hFor a full report into the trends of newspaper circulation in a country, it is important to consider the following factors: what is the historical background of trends in that country? What lead newspapers to the position they are in today and what is that position? What are the possibilities going forward and how can newspapers take that next step? This report must consider the above with reference to newspapers trends in circulation in the UK. The limitations of such a report are created by difficulties inherent in relying upon statistics – raw circulation numbers provide the meat of such analysis and those numbers must be gleaned from a source, be it the Joint Industry Committee for Regional Press Research (JICREG,) The Newspaper Society or ABC, used in this report as it is the most comprehensive. Whilst ABC is highly regarded within the media arena and audits over 3400 titles it is very difficult to cross-reference their figures and thus an element of trust is introduced. In addition, the topic is extremely broad and requires circulation figures from the earliest days of newspapers when such data was not collected, thus the focus of this report must primarily be upon modern day trends in circulation.
In the majority of cases newspapers were founded not for monetary reasons but to influence public opinion. Recognising print’s potential for mass influence the Crown placed tight controls upon the medium until the 17th century when newspaper licensing was born and the London Gazette first published. By the 1730s papers were largely controlled by the stamp duty imposed by the government of Queen Anne and reporting Parliament was banned – the battle between journalist and politician had begun. By the late 18th century there were four main papers, The Morning Post, The Morning Chronicle, The Morning Advertiser and The Times whose advent initiated a growing circulation and in 1781 the term ‘public opinion’ was coined. In the early to mid 19th century the growth of the ‘radical’ press blossomed – Government increased stamp duty to dissuade publication of such entities which freely criticised the Church, Monarchy, capitalism and Government but individuals simply shared the cost and the paper. In response to the radicals, a more mainstream line of papers emerged which largely supported those that were derided by the radicals. These commercial papers ran adverts and called for an end to stamp duty which was eventually lifted in 1855 and with no Government involvement; The Manchester Guardian and The Telegraph emerged. Salacious weeklies featuring crime, human interest and gossip blossomed and in 1896 The Daily Mail was launched by Alfred Harmsworth with stunning effect – to reach maximum circulation they sold cheaply and employed rail and by 1900 were selling one million copies per day. (For comparison, The Times was on thirty-eight thousand and The Telegraph, a quarter of a million.) In an attempt to control such powerful owners, the Government bestowed peerages on Harmsworth and others, but the Second World War acted as a much more powerful influence on circulation with papers forced to contend with advertising allocations and a freeze in competition. The press reached its pinnacle between 1945 and 1960 when The Express figures were touching four million on a weekday.
Thatcher’s treatment of unions paved the way for Rupert Murdoch (whose acquisitions by 1986 included The Times, The News of The World and The Sun) to bypass print union strikes and set up non-union printing operations away from print’s historical heart of Fleet street. The print unions disappeared and newspapers moved to today’s more individualistic pro-capitalist approach. Murdoch’s focus on sport, sex and sensationalism lured readers away from other tabloids to The Sun which currently has around three million two hundred thousand readers, predominately from the C1 and C2 demographics, and with the C1s being the group with the power to decide elections, enabled The Sun to justify its running of the headline ‘It was the Sun wot won it,’ following John Major’s 1992 victory.
‘In 2000, the most widely read daily newspaper in Great Britain was The Sun, which was read regularly by about 1 in 4 men and 1 in 6 women. The net total readership and sales of newspapers has declined from the 1950s onwards, as have magazine circulations.’ (O’Sullivan, et al., 1994, p. 7). This figure is reiterated in Doyle’s Understanding Media Economics, where she mentions the arrival of television as a corrosive force for newspaper circulation figures.
So the trends of modern day newspaper circulation indicate a general fall in readership. As of June 2004 average sales in the UK were falling by 4.7 percent every year, year on year, with the only rise in newspaper circulation figures occurring in the developing world. Arguably, this shift partially explains (and is explained by) the move towards online publication. On 22 May 2009, the online site nomensa reported ABCE figures showing that The Guardian newspaper was not only the most accessed site but also boasted an expanding readership, along with The Independent (a rise of almost 4% to 10.4m) and The Mirror Group Digital (up almost 21% to 8.59m.) ‘With a rise of 4% on March figures, The Guardian was one of the few newspapers to grow its online user numbers during April, reaching 27.3m users. The Telegraph fell to second place with 23.9m users, a drop of nearly 14% from the previous month.’
Why is this change occurring? It could be attributed to a variety of factors. Firstly, the UK is experiencing the largest recession in decades and with online being free to access, readers may be turning to a cheaper form of information consumption. But the so called ‘credit crunch’ is an extremely recent phenomenon and surely cannot explain a circulation decline that began in the 1950s. Perhaps our changing world offers an answer. In the age of the global village where information is traded world-wide in seconds and a non-journalist’s ‘tweet’ on twitter offers the first pictures of a plane landing on the Hudson, physical newspapers with their less immediate approach and limited reach must evolve in order to survive. A multitude of online news resources now have links to sites and resources such Delicious, Digg, reddit, Facebook, StumbleUpon and offer ‘send this to a friend’ links. UGC, user generated content, is utilised by the majority with many news outlets calling for it at the end of an article. In their book Studying The Media, O’Sullivan, Dutton and Rayner mark this point. ‘Media technologies have tended to reinforce a one-way system of communication from media producers to media audiences, giving an unbalanced relationship between participants…recent assessments have argued that in the twenty-first century, the development of the internet, world-wide web and other computer networks have fundamentally changed this traditional model of how the media have worked and therefore how their study should proceed.’ (O’Sullivan & Dutton, 1994, p. 11).
Tradition and mode are fundamentally altered, but what impact will this have upon trends in newspaper circulation? Perhaps it will not be as great as we may think. Writing in The Future of the Mass Audience, Neuman states that the predictions for this technological revolution are ‘modest,’ because ‘the motivation to communicate will not (change.)’ (Neuman, 1991, p.165). He argues that populations are already able to communicate cheaply and easily, be it by post, email, phone or other modes, thus the online revolution will not vastly alter the number of people who read papers (be it online or in print). Although readers may move from print to online, the overall number will remain roughly the same. The internet as a tool for the masses to share mass information has been present for a sufficient amount of time to ensure that users have reached critical mass – the UK level of individuals accessing the internet has passed a point where now, individuals wishing to read papers (in any form) do so already and are already able to share that information as they so choose.
What about who reads newspapers? A statement in Doyle’s Understanding Media Economics may further illuminate this argument – ‘the more affluent sectors of society read slightly more newspapers than the less well off…this pattern tends to exist internationally.’ (Doyle, 2002, p.120). So do newspapers need to target new classes in order to reinstate themselves as the foremost mode of news communication, and if so, how? Arguably, this would be an extremely difficult and complicated approach to take. Sociological factors beyond the control of the print media may be the reason for such a discrepancy and in addition, the more affluent may be able to follow their chosen publication more easily – access to computers, Blackberrys and i-phones all ensure access to the internet and thus easy reading of an individuals’ chosen publication. Papers cannot tackle such social factors.
Another complicating factor for this report is the (fairly recent) advent and apparent decline of free newspapers. The London Lite and The London Paper are two such examples, each with similar editorial content (albeit in truncated form) as their charging rivals, yet despite collecting revenue from advertising, neither is (or was) making its parent company a profit. Indeed, The Lite is running at losses estimated at £10 million per year. One (charging) paper, London’s Evening Standard temporarily tried to give its publication away free after 8pm in an attempt to combat such rivals but under the rule of new owner Alexander Lebedev has become entirely free. Current circulation figures suggest the move was sensible – the number of readers rose from 250,000 to 600,000 each weekday. Such a rise precipitated consultations regarding the future of the London Lite with its daily circulation of 400,000. In October 2009, its parent company Associated Newspapers was considering the paper’s closure, considerations that come just over a month after the cessation of The London Paper. So if charging newspapers are becoming free and free publications closing, how will newspapers proceed?
In The Business of Media, Croteau and Hoynes, recognise a number of factors with implications for the future of newspaper circulation. They argue that media outlets are expanding at an ever increasing rate and that the number of those outlets is growing thanks to changing technologies; that individuals are spending more time consuming news; that ‘some media companies are now part of even bigger conglomerates that are involved in a wide range of non-media businesses,’ (Croteau & Hoynes, 2006, p.5)
and that ‘the number of media corporations that own and control the bulk of all media products is shrinking.’ (Croteau & Hoynes, 2006, p.5). The rise of the conglomerates has already begun; Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation owns The Sun, The Times, Sky, BSkyB, The New York Post, Fox and Star TV to name a few; The Guardian Group has Smooth FM and Real radio and at a local level Kent’s Messenger group is in possession of a number of Kent’s local radio stations, using each forum to promote the other. If this evolution progresses as Croteau and Hoynes forecast, newspapers will have to diversify, perhaps into alternative markets, and expand or be taken over in order to survive. As explained above, some have begun to successfully do so already with the expansion of online sister publications. Perhaps we will see newspapers pooling resources or being supported by organisations outside of the media sector, and with the announcement of the closing of The Observer, this move may have to begin in the immediate future. Oddly, newspapers as not-for-profit would almost bring the medium full circle, seeing a return to the days when Barons financed papers not for monetary but for the exposition of a certain view.
In Media Ownership, Doyle highlights another issue with implications for the ‘what next’ of trends in newspaper circulation. ‘Traditional boundaries surrounding newspaper markets are being eroded. National markets are being opened up by what is sometimes referred to as ‘globalisation.” (Doyle, 2002, p.2). Such a ‘borderless economy’ includes both positives and negatives for newspaper circulation. Being a country arguably without state control of the media, (or at least far less state control than those such as Russia or China,) UK news sites have a large international readership. But with this comes increased competition and also censorship by foreign Governments. However, arguably, this increase in potential readership will boost rather than stifle newspaper circulation (providing ‘circulation’ includes the figures of online readers.) Papers may follow the lead of other news sites and organisations, broadcasting and writing in a variety of languages and utilising local reporters for local stories. BBC’s World Service has done this to great effect, broadcasting in a total of thirty-one different languages and with a recent expansion into Farsi with their Persian service. Indeed, putting aside the international community for a moment, national papers could expand into non-English speaking territory within the UK and challenge some of the smaller local non-English publications.
In another of her books, Doyle looks at the economics of media. Arguing that newspapers have a ‘dual-product market’ (journalists provide content for readers, who in turn have an advertising price,) she also mentions that in the UK, around half of a newspaper’s money comes from advertising and half from sales. Most papers do not charge to access online material, but one possible way of increasing readership would be to act as an online historical library, charging for archive material (as some sites do already.) It is an obvious statement that history is composed of information and, with their vast amounts such a commodity, newspapers could move into the future with this extra revenue stream. Product placement could also be a debate that newspapers may have in the future. With big name brands using the technique in film and on television it is surely only a matter of time until news considers incorporating the form. As OFCOM rules with adverts, such placements must (in news) be clearly marked and not incorporated seamlessly into the piece as with entertainment outlets.
Conclusion and Recommendations
‘According to the New Labour Government in 2000: ‘The explosion of information has fuelled a democratic revolution of knowledge and active citizenship. If information is power, power can now be within the grasp of everyone.” (Curran & Seaton, 1997, p.276).
Modern developments concur with such a view. Any citizen can now make a freedom of information request and journalist Heather Brook has published a book and online site both entitled ‘Your right to know,’ detailing the measures available to an enquiring public. New technologies enable UGC to set the news (and indeed political) agenda like never before. Labour has installed a Minister for Information and Twitter pushes stories around the world before CNN’s helicopters can locate the aeroplane. In Theories of the information Society Webster acknowledges, ‘Information has come to be perceived as a, arguably the, defining feature of out times.’ (Webster, F. 2002, p.263.) In such an environment, where and how do newspapers survive? The answer has perhaps already come from newspapers themselves. Branching out into online sites, papers are moving into arenas formerly occupied by broadcast media, i.e. that of audio and visual news. Pundits visiting today’s Guardian online can choose from not only news, features, opinion, travel and education articles, to name but a few, but also view the audio slideshow ‘art of makeup,’ watch a piece on PC Bill Barker the missing Cumbrian policeman, upload a CV, search for a romantic partner, comment, blog, subscribe and recommend. To combat the recent downturn in sales, newspapers are creating online interactive communities dealing not only in news but life.
Perhaps, like the commentator on communication Anthony Smith has argued, the new trends in the way we share, access and even create the news, all instigated by new technology will gradually change the way we interact not only with information but with each other, and surely that process has already begun to materialise.