Gulf war brings regional press mixed fortunes

It was a mixed war for the regional press. For some it was a chance to support the local families of military personnel deployed in the Gulf, and their circulations benefited accordingly. Others, with no big local connection with the armed forces, found that their readers viewed the conflict in Iraq as a big turn-off. For them, the going was considerably tougher.

At the Exeter Express and Echo, for example, sales went up 10 per cent on the first day of the war and 8 per cent the following day. The town has plenty of service personnel based there as well as a marine training camp. Editor Steve Hall said that early-morning editions meant that the increases continued throughout the first week of the conflict. Across the six months, the title grew by 0.7 per cent.

The Western Daily Press’s overall growth of 0.03 per cent justified editor Terry Manners’ decision to send two staffers out with British forces. “Because we had correspondents in Iraq, we were able to personalise our coverage and write specific and personal information about local regiments. The service families knew that we were the paper for them.”

Southampton’s Southern Daily Echo benefited too, with a 2.1 per cent lift in actively purchased sales. There was also the added bonus of an FA Cup Final appearance from its football team. Along the coast, The News, Portsmouth, shows, too, how a successful football team can be a shot in the arm. With Pompey winning promotion to the Premiership, sales of the Saturday edition show a 1.6 per cent lift across the period.

For titles whose readers have no direct connection to the war, the story was different. Manchester Evening News editor Paul Horrocks said he wouldn’t give a war as much coverage if it happened again. After a lift on the first two days, the remainder of the war had a negative effect on sales, he reckoned – although the paper still managed a 0.8 per cent growth in its actively purchased sale.

Overall, though, the January to June figures don’t make hugely encouraging reading for daily and evening editors, whose continuing policy of stripping out bulk sales means there are very few plus signs in the column marked “year-on-year growth”.

True, some can point to the fact that their actively purchased sales (as opposed to copies circulated as part of deals with hotel chains, railway companies etc) are showing modest gains – even if their overall circulation shows a decline. But the fact that there are only 11 of them indicates the extent to which circulation slides have become the norm. Still, more than three-quarters of all regional newspapers (75.3 per cent) have stripped out bulk sales entirely, posting 100 per cent actively purchased circulation figures.

Top of the actively purchased growth table, for the fourth year running, is the South Wales Argus – one of just eight evenings to show an overall circulation growth (of an impressive 1.9 per cent). Meanwhile, the Nottingham Evening Post makes its long-awaited return to the ABC chart, with a figure of 78,697 that ranks it the 12th biggest selling evening title in the country.

Figures show the full scale of the task facing Fiona Alexander, new editor at The Birmingham Post. The headline figure of 17,238 – 4.4 per cent down year-on-year but 1.2 per cent up period-on-period – hides the fact that just 80 per cent of copies are actively purchased. In fact, fewer than 14,000 copies are now bought at full price.


By Ian Reeves

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