The latest metropolitan newspaper circulation figures provide the newbie CEOs at News Ltd and especially Fairfax Media with their biggest and most important tests.

Fairfax’s annual meeting was told yesterday that revenue hadn’t recovered from the slump earlier this year and was down 4% in the four months to October. Last night the Fairfax family revealed it was selling its 9.7% stake in the company for around $193 million, or a loss of more than $700 million.

Over at News Ltd, the papers were still getting overt he shock of the exit of CEO and chairman John Hartigan and the advent of the Kim Williams era, a man without any background in newspapers or the traditional ways of managing them and marketing them. But he does seem to be able to convince people to pay for what they previously had for free, but that will be tougher in print and at a time when sales are in a steady, remorseless slide.

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Forget all that talk about the importance of digital editions, websites and paywalls; the most important task for a newspaper company CEO and their editors is to either stabilise, or limit the losses from the continuing loss of sales. Somehow, an increasingly sceptical public has to be seduced to remain loyal. The big question is — is asking people to pay the best way?

Figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulations show the slide in sales slowed in the three months to September, but the fall from September of last year was more substantial.

For the year to September, newspaper sales fell 3.8%, but in the quarter, the slide had slowed  to a 2.3% rate, which is an improvement.

To its credit Fairfax, didn’t try and gild the lily about what was the worst 12 and three months for The Sydney Morning Herald. The sales slide of 7.2% in the year and 5.2% in the quarter won’t make arresting that 4% revenue slide any easier.

In the nationals, The Australian dropped 2% Monday to Friday over the year (but was up 2.1% in the quarter, so that will be trumpeted). The Saturday edition lost 2.1% of its sales over the year, but added 0.1% (362 copies) in the quarter. Fairfax’s Australian Financial Review was down nearly 3% on weekdays and 1.5% on Saturdays. In the quarter, the weekday paper shed 0.8% or 611 copies, but the Saturday edition lost 9.7%, or a nasty 7756 copies each Saturday.

The largest fall of the main daily titles was for The Sydney Morning Herald weekday editions, down 5.2% in the quarter to a daily 189,803 copies, a figure that would have been dismissed if forecast even a year or two ago. It is an unheard of figure for the paper. The paper shed 7.2% of its daily sales in the year to September or more than 14,600 copies.

The Saturday edition lost 8% or 27,000 copies in the quarter, but 5% or 16,000 over the year. The Sun-Herald, fell 3.8% in the quarter and 4.4% over the year to 410,407 copies. At this rate The Sun-Herald will be under 400,000 copies each Sunday in a year’s time.

“Fairfax estimates most of the weekday fall was part of its decision to stop heavily discounted or free copies at gymnasiums and some other places, part of a strategic move to halt unprofitable circulation. The underlying fall was about 3 per cent,” a story in this morning’s SMH explained.

The Age did better, much better, lifting sales by 0.3% Monday to Friday and 1% on Sunday in the year to September. But it lost 3% on Saturdays. But in the quarter, the weekday paper lost 3.3% of its sales, the Saturday shed 3.4%, but The Sunday Age rose 0.8%.

The Canberra Times didn’t do well. The weekly edition lost 5.3% in the year and 1.8% in the quarter, the Saturday edition fell 5.8% and 2.4% and the Sunday edition lost 6.4% and 1.0%.

In Perth, Kerry Stokes’ (Seven West Media) West Australian on Saturday — rose 0.7% over the year in its big Saturday edition (steady in the quarter), but lost 1.7% over the year for the weekday edition and 3.1% in the quarter.

But Kim Williams has his work cut out because for the third or 4th audit in a row, the story for the News Ltd papers is still gloomy.

Of News Ltd’s tabloids, Sydney’s Daily Telegraph fell 4.3% over the year (2.0% in the quarter), and 2.2% on Saturday (3.5% on Saturdays). The Sunday Telegraph was down 4.6% over the year and 2.6% in the quarter, but remains the country’s biggest-selling paper, with 606,101 sales. But that will fall under 600,000 in a year’s time if the rate of fall in recent quarters is maintained.

In Melbourne, the Herald Sun fell 3.8% Monday to Friday and 4.8% on Saturdays and 6.4% on Sundays in the 12 months. In the quarter, the Monday to Friday paper was down 1.4% and the Saturday edition was off 2.8%, while the Sunday paper lost 3.1% of its sales. The Herald Sun now sells 481,573 copies Monday to Friday to remain the country’s biggest-selling paper. But the days of that almost impregnable 500,000 copies a day level now look like ancient history. In fact it was 500,800 in the September 2010 quarter.

In Brisbane and Adelaide, the News Ltd monopolies, The Courier-Mail and Advertiser had bad years, and not so bad quarters.

The Courier-Mail in Brisbane shed 5.4% of its weekday sales over the year, but only 2.2% in the quarter. The Saturday paper lost 5.1% in the year and 3.6% in the quarter, while the Sunday edition fell 5.3% in the year and 1.0% in the quarter. It has to be pointed out that the flooding in January hit sales.

In Adelaide, The Advertiser lost 3.0% over the year, but added 0.8% in the quarter Monday to Friday, while the Saturday edition fell 1.7% over the year, but gained 0.2% in the quarter. As Crikey pointed out this week, Adelaide is a media market tightly controlled by News Ltd. The Sunday Mail was less successful, losing 3.7% of sales in the year and 0.1% in the quarter.

In Tasmania, the Hobart Mercury lost 6.3% Monday to Friday over the year, and 4.8% in the quarter, while the Saturday edition fell 4.6% and 3% respectively. The audit wasn’t any better for the Sunday Tasmanian, which lost 5.1% over the quarter and 2.4% for the year.

News Ltd’s papers in Darwin, the legendary NT News lost 2.8% of sales in the year, but added 23.6% in the quarter, Monday to Friday. (Being the National Inquirer of Australian daily journalism works!). The Saturday edition shed 6.3% in the 12 months, but added 0.9% (2871 copies) over the quarter. The Sunday Territorian fell 2.8% over the year and 0.2% in the quarter.

In Perth The Sunday Times lost 3.8% over the year, but only half a per cent in the September quarter.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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