Increases in digital subscriber numbers have failed to stop the flow of red ink at Australia’s printed newspapers, with this morning’s Audit Bureau of Circulations figures showing no end to the dramatic year-on-year falls.

While almost all print titles audited posted circulation falls, the declines have been most dramatic at Fairfax. Melbourne’s The Age newspaper has now declined 19.63% year-on-year for its Monday-to-Friday edition, meaning it was read by almost a third as many people as read News Corp tabloid the Herald Sun. The Age’s weekend editions also posted significant falls. Courtesy of digital subscriptions, the paper’s total circulation did increase Monday to Friday by 4.08%, but given advertising revenues for online tend to be lower and the online subscription for Fairfax’s mastheads is itself significantly cheaper, it’s highly unlikely this comes close to replacing the revenue lost by print circulation declines.

Meanwhile the embattled AFR Weekend lost 11.12% of its circulation, while The Sydney Morning Herald’s Monday-to-Friday editions declined 14.48%, a figure similar to the 15.15% fall in circulation of its Sunday edition. The Financial Review Monday-to-Friday edition managed to contain its falls to single digits, losing 9.82% of print circulation.

At News Corp, the picture was also one of general decline, but the falls were significantly more contained. The Australian’s weekday edition dropped 9.2% in print copies, while its weekend edition fell 7.5%. The Herald Sun lost 8.6% on weekdays, and its Sydney cousin The Daily Telegraph lost only 6.4% (a comparatively good result). But the toasts at News Corp will be going to The Courier-Mail, which has stabilised its falls under editor Christopher Dore, who took over last year. It was down just 5.5% in its weekday edition. Bad luck to the NT News, whose weekend edition fell 16.3% as its Monday-to-Friday edition fell 12.1%. It’s an unusual result — at most newspapers the weekend editions have held up better than the weekday ones.

It’s not the first quarter in which declines at Fairfax have eclipsed those at News Corp. Fusion Strategy — which does a company-by-company comparison of the aggregate circulation falls at News, Fairfax and Seven West Media — demonstrates in a chart sent to journalists yesterday how far behind Fairfax has fallen in the circulation stakes. In every quarter for the past three years (since the September 2011 audit), Fairfax’s falls have been greater. Occasionally Fairfax’s total print circulation has declined by more than 10% than at News. Seven West Media — publisher of The West Australian — has been neck-and-neck with News for most quarters in the past three years (click chart to enlarge).

To some extent, Fairfax’s rapid loss of print circulation is intentional, as the company is limiting the printing of “unprofitable” editions and significantly investing its marketing and the like in online subscriptions, which, for the few outlets it reveals them for, have eclipsed those at News Corp in terms of growth. But the circulation figures show the riskiness (at least in the short term) of Fairfax’s strategy. They suggest Fairfax is losing more circulation in print than it needs to, as quarter after quarter both News and Seven West have posted far lower declines. While online circulations might, as Fairfax is betting, be the way of the future, right now they’re far less profitable.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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