Good times begin to roll for hard-pressed newspaper sector

When times are good people buy newspapers

When times are good people buy newspapers. Only a few years ago, sales fell in the Irish industry, as they did in most of the developed world, by about 2 per cent a year. That trend has been reversed here with newspaper circulation growing.

But not dramatically.

The latest audited figures for Irish newspaper sales show that when total sales for the first six months of this year are compared with the same period last year the growth amounts to a modest 2.2 per cent. But when it is recalled that Irish newspaper sales were falling by about the same percentage every year up to recently then it is understandable why the industry views such a rise with some joy. The figures have been compiled by the newspapers for certification by the Audit Bureau of Circulations. As for individual performance, the Examiner, with a 6.5 per cent increase, to 60,578 average, for the period January to June this year compared to the same period last year, shows the best growth among morning newspapers. The Irish Independent achieved a 2.2 per cent increase, to 165,650. Both newspapers, especially the latter, have been involved in heavy marketing and have reaped the results.

The Irish Times came in with a 1.2 per cent increase, to an average of 112,623 copies a day for the first six months of the year. While the growth figure might appear disappointingly low, the upward trend continues and represents the highest circulation figure ever achieved by the newspaper.

Meanwhile, the management of the Star - owned by Independent Newspapers and Express Newspapers in Britain - could be disappointed with a 0.7 per cent growth in sales. The Star, of course, has a real battle on its hands, not necessarily with its Irish rival, but with the so-called British "red tops", the Sun and the Mirror, and here we see the Star's real problem.

The Sun, sold as the Irish Sun, averages 102,539 sales in the Republic for the first six months of the year. The Mirror sells less at 61,940 but its purchase by Trinity Holdings will end a period of uncertainty for the newspaper. One must assume it will now go after the market with some aggression to win back readers. That will probably include extra resources for its Irish operation.

Meanwhile, in the highly competitive Sunday market, Ireland on Sunday showed a 6.5 per cent rise, to 65,210. It is believed it intends to change its format and go tabloid.

The Sunday Tribune is down 4.1 per cent, to 84,566. This will be a huge disappointment. It is effectively being subsidised by Independent Newspapers, which owns 24 per cent of the title. Like the Star, the Tribune is not just competing with its Irish competitors, but also against a very strong British title, the Sunday Times.

The Sunday Times sold on average 4,600 copies a week more than the Tribune in the Republic during the first six months of this year. The success of the Irish Independent and the Examiner shows the power of marketing. Most commentators believe the Tribune needs investment for resources, marketing and to give the newspaper a new look.

The decision to create several supplements might have spread resources too thinly and there is no doubt that the Tribune will never compete with the Sunday Times in terms of supplements. It just does not have the resources available to the monster Wapping Sunday.

The Sunday Independent was up by 2 per cent, to 315,600, while the Sunday World increased its sales during the first six months of 1999 over the same period last year by 1.2 per cent, to 308,848.

The Sunday Business Post, now owned by British newspaper publishers Trinity Holdings, continued its general upward trend with growth of 2 per cent, to 49,621.

The Evening Herald made a minuscule increase of 0.1 per cent to 110,500. However, Independent Newspapers will probably be pleased since it is at least some sign that the decline it has been experiencing since it inherited the circulation of the Evening Press - when the Press group went to the wall in 1994 - may be halting. There are strong rumours that the Herald is about to get a face lift, bringing it more up-market, with a mix similar to that of the London Evening Standard. The Evening Echo in Cork achieved a 3.7 per cent growth to 27,914.

When examining the Irish newspaper market, Irish newspaper sales are only part of the picture. British newspaper sales here are now accurately audited and make interesting reading. On a daily basis only the Sun and the Daily Mirror have significant sales, while on Sunday only the News Of The World (164,261), the Sunday Mirror (43,926), the People (64,883) and the Sunday Times (89,172) have sales that exceed four figures.

One interesting factor when analysing circulation figures is that so little information is available for Irish newspapers in their own market. The figures given are up to June and only became available in August. The British newspaper sales in Ireland are available on a monthly basis.

Such is the detail that we can instantly see that the sales of the Sunday Times jumped from 86,397 in April to 106,124 in May and back to 93,215 in June - a blip accounted for, one assumes, by the revelations by journalist Terry Keane about her affair with former Taoiseach Mr Charles Haughey.

Michael Foley is a lecturer in journalism at the Dublin Institute of Technology