The Australian’s business section relaunch has revived the Murdoch flagship’s war to the death with Fairfax’s Australian Financial Review, and in-house circulation figures show why News Corp keeps taking the battle to Fairfax. As Crikey reported yesterday, the most recent Audit Bureau of Circulation data shows both national dailies suffering heavy falls over 2013-14, with weekday sales of the Oz down 6% to 110,000 copies and the AFR falling 8% to 61,000 copies. They are taking a longer view of the world at Holt Street, hence why they think the AFR is beatable.

Over the decade to the end of 2013, according to figures compiled by News, the Oz has held onto more print circulation than any other quality masthead in the country, as the table shows:

 PublicationDec 2003 circ (M-F)Peak circ (M-F)Peak survey (quarterly)Dec 13 circ (M-F)Dec 13 v Dec 03 printDec 13 v peak print
The Sydney Morning Herald221,815224,000Apr-Sep 02131,737-41%-41%
The Age190,000208,000Apr-Jun 08130,767-31%-37%
The Australian Financial Review88,45797,556Jan-Jun 0062,455-29%-36%
The Australian126,210140,000Jul-Sept 08112,269-11%-20%

Source: Audit Bureau of Circulation

It’s a grim picture, but not uniformly so: over the decade corresponding precisely with the editorship of Chris Mitchell, The Australian’s print circulation decline has not been half as bad as that of the AFR, and much better than the biggest metro mastheads The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, themselves formerly broadsheet competitors at the quality end of the market.

The Australian’s CEO, Nicholas Gray, told Crikey: “The Australian is way ahead of The AFR as well as the SMH and Age. We have fallen 11% over those 10 years, versus 29% for the AFR and more for the metros. Clearly our long term investment in business is a driver of this.”

Pitting the Oz against direct competitor the AFR, the picture is more stark: a News Corp slide (click graph to enlarge), which “de-dupes” print and online circulation (a calculation that might well be queried by Fairfax), charts a widening gulf between the Murdoch broadsheet and the financial daily. Click the image below for a bigger version:

 

Says Gray: “The Australian has never had more subscribers, and the AFR has never (since records for the Fin began in ’97) had fewer.”

Subjective quality judgments aside, we can think of possible explanations for these figures including differing reader demographics and relative progress online and in mobile. Regardless, the longer-term circulation data begs the question: which publication can hold out longest … even capturing a national monopoly if the other side blinks? As Crikey reported here The Australian recorded an operating loss of $30 million in 2012-13, but Mitchell has said publicly those losses halved over the next year. Fairfax no longer breaks out the financial performance of the Financial Review Group, which includes the AFR, magazines and so on, but in 2012-13 the division reported (see slide 19) a pre-tax profit of $4.5 million, down 25% on the previous year. It is hard to see how those divisional profits could be retained in the face of falling advertising and circulation revenue.

Crikey sought comment from the AFR and Fairfax more broadly this morning to no avail.

Additional reporting by Myriam Robin