The newspaper industry, which is dominated by Fairfax Media and News Ltd papers, took the predictable low road in trying to explain one of the worst circulation audits for years in the three months to March.

“Domestic newspapers buck global trend” said the headline on the Sydney Morning Herald story, oblivious to, or ignoring the fact that the 3% plus fall in the March quarter was simply terrible.

“A softer news cycle contributed to a 3 per cent fall in overall newspaper sales in the year’s first three months, according to the newspaper industry group Newspaper Works.

“Figures released by the Audit Bureau of Circulations showed overall sales of metropolitan, national and regional newspapers fell 3 per cent to March 31, compared with a 0.9 per cent decline for the corresponding quarter last year.

“Newspaper Works cited big news events during last year’s March quarter for an unusually strong comparison period. The Victorian bushfires, the inauguration of the United States President, Barack Obama, and the government’s response to the global financial crisis topped the headlines.

”Circulation during that period was strong because, as we’ve seen so often, Australians turn to newspapers in tough times or when there is news of great significance,” its chief executive, Tony Hale, said.”

No real analysis, just spin, like any trade group, Newspaper Works preferred to focus on the positive, but there wasn’t anything positive at all in the figures.

In fact just three papers showed circulation rises over the year to March, The Mercury and Sunday Tasmanian and The Sunday Age in Melbourne. The rises were minuscule, 80 extra copies of The Mercury a day, 452 copies of the Sunday Tasmanian every Sunday in the quarter and 1100 extra copies of The Sunday Age.

So ignore the spin the look at what Fusion Strategy’s Steve Allen said  was a “universally bad audit, one of the worst experienced”.

He confessed that the good December audit had prompted him to remark “optimistically” that that was “the low point” for Australian newspapers. Allen yesterday said that after the March figures “there really is no joy to be had in any sector”.

Total sales were down 3.23% in the quarter, national sales were off a large 5.53% and metro papers were down 3.0%. Week day papers were down 3.14%, weekends, 3.38% and Sundays, 3.54%. Unremittingly bad.

The falls were uniform, except for nationals, which was driven by another poor quarter for the Australian Financial Review.

What The Newspaper Works didn’t acknowledge in its blinkered commentary was that the pace of fall in the March quarter accelerated from levels seen in preceding quarters. For example, the December quarter saw a total fall of 1.98%, the September quarter, 1.55%, the March quarter in 2009, saw a fall of 0.85%. Seems like a bit of a trend here.

Newspaper Works pointed to bigger falls in the US in the March six months (8.7%) and in the UK (4%-5%), but neglected to mention that both markets had been through wrenching recessions, intense financial crashes and terrible unemployment, all of which Australia avoided. Nor did it point out (naturally), that the slump occurred in a quarter when newspaper advertising picked up.

And there were some big falls, with the Australian Financial Review seeing another quarter of big losses, down 8.6% Monday-to-Friday and 6.6% on Saturdays from the March, 2009 quarter. That was despite the market rise and the improved economy. The AFR magazines Boss (down 8.0% and the AFR Magazine (down 8.6%) didn’t fare well either. The AFR report on page 53 played the story as straight as you could expect.

Nor can its tormentor, The Australian, boast because  it shed 4.4% of its circulation in the 12 months to March, against the 4.2% fall in 2009. The Weekend Australian saw a slump of 3.7%. The Australian’s newish magazines The Deal (down 27.9%) and Wish (off 26.7%) were badly hurt in the quarter. The Australian’s story was at the top of page 23 in the business section and was also fairly straight up and down.

In Sydney, News Ltd’s The Daily Telegraph Monday-to-Friday saw a 3% fall; and the Saturday Telegraph, 1.1%. The Sunday Telegraph shed 2.4% in the quarter.

Fairfax’s Sydney Morning Herald saw an 1.7% fall Monday to Friday and a rather rough 5.3% drop in the sales of its Saturday paper, or nearly 19,000 copies each Saturday. The Sun Herald though was the worst performer in the country, losing more than 37,000 copies, or 7.7%.

In Melbourne, News Ltd’s Herald Sun saw sales down 1.7%, 1.1% for the Saturday edition and 2.0% for the Sunday edition.

Fairfax’s The Age fared worst with a 4.1% drop in the Monday-to-Friday sales in the quarter and 5.1% for the Saturday paper. That made the small rise in the Sunday paper of 0.5% look a bit odd.

In Brisbane, News Ltd’s Courier Mail saw sales down 1.9% Monday to Friday and 3.6% on Saturday. The Sunday paper lost 5.6%, or 31,000 copies. That’s a big thumbs down from the people of Brisbane and Queensland to News Ltd and Rupert Murdoch.

In Adelaide, another News Ltd monopoly, the Advertiser, saw  sales drop 3.6% on Monday to Friday and 2.6% for the Saturday edition. The Sunday Mail shed 2.2% of its sales.

Hobart was the only joy for News with the weekday Mercury down 1.7%, but the Saturday edition up 0.1% and the Sunday Tasmanian rising 0.8%.

And in Perth News Ltd’s Sunday Times lost 2.9% of its sales in the quarter compared with a year ago.

And for Kerry Stokes, his 23% owned West Australian newspapers had a poor audit with the Monday-to-Friday sales of the West Australian down 4.2% and 4.8% for the Saturday paper.

Fairfax’s Canberra Times lost 4.4% Monday to Friday, 5.7% on Saturday and 3.1% on Sunday. Terrible and an indictment of the management installed by Fairfax and its old Rural Press masters and gradually ruining what was a solid newspaper.

In magazines, only the weeklies are measured quarterly and the news there was not good either. ACP Magazines were the big loser.

Only one mag, Pacific’s Famous (Seven Media Group), had a good audit with sales up 14.4% to just over 88,100. Pacific’s New Idea was all but steady on 330,503 (up 0.1%), That’s Life shed 10% and Who Weekly lost 1.6%.

ACP magazines Woman’s Day lost 0.2% of its sales in the quarter to 405,273. Take 5, another ACP product lost 11.5%, Grazia a nasty 14.6% and NW, an even nastier 15.4%. Not the best of audits for the gang of cost cutters at ACP.

ACP’s TV Week shed 8.4% of its sales to 210, 790. Seeing the March quarter is the start of the Logies voting, it was a poor performance.

Men’s magazines lost ground with ACP titles Zoo Weekly losing 8.1% of its sales, People, 8.5% and Picture, 3.75%.

And the news for Michael Gill and Glenn Burge at Fairfax magazines wasn’t good either; BRW lost another 1.1% in sales, selling just 40,805 a week.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story reported the Sunday Telegraph “shed a large 4.8% in the quarter”. The correct figure is in fact 2.4%. Crikey apologises for the error.

Peter Fray

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