Should there be an intergenerational report for Australian dead-tree media?

The likes of The Australian Financial Review and The Australian are the most aggressive proponents of the rubbish seen in these reports — especially Joe Hockey’s 2015 effort, released yesterday. But these IGRs makes me wonder if we should do a similar report for the country’s print media, especially The Australian Financial Review, whose editorial writers and editors are far more enthusiastic about the Hockey contribution to ageing than some of its experienced writers with long memories stretching back to the first IGR from the sainted Howard-government treasurer Peter Costello back in 2002.

So let’s look at the way sales of selected papers have gone since 2002. According to figures for the September half-year of 2002, the old Audit Bureau of Circulation said the The Australian Financial Review had an average daily circulation for the six months of 90,500, down 3000 a day, while the weekend edition sold an average of 84,500, down 7.7%.

In 2014, the Monday-to-Friday AFR sold 57,457 copies, down 37% from the 2002 average. The weekend edition sold 63,621 copies, down 25%. Notice how the sales have swapped over — more copies of the weekend edition are now being sold than the Monday-to-Friday editions. Assuming circulation continues to drop at the same rate over the next 13 years, let’s look at the Fin‘s projected circulation in 2028. By then, the AFR would be selling around 40,000 copies Monday to Friday, and the weekend edition would be selling around 51,300. And then look at another 13 years — out to 2041. Same rate of fall for the AFR and you get around 29,400 copies a day. For the weekend edition it would be down to around 41,400.

Now that’s clearly dodgy, back-of-the envelope figuring with a calculating bit of misty-eyed maths — just like Treasury’s figures for the intergenerational report, which started as a valuable information/background report to be occasionally dipped into but has now become some sort of mythical tablet of truth for the next 40 years.

And not to discriminate, let’s look at The Australian/Weekend Australian. In the six months to September 2002, the Oz sold 130,000 copies Monday to Friday, down from 132,000 the previous year. The Weekend Australian has a circulation of 300,000, down 5000 sales in a year. In 2014, the Oz Monday to Friday sold 104,774 copies, and the weekend edition sold 227,400 copies. That’s a fall of 20.4% since 2002 for the Oz and 24.1% for the paper’s weekend edition.

Look forward 13 years and what do we see? The Monday-to-Friday Australian will sell around 87,000 copies each day and the weekend edition 183,400. Looking forward another 13 years and the Monday-to-Friday Oz is selling 74,500 and the weekend paper, 148,000. But it should be pointed out that the Oz’s figures are inflated by adding print sales to sales made under print/digital bundles (but not digital-only subscriptions). The AFR does not break out its print/print-plus-digital and digital-only numbers, so it can’t complain if its figures look worse than those of the Oz. Seeing The Australian sold around 95,000 print-only copies a day in 2014, its core sales are facing a similar slide to the AFR.

These newspaper circulation projections are as accurate as those made in the IGRs, especially Joe Hockey’s efforts. Selective, pick your figures, apply discount rates, compound with an interest rate/growth rate of choice — any scenario can be produced to suit the argument du jour, much like the editorial columns and opinion pieces in both papers.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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