the tabloid Saturday Tele with 331,372 copies sold.

The Herald Sun gained half a per cent in the quarter and 0.3% over the year; the Saturday edition added 2.6% in the March quarter and half a per cent over the year.

In Brisbane, the monopoly Courier Mail lost half a per cent in the March quarter and 1.5% for the year and the Saturday paper shed 2.5% over the year, but added 3.6% for the March quarter.

In Darwin the News Ltd owned NT News lost 1.4% in March, but was up 2.5% for the year Monday to Friday and the Saturday edition rose 0.8% for the quarter and 3% for the year.

In Adelaide The Advertiser added 3.6%, but was off 0.7% over the year and the Saturday paper was up 23%, but down 1.5% in the 12 months ended March.

In Perth, News Ltd’s The Sunday Times saw sales fall 0.1% in the March quarter and 3.9% over the year. In Hobart The Mercury rose 2.2% in the quarter and 0.5% in the year and the Saturday paper rose 2.3% and 0.3%.

Among News’ Sundays, Sydney’s Sunday Telegraph continued to lose ground, slipping 0.2% in the quarter to be down 2.7% for the year, Melbourne’s Sunday Herald Sun rose 2.2%, but was off 0.7%, Brisbane’s Sunday Mail was down 2.9% over the year to March, but up 1.2% for the three months of the March quarter. In Adelaide, the Sunday Mail rose 1.1% in the quarter, but was down 3.6% for the 12 months.

WAN’s West Australian has shown some sign of stabilising after the Kerry Stokes takeover and the installation of new board members and new management. The paper’s Monday to Friday slump stopped and sales rose 3.5% in the quarter and 1.6% for the year. The Saturday paper’s sales rose 3.7% and 0.2%. So Mr Stokes’ claim that he and his new management would steady the leaking sales has been backed.

Among the newspapers’ inserted magazines, The Financial Review Magazine lost 2.4% of its sales in the March quarter, to be down a nasty 25% over the year. That will hurt ad rates and revenues. The AFR‘s Boss Magazine was down 5.9% over the year and 2.7% in the quarter; so not such a good quarter for Michael Gill and Glen Burge at Fairfax Business Media.

In comments in the morning papers, Gill, who runs Fairfax Business Media, blamed the market and economic downturn in the markets for the loss of sales at the AFR, but if you go back to the boom years, especially in 2006 and some of 2007, the AFR hardly added a copy and BRW magazine, which had a rise of 0.6%, or 251 copies in the March quarter (but is down 3.3% in the year), lost sales.

In magazines, only the weeklies had audits published and the news there was more of the same, although the nasty double digit falls seen a year ago as oil prices surged seem to have dissipated.

ACP’s Woman’s Day added 0.1% of sales in the quarter, but was down a huge 13.6% over the year. Average sales in the March quarter were just over 406,000. Pacific’s New Idea was steady in the quarter on just over 330,000 copies, but still down 13.4% over the year. Who Weekly and That’s Life, both Pacific titles, also lost ground in the quarter. TV Week (ACP) added 0.7% (see, there is a reason for the TV Week Logies, but that was worth a whole 1,934 copies in the quarter. For the year sales were down 6.5%).

ACP’s NW fell 15.1% over the year, but was up 2.9% in the quarter, while OK was down 15.1% for the year and up a fraction for the quarter.

Among the so-called “lads magazines”, FHM continued to lose ground, down 2.8% in the quarter and 1.6% overall. Picture (An ACP title) fell 4.5% and 7.1%.

Fusion Strategy’s Steve Allen said that weekly magazine sales have fallen more than 15% since March 2007:

“The recent pattern continues with further solid declines in weekly magazines, though not significantly accelerating; the quarter shows an 8.39% decline and even if we factor in ‘like for like’ comparison, it remains largely the same; this however is a strong trend line, now becoming unbroken, a real worry, with over 61% of gross magazine sales still in weeklies.”

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey