Up, down & sideways: Boom time at The Sun, stability at Trinity Mirror and cuts at The Times

So Sly Bailey’s regionals experienced an 8% decline in ad revenues between January and early May. This mirrors the 7.1% decline at Johnston Press over the same time period.

There was no forecast of a return to growth among the regionals in this morning’s trading statement from Trinity Mirror. Management expects ‘month-on-month volatility’to continue across the company.

Turn to the company’s nationals, however, and things get interesting. The language here was muted, almost downbeat. Ad revenues are ‘flat’and ‘relatively stable”: up 1% in January-February, but down 1% in March-April. Circulation revenue fell by 6% across the period.

This feels like a marked contrast with News Corporation, which unveiled its quarterly results last week.

News Corp reported a 10% YOY increase in ad revenues at Wapping during Q1. During the conference call, James Quinn, the Telegraph’s US business editor, got a word in edgeways with Murdoch about this.

Q: ‘Any sign that the 10% increase will be sustained?”

A: “At the moment, every sign. We’ve had many weeks when the London Sun has had all-time records in revenues. I’ve got to say I’m surprised. But it’s very welcome.

A: Are there specific titles? Is it all display?

A: It’s all display, yes.

Q: Just the Sun or is it across all four papers?

A: The Sun has been the leader, but across the four papers, we’re up.

The contrast in tone with Trinity Mirror is stark. And yes, something interesting does seem to be going on at The Sun. In early April, Media Week described ad sales for the Easter period as follows:

Among trading highlights for the week are a 50% year-on-year increase in spend from the big four supermarket retailers as they focus on Easter dining as well as their expansion into new categories such as electrical and gaming.

Among the biggest spenders for The Sun, in a sector reported to be up 50% up year on year, are B&Q, DFS, Argos, Wickes and Furniture Village.

Perhaps a fleeting 50% increase on top of last year’s collapse isn’t much to write home about. But Murdoch did seen genuinely surprised — his word, not mine — about The Sun’s ability to break ‘all-time records’in terms of revenues in such a weak market.

Note, too, those final few words, in which Murdoch suggests that trading is up YOY ‘across’The Sun, News Of The World, The Times and the Sunday Times.

At the Telegraph, James Quinn interpreted this to mean that each of these newspapers is doing better than it was last year.

It would be churlish to suggest otherwise. But if The Sun really is soaring away into the upper atmosphere, what’s happening at The Times and The Sunday Times?

You have to wonder. In Scotland, the Sunday Times has axed its marketing team. By one account, 16 out of 20 journalists could be let go. There’s a suggestion that the Scottish edition will now be producedfrom England, with regionalised pages“.

Today, we got the main act: a 10% cut in editorial budgets that could cost 80 jobs at the Times and the Sunday Times in London.

When it comes to cuts like these, one quarter’s trading performance is neither here nor there.

Like HM Government, Times Newspapers Ltd is trying to cut its structural deficit. In the year to June 2009, pre-tax losses came in at £87.7m, up from £50.2m the previous year.

Perhaps management is taking action before News Corp’s shareholders rise up to demand it. In any event, the logic seems remorseless. Two years ago, Wapping offloaded 100 out of 450 sales staff after merging its tabloid and broadsheet advertising teams. Here’s how Harding describes thinking at the moment:

our losses are unsustainable. We cannot ensure the long-term future of this paper and our futures in journalism if we cannot make a viable business out of The Times.

Up, down and sideways. The good news at The Sun and ITV (ad revenues up by 8% during Q1) is balanced out by the bad news elsewhere.

The IPA’s recent Bellwether Report suggested that media budgets rose during Q1. The last time this happened was Q307, two and a half years ago.

But note that only 21% of marketing bosses increased their total spend during the quarter. As yet, the recovery is patchy and weak. It’s not hard to imagine a pull-back.

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