Belfast Telegraph to drop evening edition, while News Letter may (not) go weekly?

Six weeks ago I posted about the continued decline in the circulation of local newspapers. Amongst the stable of Belfast dailies, the ABC figures for July-December 2011 showed that the Belfast Telegraph had lost 8.1% (4,270 copies) compared to the same period in 2010, and 9.4% (5,548 copies) when compared to the first six months of 2011.

Table showing circulation decline for Belfast Telegraph, Irish News, News Letter and Irish Times - up to date with second half 2011 figures

In fact, when free and discounted copies were taken out of the figures – eg, the copies that you find in hotels, airline lounges and university campuses – the Belfast Telegraph was just 900 copies ahead of its nearest rival, the Irish News.

Tonight, Robert Miller – who chairs the Belfast and District Branch NUJ – has suggested that Belfast Telegraph staff have been told that the evening edition is to be dropped which would just leave the morning edition and perhaps the lunchtime edition (if that survives).

The BBC have subsequently confirmed that the Belfast Telegraph will go down to a single edition from this Friday. Cutting one of the three editions would save on print and distribution costs, but would also leave the Belfast Telegraph devoid of any news that breaks after the 10am copy deadline for the lunchtime edition. If the lunchtime edition goes too – and the Belfast Telegraph becomes a morning only paper (a complete reversal of its evening heritage) – then the savings and job losses will be much higher.

The table below (from the July-December ABC circulation figures) shows that the vast proportion of current Belfast Telegraph sales come from the lunchtime/evening ‘Final’ edition. Switching to the morning will be quite a gamble.

Bel Tel Jul Dec 2011 ABC sales

Across town, the Belfast News Letter is owned by the Johnston Publishing (NI) group, a holding company of Johnston Press which announced today that five of its daily titles in England (Scarborough Evening News, Halifax Courier, Northampton Chronicle and Echo, Peterborough Evening Telegraph and Northants Evening Telegraph) would convert to publishing weekly, while their digital editions (web and app) would be updated “around the clock”.

This “platform neutral” strategy will be rolled out to “all of its 170 paid for titles” with a more detailed strategy update due in their annual results announcement on 25 April. By the end of 2012, the News Letter could be a weekly title.

Together with the planned changes in public sector advertising – which will no longer be duplicated in Belfast Telegraph, Irish News and the News Letter – there will be big changes in the local newspaper industry.

Update – News Letter staff are dismissing the possibility that Johnston Press would take their paper weekly as ‘pure speculation’, pointing out that the English daily papers involved have much smaller circulations than the News Letter.

Update – The allmediascotland blog has learnt that four Johnston Press titles are excluded from the proposed design revamp and relaunch: The Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday, the Yorkshire Post and the Belfast News Letter.

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