Leisurely pace cuts tabloids’ circulation figures

LEISURE is adversely impacting on the circulation of Perth’s two major newspapers, The West Australian and The Sunday Times.

WA Newspapers outgoing managing director Denis Thompson is in the unique position of having managed The Sunday Times - owned by international media giant News Ltd. - during the 1980s when it experienced steady growth and headed WAN for the past decade.

He said both WA mainstream tabloids were experiencing tough times, like most other Australian newspapers.

“The West’s circulation has fallen away a little bit on Mondays to Fridays – it has right across the board, all newspapers are going through a pretty tough trot at the moment. There’s nothing new about that,” Mr Thompson said.

“There are a whole range of reasons for it, a culmination of a lot of reasons; leisure time, there’s no longer as much as there used to be.”

He said the GST had also impacted on sales.

Some of The West’s biggest shareholders, including south-west vigneron Jack Bendat, have publicly spoken out on its recent performance and Perth engineering magnate Harold Clough who recently retired from the WAN board left following several concerted bids to change the paper’s direction.

“The Sunday Times has spent absolutely truckloads of money on promotions and gimmicky things and I would be very disappointed with the results they have achieved,” Mr Thompson said.

“They had a scratch-match promotion – you can win $100,000 cash (with a $1 million jackpot) - and they’ve had to support that with probably another $50,000 or $60,000 at least; promotional dollars on television.”

Sunday Times managing director David Maguire did not return calls made by Business News for his views on falling circulation.

The Sunday paper’s response, before Christmas, of turning to punting to boost sales un-ashamedly implored readers to buy multiple copies of his paper to increase their winning chance.

This emulated News Corp’s traditional approach of resorting to bingo in Britain when its London tabloids hit circulation slumps.

Although most Australian dailies have been taking a hammering, that needn’t be so with weeklies, according to Roger Parkinson, president of World Association of News-papers.

“Newspapers have to stay very close to advertisers in terms of what their needs are, listen to them, and adapt,” Mr Parkinson told ADNews following the release of the Annual World Press Trends 2000 Survey.

“Advertisers are going for more pinpointed titles, so I think the mass and regionals are going to be under threat.

“Weeklies, and the very targeted media, will do better because they are focused in providing specialised audiences of which a higher percentage are just what those advertisers want, making their purchase very efficient.”

The Sunday Times’ major comp-etitor, the always bulky Saturday West, has been WA’s biggest mainstream seller throughout the 1990s, with Mr Thompson at the helm.

“I think generally and in fairness, weekend sales (of The West) have held up reasonably well,” he said.

“It’s really the Monday to Friday, but that’s not exclusively to The West. It’s happening all over the country. Our less attractive days are Mondays and Thursdays.”

Mr Thompson said there was no doubt The Sunday Times looked better now that it had colour, not its traditional mono format.

But it seems the addition of colour has not reversed the trend of falling circulation.

News outlayed more than $70 million on its Canning Vale state-of-the-art German-built colour presses that operates under the Perth Print banner.

In a bid to ensure Perth Print’s capacity was utilised, News Ltd. outlaid another $35 million for a controlling stake in Community Newspapers which is 49.9 per cent WAN owned.

The acquisition thwarted WAN’s attempt to gain a controlling stake.

News’ reason for acquiring the 50.1 per cent was to take over the lucrative Community Newspapers printing contract, which WAN formerly held.

Despite this contract, Perth Print’s presses are still under utilised.

And despite both Perth papers not being direct competitors – The West coming out six days a week and The Sunday Times on Sundays - they are bitter circulation and advertising dollar rivals.

In 1980 The Sunday Times’ masthead read: “Sales in excess of 260,000”.

That figure steadily rose over the next eight years, not

least because of the demise of The Western Mail and the Saturday Weekend News and, eventually, The Independent.

There were also big ructions due to Murdoch’s takeover of the Melbourne-based Herald & Weekly Times, which then owned WAN, in early 1987 and Murdoch’s sell-off to Robert Holmes a Court of WAN straight after.

In March 1987, Holmes a Court, who launched The Western Mail before acquiring The West, was forced to sell the Daily News because of the TV-newspaper cross-ownership rules.

Eleven months later, WAN was acquired by disgraced beer and media mogul, Alan Bond, when he bought Bell Group from Holmes a Court.

During these changes The Sunday Times, with Mr Thompson and then former West editor Don Smith at the helm, built up circulation gradually even though it was a mono competing against a coloured West.

Circulation began rising under David Webb, as Sunday Times editor-in-chief, and peaked under Mr Smith.

Mr Webb split The Sunday Times into three sections - main paper, Readers Mart and a features lift-out - and successfully promoted it as the three-in-one family paper. It now appears to be aiming at a younger, trendier, market, which seems less inclined to buy papers.

On 18 October 1987, when cele-brating its 90th anniversary, The Sunday Times had its second highest circulation on record - 292,358, at that time eclipsed only by the 1 February 1987 issue (293,148), which was at the height of the America’s Cup challenge at Fremantle.

By December 1987 sales were at the 290,000 mark, while those of Saturday’s West were just above 250,000.

What happened next was crucial for The Sunday Times, moving into the unenviable second slot - in the last week of December 1987 The Western Mail, Holmes a Court’s stalking-horse to gain control of The West, came out for the last time.

A week later The West’s Saturday edition leapt to 305,000. The next weekend saw it at 326,000, meaning market share was dramatically reversed, and it’s remained that way ever since.

Despite lacking colour, by 1997-98 The Sunday Times, then edited by Mr Smith, was regularly selling between 350,000 and 355,000, compared to The West at around 390,000.

But now The Sunday Times struggles to top 340,000. Even over the current election campaign sales have battled to reach that mark.

When this is set against the fact that its editor Brian Crisp told some of his senior reporters in February 1999 he would be topping The West’s circulation (so it would now be at about 385,000) within a year of adopting colour in mid-1999, it’s fair to say expectations have not been realised.

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