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News Ltd is the big loser from the slump in newspaper sales in 2010, casting doubt on the continuing presence of some senior editors and executives at Rupert Murdoch’s Australian empire. The latest Audit Bureau of Circulation figures showed Monday to Saturday newspaper sales fell by 2.8% in the three months to December 31, compared with the prior corresponding period.

But over 2010 as a whole total sales fell 2.82%, the biggest fall so far recorded. The fall in 2009 was 1.25% and in 2008 it was 1.57%, according to Fusion Strategy in Sydney.

In fact the pace of the decline accelerated in the December quarter, when many in newspapers had been looking for a steadying or slight gain. The annual and quarterly rate of fall slowed in the December quarter but was still twice the long term average, according to Fusion Strategy.

News Ltd’s Melbourne sales machine, the Herald Sun (Monday to Friday and Saturday edition) saw sales tumble through the 500,000 a day level, which had gained the aura of being the major defence line for the paper. The Monday to Friday edition fell under half a million copies a day; 495,000 in a publisher’s estimate, down from 514,000 in the December quarter of 2009 and 515,000 in the June, 2010 quarter.

The paper has been around this level in the past, but News always produced a major marketing campaign to clamber back over the half a million mark. It is still the biggest selling daily newspaper in the country, but no longer at or above half a million copies a day.

The Monday to Friday Australian slipped through its big defence line of 130,000 copies a day and the Weekend Australian dropped below the 300,000 copies an edition level. Both outcomes were unthinkable in News Ltd a year ago. Now they have happened and you’d have to question if those sales levels can every be regained. The loses were heavy as The Australian shed 4.4% of its sales in the last six months of 2010 and the Weekend paper lost 3%.

News’ Courier Mail in Brisbane lost ground, shedding 4.5% of its sales over 2010 to just over 201,000 copies a day; the Saturday edition lost 4.66% to 275,000 copies. The Monday to Friday and Saturday editions lost 6.9% and 7.1% of their sales in the final six months of last year, a rotten performance.

The Advertiser in Adelaide was a rare success, adding 0.1% (an extra 107 copies) of new sales Monday to Friday in 2010, but the Saturday edition shed 4.6% over the year and the Sunday Mail in Adelaide lost 4% of its sales to tumble from around 300,000 copies to 288,000. Most of the losses came in six months to last December  with a 4.1% slump.

The Sydney Daily Telegraph lost 1.4% of its sales Monday to Friday in 2010 to just over 354,000, with a 5.4% slide in the last six months of the year (or more than 18,100 copies a day, a standout loss). The Saturday edition added 1.5% and was the best performing paper in the country for the year. But it too suffered a slide in the second half of the year, losing more than 12,400 copies an edition or 3.7%.

The biggest-selling newspaper in the December quarter was The Sunday Telegraph with 617,824 copies sold, down 2.2% per cent from the final quarter of 2009, and also down 3.2% from the June quarter and 2.7% from the September quarter. Its Sydney competitor, Fairfax’s Sun Herald actually added sales over the year (up 0.1% and over the quarter, up 3.1%, thanks to a redesign and a change in management).

The Sunday Times in Perth had a bad year, down 6.9% or over 21,700 copies every Sunday to 293,244. Around 10,000 copies were lost in the last half of the year.

The largest decline from the previous corresponding period was recorded by the Monday to Friday editions of the Northern Territory News, where circulation fell 7.2% to 19,066.

Among the regional dailies, the Gold Coast Bulletin continued its massive circulation freefall, declining 6.5% from Monday to Saturday to an average of just 41,340 copies. The Saturday edition — which the paper relies upon for the lion’s share of its advertising revenue — plunged 7.3% to 62,210. News insiders say the devastating figures are sure to expedite the fall from grace of Bulletin editor Dean Gould, whose imminent departure was flagged by Crikey two days before Christmas.

Meanwhile, the Townsville Bulletin, whose editor Peter Gleeson is firming to take the Molendinar hotseat, recorded much smaller average declines of 2.9% between Monday and Saturday and 3.7% on the standalone Saturday edition.

But Fairfax can’t sneer in triumph, the Melbourne Age suffered another round of losses and the Australian Financial Review‘s catastrophic sales loss continued, especially for the Saturday edition which lost 12.2% of its sales in the final quarter of last year from the June quarter. The weekday paper lost 3%. The debacle at the AFR overshadowed the 3.4% fall in the Monday to Friday sales at the Canberra Times and a nasty 5.1% drop over the year in the sales of the Saturday edition.

In Melbourne the Monday to Friday Age lost 3.1%, or 6,200 copies over the year to 195,900. But only 1,600 copies were shed in the final six months of the year. The Saturday edition lost 3.3% or 9,500 copies to finish at 281,500. It added 0.6% of its sales, or 1,600 copies in the last half of the year.

The Sunday Age added 1.0%, or 2,400 copies over the year to 231,000. The Age figures were all publishers estimates, unlike those from Fairfax in Sydney.

The Monday to Friday Sydney Morning Herald fell 0.6% over the year to 209,644 copies Monday to Friday; that’s down from just over 211,000 in the last quarter of 2009 and a similar figure in the same quarter of 2007.

The Saturday edition of the SMH sold just over 341,000 copies each day, down 3.6% over the year, or 12,800 copies, with more than 18,000 copies (5.1% of sales) being lost in the final six months of the year. That was worse than the Saturday Tele and the Weekend Australian which shed 10,655 copies over the year.

The AFR‘s slump was made public at the end of a week when Fairfax Media got a new CEO in Greg Hywood, who will be under pressure to arrest the slide. Insiders expect him to move against either or both of Gill and Burge who have seen the Monday to Friday paper’s sales drop from 88,247 in the December 2007 quarter to 74,700 last December, and those of the Saturday edition drop from just over 96,100 in the last three months of 2007, to just over 78,700 in the last quarter of 2010.

That’s a fall of more than 15%, with 12.2% (10,948 copies every Saturday) coming in the final six months of 2010 alone.

According to a report in the Sydney Morning Herald:

“Financial Review Group chief executive Michael Gill said given the economic turmoil, the performance was solid. He pointed to a jump in digital subscriptions, up 53 per cent to 6711 last year. It is the only major newspaper in Australia to have a paywall.” Well golly gee, the Monday to Friday paper lost 2,737 copies in 2010 and the Saturday paper shed 5,745.

It was a disaster zone for Kerry Stokes’ West Australian, it lost 1.9% over the year (and 9.2% or well over 18,000 copies in the last half of the year) to 184,545 copies a day Monday to Friday. The Saturday edition (the big money spinner) shed 4.0% of sales over the year to 314,000 copies. That was a loss of well over 13,000 copies each Saturday for the year.

The economy and hesitant consumers were blamed by Michael Gill at the AFR and by News Ltd and industry spinners, but we have had the biggest jobs boom this country this country has seen for decades  in the past 18 months, and not one paper at News or Fairfax has benefited. Their share of job ads continues to shrink towards irrelevance (as the monthly ANZ Job Ads survey is showing).

For several papers, including the Australian Financial Review, the Herald Sun and The Australian, the falls took daily sales to and through long held support levels.

And the continuing slide raise questions about the continuing management of the AFR by Michael Gill and Glen Burge, The Australian by Chris Mitchell.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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