Price rises, relaunches and number fiddling - the story behind the slump in print circulation for regional dailies

Looking at the ABC circulation figures for UK regional daily newspapers released last week there is little doubt that the pace of circulation decline is quickening.

The 10.5 per cent average rate of year-year-year decline for the 70 daily titles audited by ABC may well be the sharpest average drop ever recorded by the auditor. It's certainly the worst there has been in the last 20 years.

Looking at the ten worst performers (see below), they all operated at a price disadvantage in the first six months of this year compared with a year earlier.

Ten worst-performing regional daily newspapers in the first half of 2013:

Title (publisher) /circulation/current price/old price/circulation change/relaunched?

Title Circ Price  Old price Circ change Relaunched?  
The Argus Brighton (NQ) 16,622 65p 45p -25.8% Yes  
Doncaster Star (JP) 1,441 65p 47p -25.4% Yes  
Ipswich – East Anglian Daily Times (Archant) 22,652 65p 60p -21.2% No  
Sheffield Star & Green 'Un (JP) 28,072 65p 47p -20.0% Yes  
Ipswich Star (Archant) 15,084 60p 60p -18.2% No  
The News – Portsmouth (JP) 30,570 60p 53p -17.9% Yes  
Norwich – Evening News (Archant) 12,947 55p 55p -17.8% No  
Hartlepool Mail (JP) 10,521 60p 50p -17.7% Yes  
Lancashire Evening Post (JP) 17,212 65p 55p -15.5% Yes  
Colchester – Daily Gazette (NQ) 12,889 65p 43p -15.5% Yes  
Edinburgh – Evening News (JP) 30,176 60p 50p -15.3% Yes  

Note: There are 11 titles in this list because the Doncaster Star (although audited separately)  is an edition of the Sheffield Star 

NQ=Newsquest

JP=Johnston Press#

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It is probably no surprise that the worst performer was also the paper which saw the biggest price rise. The weekday price of Newsquest's Brighton Argus increased from 45p to 65p in September 2012. At the same time it offered readers an extra 50 pages a week of content, but sales have still dropped by 25.8 per cent to 16,622 a day.

Fellow Newsquest title the Daily Gazette in Colchester underwent a relaunch and boost in pagination around the same time, and also evidently felt the effects of a major price hike seeing its sale drop 15.5 per cent year on year.

Six out of the ten titles listed below are published by Johnston Press. All have been changed to a new templated design and seen cover price rises over the last year.

The only titles among the worst performers not to be relaunched or have major price rises in the list below were those published by Archant. But it is worth noting that we now know they were competing against figures from a year earlier which may have been falsely inflated. Archant Anglia's circulation manager left the company in August 2012 amid claims he had falsified the figures.

As we can see in this table (via link), digital audience is growing apace for all these under-pressure print titles.  Daily digital readership of the Argus was up 36 per cent to just over 34,000 browsers a day in the first half of this year. 

But as former regional press MD Chris Oakley notes in his blog post today, those increased digital readers are yet to bring in anything like the same amount of revenue as departing print ones. 

The regional press is the biggest employer of journalists in the UK, perhaps around 10,000. They are the people finding things out, holding those in power locally to account, making local democracy work and keeping communities together.

They are the bedrock of the whole UK media because most stories start in the regional press. They are the people finding things out.

With digital revenues typically still less than 10 per cent of print ones, the figures above should make deeply worrying reading for anyone who cares about the future of journalism. 

It is worth noting that the only regional daily paper to increase print sales in the first half of this year, the tiny Paisley Daily Express, did so with the help of a price cut. It rose 9.9 per cent year on year to 7,567 selling for 30p a day rather 45p in the same period a year ago.

Another regional daily doing well these days is the London Evening Standard. Profitable for the first time in a generation, Londoners are hoovering up copies as fast as the Lebedevs can print them (700,000 a day) – but of course it is free.

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