It’s not only politicians who know how to “take out the trash”; media companies, too, have canny ways of minimising bad news about themselves. Just look at News Limited, which unveiled its new metered paywall strategy on Wednesday — two days before the release of the latest Audit Bureau of Circulations figures.

The ABC figures answer a question media watchers around the world have long asked: how many digital subscribers does Melbourne’s Herald Sun have? The answer: 26,436.

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The Hun went behind a “freemium” paywall in March 2012 — a closely watched development given it was one of the first mass-market papers in the world to do so. News Ltd had good reasons for choosing The Hun: it’s the country’s biggest-selling weekday paper and has unique content — such as the SuperCoach fantasy football competition.

But the months went by, News stayed schtum about its results, and a consensus emerged the experiment had been a flop. And so it was. For a paper that still sells over 400,000 copies a day, 26,000-odd paying online readers isn’t a cracking conversion rate. No wonder a metered model is on the way for News’ tabloids.

By contrast, The Australian online is going strong with 45,869 digital subscribers compared with around 120,000 print readers. At $12 a month, that equates to around $6.5 million a year in extra revenue. Under the current system, the Herald Sun paywall would bring in around $4 million extra a year. Nothing to sneer at, but not nearly enough to make up for the massive declines in revenues from print advertising and circulation.

The latest numbers don’t paint a pretty picture for print: total newspaper sales during the March quarter fell by 9.2% compared to the same period last year.

Fairfax Media‘s slimmed-down metro papers continue to shed readers. The Sydney Morning Herald‘s Monday to Friday circulation slumped by 18.2% year-on-year to 148,037; The Age dropped by 12.6% to 144,277. The Sun-Herald again recorded the biggest fall: it plummeted by 24.4% and is now outsold almost 2:1 by its News Ltd rival The Sunday Telegraph. The Sunday Age declined by 13.6%. Broadsheet holdout The Canberra Times fell by 7.8% on weekdays to 27,132, and the weekends were uglier.

The only major newspaper to lift its circulation was The Australian Financial Review‘s weekend edition, which increased — yes, increased — by 18.2%. A snazzy redesign helped but, as The AFR admits today, two “bumper” editions during the audit period gave the paper a boost. Bumpers allow papers to effectively double-count — sometimes even more — their copies sold. The Monday-Friday Fin now sells only 64,861 copies, down 8%.

Over at News Limited, there’s little to boast about when it comes to the dead tree editions. The Australian fell by 6.6% and the weekend Oz slipped by 8.9%. News Ltd says it is stripping back marginal sales — the heavily discounted copies you see at hotels, airports and universities — and that’s true. The Oz‘s circulation, however, remains inflated by such deals: 19% of the paper’s sales are in the accommodation, airline, education or bundled categories. That’s compared to 5% at The Age or 11% at The AFR.

The Herald Sun in Melbourne fell by 9.4% on weekdays and the Sunday Hun declined by 7.7%. The Daily Telegraph had a similar drop, down 9.3% to 305,132 sales Monday-Friday. Mammoth seller The Sunday Telegraph lost some sheen, falling 8.2%. Brisbane’s Courier-Mail now sells 172,801 copies a day, down 8% on the same period last year. The Advertiser in Adelaide was down 9% and the Hobart Mercury slipped by 8.4% to 29, 227.

Kerry Stokes’ Seven West Media recorded a 2% drop for The West Australian, down to 176,189, and a 3.9% fall on the weekend.

For magazines it was one of the worst quarters on record, with sales for weeklies down 8.45% year-on-year when you take out the shuttered titles. Bauer lad’s rag Zoo Weekly, surely, is headed for extinction after recording a sales slump of 23.8%. Of the other Bauer titles, Take 5 fell by 10.8%, OK! by 13.6%, NW by 6.5% and Woman’s Day by 4.6%. Pacific Magazines’ That’s Life dropped by 12.6%, New Idea by 2.9% and Who by 8%.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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