Macmillan Media Monitor

By The Drum, Administrator

July 19, 2004 | 6 min read

The second Friday of every month must be an agonising time for newspaper editors. It is ABCs (Audit Bureau of Circulations) week. No matter how good a paper may look, and how fascinating an editor rates his content, there is really only one test of how good a newspaper is – how many people bought it yesterday. At least, that is the theory.

Apparently, profits for the Herald, the Sunday Herald and the Evening Times will this year rise from £13m to £19m. A good performance by commercial standards, certainly. However, beneath this jump in profitability lies a more worrying picture.

One of the first things Newsquest (Herald and Evening Times) did after acquiring the papers was remove bulk sales, boosting the credibility of circulation. The company has also tightened up its advertising strategy and has improved revenues considerably. However, key advertisers will no doubt have noted that actively purchased sales of both the Herald (3.9 per cent) and the Sunday Herald (4 per cent), according to internally audited figures, were down last month.

When Newsquest bought the papers for £216m last year, the Herald’s circulation was hovering around the 91,000 mark. Last month, however, it was 81,033. Its Saturday edition, which has received significant investment in recent years, was 80,992. The Sunday Herald, meanwhile, which has only a fraction of the Herald’s budget, sold 55,137 actively purchased copies in June.

A 50 per cent jump in profits does not come without sacrifice. Newsquest has lived up to its reputation for cutting costs: the editors of its three Glasgow-based titles all had their budgets cut this year. However, the decision to cut the papers’ marketing budget was, arguably, more damaging. If the public does not see the Herald brand name – be it on television screens or taxi doors – they are less likely to buy it.

This situation is especially bad for the Sunday Herald, given that it is still a young paper that is much better known in the West of Scotland than in other areas of the country. Many potential buyers have not yet tested the product and, if they are to be persuaded into buying it regularly, they need to be reminded of its existence if circulation is to climb towards parity with its daily stablemate.

When I last spoke to Tim Blott, the papers’ managing director, he was keen to point out that Newsquest is investing in the Herald group for the long term and would not resort to using “gimmicks”, such as free CD offers, to boost sales. However, Blott also pointed out that he was not happy with the Herald’s circulation. Perhaps, a year into the job, he is beginning to realise that, although the Herald has a (fairly) loyal readership, it is also an ageing one. These latest sales figures for the Herald – more than 3,262 copies down last month – should be a wake-up call to Blott. His flagship title is making profits, yes, but something is clearly less than perfect when sales are slipping perilously close to 80,000.

Newsquest’s approach is in stark contrast with Associated Newspapers’ Scottish Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday. The London-based group has thrown money at both titles in the form of CD giveaways and reader promotions. Circulation has flourished. Such initiatives are often criticised, usually by those who cannot afford to offer rival CDs, for undermining the purpose of buying a newspaper. “We are selling journalism, not music collections,” one senior journalist recently told me. He seemed stumped for an answer, though, when I pointed out that, if The Sunday Times, which sells more than 1.3m copies a week, believes its “The Month” CD-ROM complements the substantial girth of the newspaper’s journalism, why shouldn’t other publications follow its lead?

When Scottish Daily Mail editor Chris Williams treated his staff to champagne after the paper broke the 130,000 sales barrier in May, I bet he wasn’t bothered about how, helped by CD promotions, he got there. With sales up again, 2.5 per cent in June, he must be relishing the fact that Associated is going to give him the resources to try to better the combined sales of the Herald and the Scotsman within the next year. It seems that the London-based newspaper groups are intent on hoovering up Scottish sales, by any means possible. Which brings me back to the Scotsman, where there has been speculation that the Saturday compact will be rolled out throughout the week. My key contact on this, and believe me he should know, played down talk of such moves last week, noting that advertisers may not yet be convinced of the idea. However, such pooh-poohing reminded me of News International Scotland supremo Colin McClatchie’s response when I asked him, in December last year, if the compact Times would be coming to Scotland. “We have no plans to do so,” was his unwavering reply. This had softened to a more subtle “no comment” before the move finally went ahead last month. Scottish sales of the Times were up month on month, by 1,302, in June. But that is still 1,298 fewer copies than this time last year, and nothing like the return that the Independent has made north of the border. I sense McClatchie will be hoping for better returns in next month’s ABCs, by which time the change in format will have bedded in.

I was intrigued to learn that Colin Cameron, the BBC’s Glasgow-based controller of network development, nations and regions, has decided to leave the Corporation.

Cameron’s departure, announced to staff on the day he went on holiday for two weeks, has caused surprise across the industry. Even some of Cameron’s best friends seem unclear about why he has decided to move on. “I don’t even know if he will be replaced,” one close colleague told me.

It is no secret that Cameron was disappointed not to land the top job of BBC Scotland controller in February, but it is interesting to note a recent poll by allmediascotland.com, in which 62.5 per cent of respondents thought other senior figures will now follow Cameron and leave BBC Scotland.

Many were surprised that Ken MacQuarrie was chosen to succeed John McCormick, rather than Cameron, or Blair Jenkins, BBC Scotland’s head of news and current affairs. Given that Cameron has decided to make a clean break from the organisation he joined 31 years ago, many are beginning to wonder if Jenkins will be far behind him.

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