ABCs: Sunday Times not such an 'unstoppable supertanker'

Last week Andrew Neil described The Sunday Times as an "unstoppable supertanker" — but the October ABCs suggest he may have spoken too soon.

While October wasn't quite an Exxon Valdez moment for editor John Witherow's market-leading quality Sunday, it certainly hit much rougher seas than it has been used to in recent years.

Newspapers are notoriously price sensitive — as the cut-price Times proved a decade ago — and it seems certain that The Sunday Times's price hike to £2 is the main reason for its 8.7 per cent year-on-year drop in paid-for sales. An extensive promotional spend, including free DVDs of the film Mona Lisa and chef Heston Blumenthal, were not enough to save the title from a big year-on-year hit.

Sister paper the News of the World was another of the biggest losers — dropping 8.7 per cent and losing a mind-boggling 328,146 sales. Or to put it another way, about one and a half Independent on Sundays.

The NoW has been weaning itself off DVD inserts in recent months — but it did have a DVD voucher tie-in with The Sun for 18-certificate films.

At the top of the table, The Observer's 8.19 per cent paid-for sales hike was no-doubt helped by a free Buena Vista Social Club DVD — but as evidenced by The Sunday Times, that does not alone explain its success.

Bulk copies distributed free at places such as hotels and airports are creeping back into the figures of several papers to boost the headline ABC figure they give to advertisers (rather than the net without-bulks figure used for Press Gazette's league table).

The Telegraph gave away 81,151 copies in October this year, compared with 54,356 a year ago, to keep its headline ABC above 900,000. And the Evening Standard gave away 56,698 copies, compared with 33,546 a year ago. When these are taken out of the equation, its 23.84 per cent drop in paid-for sales reflects a bad hit from the two youth-targeted London free dailies launched at the end of August.

In the London free newspaper war, Associated's London Lite and News International's thelondonpaper are now neck and neck, with free distributions of 372,580 and 377,525 respectively.

Overall, the October ABCs may provide some explanation for the headlong rush publishers such as Telegraph Media Group are currently making to reach new readers on the internet.

Excluding bulks, in October 2005 the main UK nationals listed in Press Gazette's league table sold 24,881,202 copies — in October 2006 they sold 23,820,273. Or to put it another way, the four titles that put on sales in October added a combined total of 161,227 copies — while the rest of the national press lost 1,222,156.

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