Time for a rethink on Sundays

The time is fast approaching when pressures on the Sunday publishing sector will force changes to current strategies across all platforms.

Long regarded as the area that will sustain print, Sundays have become the poor relation following several rounds of cutbacks and restructures by major publishers. While this was not the intent, a consequence has been a gradual evolution of Sunday newspapers into a product that is closer to the seventh day of their daily counterparts, albeit with more leisure content.

This is not to say the Sundays are not good products; the question is whether there is now sufficient point of difference to optimise reach in a market which is much broader than weekdays. If the objective is to maintain Sundays as the vanguard of print, then work is needed to re-establish the authority of all titles.

Publishers had little choice in recent times but to make hard decisions in the face of a business model under threat from falling print sales, while digital subscriptions were still largely on the drawing board. In addition, poor economic and political climates added to a decline in advertising revenues.

As a result, one of the first moves by both Fairfax Media and News Corp Australia was to opt for seven-day newsroom rosters and copy sharing between mastheads. This made content provision more economical, but at the expense of the more in-depth, targeted journalism required for state-based Sunday titles in an age when content needs to be king.

The unique identity of the Sunday newspaper has thus been eroded. Daily columnists fill the pages once reserved for fresh commentators and there seems to less focus on family issues, once the mainstay of Sundays because of its wider audience.

Copy sharing means that this trend has been spread across all titles. It also means there is less content targeting the specific market of the individual titles.

Sales would indicate Sunday print readers are looking for something more. In the audited sales figures released for the September quarter the drop year-on-year was between 10 and 14 per cent. The Sun-Herald in Sydney took a dive of more than 15 per cent – the fourth consecutive quarter of substantial drops – driven partly because of Fairfax Media’s policy of discarding uneconomical sales.

Yet despite this, print is responsible for just under 2.5 million sales on a Sunday, which still towers over weekday sales – and represents a market worthy of protection.

Although the drops are roughly in line with their daily counterparts, albeit at the higher end of percentage losses, it is from a much higher circulation base.

Online, a more significant problem is emerging as Australian Sunday newspapers do not have their own digital identity. Again this is because of a decision to deliver a seven-day service via the daily masthead’s URL, meaning Sundays are not getting the benefit of any digital readership gains.

As print sales fall, this can result in only one outcome unless specialty content on mobile platforms or apps is developed to hold readers.

Possibly the model adopted by The Times in London could provide an answer. The Sunday Times has its own website, which contains unique content in a revolving gallery, combined with links to The Times for breaking news. Much of The Sunday Times content is suitable for tablet consumption – and the site has a seven-day presence.

Certainly this model is being monitored by News Corp Australia as the company reviews its digital offerings and suite of apps. This also could provide an opportunity to generate more digital revenue, as the development of specific apps is seen as a potential driver of new business – particularly on mobile platforms.

As there is no pathway to a perfect future, only evolution will provide the solution. In the meantime, it would be in the interests of publishers – and readers – not to leave the Sundays dangling for too much longer.

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