The was some interesting spin on the newspaper circulation figures for the December quarter and 2009. But they all missed one telling point.

Papers are irrelevant. This is not a throwaway line, it’s what the federal Government has signalled with its licence fee rebate to the free-to-air TV networks.

If anything the papers face greater pressures on their business models from the internet than commercial TV does from the digital age and yet not a cent of aid, just indifference.

That’s the bottom line of this week’s still greasy news of licence fee rebates to commercial TV. To this Government in Canberra, newspapers are not worth duchessing with a handout or two.

So there will be no weeping in Canberra about the fading newspaper circulations, especially at the Australian Financial Review and The Australian. In fact the Government has been fighting with The Australian for the past few months, that’s how much it fears the Murdoch national daily.

While papers were down, the weakest for three years, especially the various editions of Australian Financial Review and The Australian, magazines did better than many thought.

There were losses of sales in many titles, but three big sellers, New Idea (steady, instead of falling), Woman’s Day ( up 1.0%) and the monthly Australian Women’s Weekly (up 2.2% and back over half a million copies a month) were stronger than they have been for the past two years.

That’s a sign that conditions have stabilised for the magazines after a couple of very rough years. The steadying in the economy and rising consumer confidence probably had a lot to do with that, as well as the absence of any petrol price surge.

The two major magazine groups are owned by Seven (Pacific) and PBL (ACP Media) so its probably no coincidence that politicians open up for the likes of the Women’s Weekly, Woman’s Day and New Idea. Think Tony Abbott, Julia Gillard’s haircut and Therese Rein’s new body, all interviews or stories in these titles in the past year or so.

The Australian reported this morning: “The Newspaper Works chief executive Tony Hale said the 15.2 million papers sold each week in Australia represented a ‘phenomenal number in a country as relatively small as ours’. I think you will find most of the newspaper people are pretty happy with the overall results. There’s lots of challenges out there, lots of things are changing in the media.”

Hale said the circulation figures compared very favourably with overseas markets.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported “A patchy economy and concerns over household budgets continued to hit newspaper sales, with the circulation of Australia’s main titles falling by 2% in the three months to the end of the year, the Audit Bureau of Circulation reports.”

In fact if you look at the economy in 2009, it was stronger (especially in the December quarter) than 2008. The December quarter of that year saw negative economic growth for the only quarter in this country. Last year saw jobs lost, then a turnaround from September onwards and around 190,000 jobs created up to January, according to the latest jobs figures.

Retail sales rise across the year, especially towards the final months. Business and consumer confidence recovered very strongly in the last quarter of 2009, as well as the stockmarket, and yet newspaper sales still fell.

Newspapers as whole shed 2.3% of their sales in 2009 and 0.9% in the final quarter and 3.1% in the December half. In 2008, the group shed 2.2% in the 12 months, and 1.7% in the last half of the year and 0.4% in the December quarter. In 2007 the lost 1.0% over the year, 1% over the last half and 0.3% in the final quarter.

The Australian Financial Review was the biggest loser, which is odd given the very strong recovery in stockmarkets and deals from last March. The Monday-to-Friday AFR lost 10.1% of its sales over 2009 to end at 77,400 copies a day. In 2007 it added 0.3% to more than 88,200 copies a day. That’s an overall fall of 12.5%. The Saturday AFR shed 9.9% of its sales in 2009 to end at 84,528. In 2007 it added 2.3% to more than 96,000 copies. That’s also a fall of 12.5%.

The Monday-to-Friday Australian lost 4.2% of its sales in 2009 to 131,246. In 2007 it added 00.3% to 136,000. (The Australian peaked at 140,000 copies a day in the September, 2008 quarter). The Weekend Australian lost 2.6% of its sales to 300,041 at the end of last year. In 2007 it added 0.3% to 300,941. So it has gone nowhere, but not fallen, unlike the Monday-to-Friday paper.

The weekday Sydney Morning Herald fell 0.2% in 2009 to an average 211,006 copies a day. (211,700 in 2007). The Saturday edition lost 1.8% to 353,878 at the weekend (360,000 in 2007). Sales of Fairfax Media’s Sydney Sunday newspaper, The Sun-Herald, fell by 6.6% to 442,357 copies (500,000 in 2007).

The biggest selling newspaper in the December quarter was Sydney’s The Sunday Telegraph, with 632,009 copies, down 3.2% in the year and down from 670,000 copies in 2007. It was down 2.1% in that year.

The Monday-to-Friday edition of Melbourne’s Herald Sun maintained its place as the biggest selling metropolitan daily, with 514,000 copies, down 0.3% over the year. In 2007 it sold 530,000 copies a day.

Sydney’s Daily Telegraph sold 359,171 copies a day Monday-to-Friday at the end of 2009, down 2.7%. In 2007 the paper sold 375,000 copies in the December quarter, down 4.3%. The Saturday edition sold 322,546 copies in December 2009, down 0.8%. That was in fact up on the December quarter of 2007 when the paper sold 319,000 copies (down 6.7% on 2006).

Only Melbourne’s Sunday Age and Saturday Herald Sun recorded circulation rises in the latest figures.

Overall magazine sales fell more than 4% in the quarter. Women’s mass weekly titles (New Idea etc) were off 3.5% for the year. But that was an improvement on the the June 2008 audit (around the depth of some of the falls for these titles), the category was down 7.9% from June 2007.

Women’s mass monthly titles (led by the AWW) saw a 5.6% gain in 2009 over 2008, thanks to a new title called Prevention. Strip that out and the fall was just 2.5% compared with the June 2008 fall of 8.2%.

Thanks to the growth in Pacific (Seven Media Group) Mag’s premier title, Better Homes and Gardens, the Home and Lifestyle group of titles was again a solid performer. This category saw sales up 4.5% for the year. In the June, 2008 audit, it rose 5.6% on 2007.

Better Homes’ circulation was 392,000 at the end of last year, up 3.2%. In the June 2008 audit, it was up 13% over June 2007 when it sold 295,000 copies. That a rise of around a third in 30 months. The cross promotion with the Seven program continues to drive sales.

Women’s Lifestyle (Cleo etc) lost 2.0% in the December 2009 audit. In June 2008, it was up 4.7% from 2007. Fashion  (Marie Claire, Harpers, Vogue etc), saw 2.3% rise, but in the June 2008 audit it was up 4.6% on 2007.

Business titles lost 4.8% of their sales in 2009, compared with 2008. In the June 2008 audit, they were up 9.3%. The biggest change was the sharp drop in sales for Australian Property Investor. In fact sales of this title have fallen to 25,000 in December 2009, from more than 80,000 in the June 2007 audit.

Peter Fray

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