Capital gloom as London turns back on local papers

Advertiser: ‘changes are working’

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Local newspapers in London have suffered sharply declining sales over the past year – defying an upward national circulation trend among paid-for weeklies.

According to the six-month ABC figures to December, released this week, nearly every weekly title in Greater London was significantly down year-on-year.

Established papers such as the Croydon Advertiser (down 10.7 per cent to 24,688) and the South London Press (down 8.9 per cent to 21,995 on Tuesdays) are among those suffering.

But two apparent circulation collapses are not the result of falling sales, according to the companies concerned. The Archant-owned Hampstead & Highgate Express’s drop of 33.8 per cent to 15,277 was largely due to “instances of non-compliance with audit rules”.

And the 25.3 per cent fall at the Surrey Comet series to 16,630 is, claims owner Newsquest, due to a decision to eliminate giveaway copies.

But notwithstanding these explanations, the overall picture appears to be grim. In Greater London, where there is a potential readership of just over seven million, sales of weekly newspapers, as recorded by ABC, have dropped year-on-year from 590,716 to 546,445.

Despite this, Ian Carter, who took over as Croydon Advertiser editor last year, remains upbeat. He said: “If you take the bulks out of the equation the figure is actually down 7.8 per cent.

Over the past few months we’ve put a new team in place, both editorially and in newspaper sales, and it has had a significant impact.

“For the first six weeks of this year we’ve seen the decline slow to 5 per cent, compared to January to June 2003, when we came in at minus 14.72 per cent. So I’m confident the changes we have put in place are working.”

He added: “In general, Croydon is a hugely challenging area. It has changed dramatically in recent years and we’ve got a vast transient population.

Thousands of people have moved in over the past five years and, naturally, they won’t have the same bond with their neighbourhood as those in more settled parts of the country. Subsequently, they are less likely to buy a local paper.

“We’ve arrested the slide by giving the paper a more modern, relevant feel and removing some of the traditional local paper copy. Most people in Croydon will have no interest in parish pump-style stories. You have to write for a very savvy audience. There’s a lot of competition out there.”

Society of Editors executive director Bob Satchwell agreed that changing demographics were largely to blame for London papers’ problems.

He said: “The bigger the city – and obviously London’s the biggest – the greater the problem is with communities breaking down. The success of weekly papers is because they are very into community news. Because communities in London are less well defined, that is more difficult to achieve. The irony is that it’s these areas which need weekly papers most to develop those communities.”

By Dominic Ponsford

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