Despite the usual attempts to spin the numbers, the quarterly newspaper circulation figures for March were not good, no matter how much the industry tries to blame them on soft retailing conditions or floods or bad weather. The Audit Bureau figures, released overnight, showed a 4% fall in newspaper sales in the March, 2011 quarter from a year ago.

There was a 6% fall in newspaper insert magazines (such as Wish in The Australian and Good Weekend in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald). And there was a 4.9% fall in newspaper TV magazine inserts in the quarter, from a year.

And while the problems at Fairfax have gained more publicity and analysis, those at News Limited and its various papers have escaped very lightly. In the March audit period, News papers, Monday to Saturday, lost about 126,000 copies a day — far more than its rival.

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The biggest losses were in Melbourne, where the Monday to Friday and Saturday Herald Sun lost 45,000 copiers a day between them, with a further 35,500 going on Sunday. That’s a loss of 80,000 copies a week. Some papers glossed over that and hinted at a better performance compared with the December quarter. You can understand why this was used: newspaper sales were off 1%, but magazines were down 4% and TV magazine inserts off 1.2%

According to analysis from the Sydney-based Fusion Strategy, newspaper circulations have  been falling for years. Here’s Fusion’s figures for the March quarter in 2008: -1.01%-fall in national circulations from the same quarter in 2006, -0.85% in the March (on March 2007) quarter in 2009, -3.23% in the March 2010 quarter and -3.43% in the March 2011 quarter. According to its figurings, sales also fell in the June quarter of last year, down 2.45%, and in the September quarter, down 2.95%, and in the December quarter, down 2.65%.

Not as bad as we have seen in the US, but bad. Sure there were flood impacts in Brisbane and along the coast that impacted groups such as the News Ltd papers (Courier Mail in particular) and the APN regionals, but big falls in Sydney for some papers and in Melbourne (especially for the Herald Sun) tell us the real story.

The best performance in metro markets probably came from The Sydney Morning Herald: the Monday-to-Friday paper and the Saturday editions recorded small rises of 0.2% (489 copies) for the Monday-to-Friday edition and 99 copies for the Saturday paper.

Over at News Ltd’s Daily Telegraph, the Monday-to-Friday paper saw sales fall 2.4 (The Tele still outsells the SMH by almost two to one). The Saturday edition saw sales off 0.8%.

The Australian lost 2% of its sales Monday to Friday and a nasty 3.9% for the Saturday Weekend Australian. And The Australian Financial Review was appalling; the sales losses explain why new Fairfax CEO Greg Hywood cleaned out the senior management of the paper and the business group. The Monday to Friday AFR lost 3.8% of its March 2011 sales and the Saturday edition slumped a massive 14.6%.

Fairfax’s Canberra Times also saw big losses — the Monday to Friday paper lost 4.05%, the Saturday edition, 4.7% and the Sunday edition, 3.8%. They are big losses across the entire week. In Melbourne, the Monday to Friday Age had a small gain of 0.6%, while the Saturday paper lost 1.6%.

For the News Ltd giants in Melbourne, the weekday Herald Sun lost 4.9% (25,000 copies) and the Saturday paper shed 4%, or 20,000 copies. Given the audit covered the start of the football season, this is a bad result. No doubt the management might argue that sales were affected by the floods in the north-east in January, but the football season started after they had cleared.

Kerry Stokes, the country’s newest newspaper baron has more work to do in Perth on the West Australian. The Monday to Friday edition of the paper lost 3.6% and the Saturday edition, a nasty 5.8%. Ouch for the new owners, Seven Media West.

The weekday Courier Mail lost 6.1% and 7.5% on Saturday, but Brisbane was hit by the floods in early January. But will readers come back? That’s the difficult task in these days of internet-based news and extra TV news channels.

The Hobart Mercury papers of News Ltd were also weak (and Tasmania also had floods in the quarter). The Mercury Monday to Friday lost 4.3% and the Saturday edition shed 2.8% of its sales. In Adelaide, the News Ltd-owned Advertiser lost 2.5% of its Monday to Friday sales and 4.1% of its Saturday sales, with nary a flood in sight.

Looking at the Sundays, the News Ltd-owned Sunday Telegraph in Sydney saw sales down 2.8%, slightly better than the 2.9% slip recorded by the cross town rival, Fairfax’s Sun Herald.

In Melbourne, The Sunday Age gained 1% for the quarter, the best performance among the metro papers, while the Sunday edition of the Herald Sun lost a nasty 5.8% (or 35,500 copies). The Sunday Times in Perth added to News Ltd’s misery, losing 7.6% of its sales, the Sunday Tasmanian lost 4.1% (floods?), the Sunday Mail in Brisbane 6.6% (floods impact) and the Sunday Mail in Adelaide lost 4.3%.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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