The cull is almost complete. Over the past few years, the regional newspaper industry has been cleaning up its act, ridding itself of the bulk sales that blurred the circulation figures released every six months.
The rallying cry of editors everywhere, “concentrate on the base sale”, has been successful to such an extent that 99.2 per cent of all sales declared in the latest January to June figures were actively purchased. That’s up from 96 per cent four years ago.
Champagne all round then? Not exactly. The cleanliness may be evident, but so is the stubbornness with which the figures refuse to budge from their downward slope. For the morning and evening dailies, the roll call of negative numbers in year-on-year circulation growth is a frustrating constant. “Cleaner and smaller” might make a good strap line for a vacuum manufacturer. It doesn’t work in the same way for a newspaper editor.
So it’s time for a new mantra: Never mind the quantity, feel the reach.
The point that many are making is that while it may be true that fewer and fewer people are buying the “original” newspaper, they are still being reached by regional publishers using other means – namely through new publications such as magazines and supplements, or via different platforms such as regional newspaper websites.
The Newspaper Society has produced figures and case studies to back this up.
Take Stoke on Trent, for one example. A decade ago, the figures show, the Potteries town was served by one paid-for evening, one free weekly and a regular regional magazine.
Since then, the portfolio has grown significantly. The evening Sentinel remains, but has been joined by a paid-for Sunday, three new paid-for weeklies, an additional free weekly, four more regular magazines and a website.
All of which adds up to a reach – not all of it audited, it should be said – of more than half a million readers. And that more than makes up for the 22,000 who have stopped buying the Sentinel since 1994.
The same could be said of almost any area you choose in the UK.
It’s a compelling argument, as is the £92m profit posted last week by Johnston Press, that there is little for regional publishers to worry about.
But does it make the editors staring at yet another five per cent drop in daily sale feel any better?
Shouldn’t think so.