Weekend newspapers, with focus on a big bumper Sunday edition is seen as a safe-zone by many Australian publishers despite the most recent Audit Bureau of Circulation figures showing weekend publications are being hit harder by declining circulation than their weekday counterparts.
Australia’s metropolitan newspapers suffered 5.4 per cent decline in paid circulation year-on-year Monday -Friday, compared with declines of 7.3 per cent on Saturday and 7.7 per cent on Sunday. In contrast, the major national daily, The Australian, declined 0.7 per cent Monday -Friday, and its weekend edition 2.6 per cent.
The reason for the sharper drop at the weekend is one of transition, with the Saturday circulation hit by loss of readership, as well as revenue, with migration of classifieds to the internet. The Sunday sales have been distorted by the Sydney Sun-Herald’s spectacular fall of more than 120,000 year-on-year, assisted by the Fairfax Media policy of eradicating unprofitable distributions.
Overseas, there is growth in the Sunday market, with the New York Times increasing circulation across print and digital platforms. Ken Doctor, the author of Newsonomics, told The Bulletin Australia is likely to see local publishers adopting similar strategies to New York, where the Sunday product is highlighted.
“They are actually increasing Sunday print circulation and pairing it with digital subscription. That’s the direction a lot of newspapers are going . . . and then offer a very good experience on the tablet and smart phone.”
Rebecca Huntly, director of research at Ipsos Media agrees, but says it is important to note declining circulation doesn’t mean Australians have given up reading news. Ms Huntly says the publishers just need to understand the transition, and tap into changing consumer behaviour which is taking its toll on print revenue.
“We’re seeing a real demarcation of the role of hard copy newspapers to the weekend. Very much during the week it’s about flicking through the hard copy newspaper at the café or work for a quick read but mostly accessing all that information online via a PC at work or the iPad in the evening,” Ms Huntly told The Bulletin.
She says digital will never replace the weekend paper which is an indulgence after people’s long week at work, engaging with their computer screens.
“There is still quite a strong nostalgic lure of the hard copy paper on the weekend – for the family it’s a shared experience of taking it around the house, sitting in bed, reading it over breakfast and coffee.” Ms Huntly said.
News Limited chief executive Kim Williams says that despite declining circulation and revenue, print is still very profitable with 11.5 million consumers purchasing News Limited newspapers each week. Ultimately, he says, the same consumers driving a shift to digital will decide how they want to receive news in the future.
“There’s still a lot of life in print, and we still make good money from print. Consumers buy print in droves. There’s a huge network of distribution agencies we’re working with to renovate the whole approach to the distribution of print. In the end consumers will make these decisions, but before we all start saying ‘man the lifeboats’, I think that’s way too premature.”
Mr Williams also says we shouldn’t be fearful of change. Even the traditional iconic Sunday paper is a recently new phenomenon, held back early in the 20th century because of observance of religion.
“There was a time when there were no Sunday papers because of religion. Newspapers only started being produced in Melbourne in the late 1980s. Are Sunday newspapers different in their personality? Of course they are, they respond to the fact that people have more time but reshaping your resource doesn’t degrade the product.”
Sydney Morning Herald and Sun-Herald editor-in-chief Sean Aylmer says the weekend newspaper is becoming more important as consumers come to identify it as different to news hurriedly consumed in breaks at work, or on their mobile or tablet devices on the train.
“There’s no doubt the numbers show more people are online during the working week. A lot of those people are not online constantly during the weekend. Newspapers on Saturday and Sunday have a very important part to play,” Mr Aylmer told The Bulletin.
It’s a theory well supported by the Australian Audit Bureau of Circulations surveys, which now include digital sales data from Fairfax publications. This shows combined print-digital readership of its metropolitan mastheads has never been higher. In fact, the 64 per cent quarter-on-quarter growth in digital readership outweighs the dip in print circulation.
The Newspaper Works chief executive Tony Hale says this circulation data is especially promising considering its only part of the story. Some publishers are yet to introduce strategies to capture readership from across all platforms, including online, mobile devices and tablets, which have skyrocketed in popularity over the past few years.
Still, the weekend publications have several hurdles to overcome – the need to cut cuts being not the least of them.
When Fairfax Media relaunched The Sun-Herald in March this year ahead of a broader company restructure, the new design came with the admission from Fairfax’s Metro Media chief executive Jack Matthews that the company’s was to “actively eliminating unprofitable circulation” by seeking out a more affluent readership.
The redesign also reduced the number of expensively produced pre-printed lift outs from five to three, along with an increase in cover price by 30 cents.
There also is no distinct digital identity for the Fairfax and News Limited Sundays – with the mastheads blending in as the seventh day of the daily paper online. Sunday papers also will need to maintain their identity through another cost-cutting measure, seven-day rosters, which are being introduced at both News and Fairfax
Will a shift to seven-day newsroom threaten the identity of the Sunday newspaper?
Steve Howard, the former editor of The Advertiser who took the paper from broadsheet to compact format, doesn’t think so.
“If it’s done properly it will broaden the newsgathering of the weekend editions. If they preserve a few of the signature writers and content for the weekend editions, then you’ve got the availability of all the staff across a seven-day offering,” Mr Howard said.