Interview with Noel Doran as Irish News widens circulation gap with Belfast Telegraph

Every six months, the Audited Bureau of Circulations publishes figures for newspaper sales. The July-December 2012 were released at lunchtime. A newspaper might sum up the results in simple terms: it’s a good day for the Irish News, an okay day for the News Letter and bad day for the Belfast Telegraph.

Other surveys will suggest figures for the number of readers (ie, heads not copies) each newspaper has on a daily or weekly basis, with an in-built margin of area. Newspaper website and tablet usage are other indicators of a newspaper’s impact and cannibalisation of its newsprint sales. But in terms of raw figures of papers printed and sold/given away, the ABCs are a pretty robust indicator of the health of the newsprint industry.

Backed by surveys, the Belfast Telegraph can claim to be the most read newspaper of the three local dailies. (I haven’t seen figures for Daily Mirror readership.) However, in terms of reader loyalty and value, there must be a big difference between putting your hand into your pocket to pay 70p or 80p for a daily newspaper and simple reaching down to pick up a free copy on your way past.

Full basic cover price sales

  • For the second consecutive six month period, the figures show that the Irish News sold more full price newspapers than the Belfast Telegraph.
  • In fact, today’s figures show that in the second half of 2012 on average the Irish News sold 3,682 more full price copies than the Belfast Telegraph.
  • And if you include all copies sold (for any price, full or discounted) other than those given away for free, the Irish News only trails the Belfast Telegraph by 26 copies!

Earlier this week I contacted the editors of the Belfast Telegraph, Irish News and News Letter asking for an short interview to discuss their newsprint and digital offerings, the challenges and opportunities of the local newspaper market, and their plans for the future.

The Irish News’ Noel Doran was the only editor to reply. (The offer is still open to the other editors.)


He spoke optimistically about his paper’s situation and the unstoppable decline in the industry. Taking a leaf out of Peter Robinson’s book and changing the paper to appeal more to non-nationalists was not on the cards!

The News Letter is now available on an iPad app (first 30 days are free), and a website refresh is expected in line with all the other Johnston Press publications. The Belfast Telegraph website recently relaunched, with a significantly less cluttered design and an abundance of calming white space. The Irish News are now publishing a few stories on their website, while keeping the full edition behind their paywall.

Noel Doran addressed the Irish News’ online firewall and the value of social media to the paper. (The audio quality isn’t great.)

Of course, all the local papers are eclipsed by the national press like the Sun and the Daily Mirror’s Northern Ireland edition (which sold an average of 50,264 copies each day in January 2013).

Table of sales this period

The Belfast Telegraph axed its evening lunchtime edition in the middle of the January-June 2012 reporting period. So these latest ABC results are the first to fully include its morning-only circulation.

Sales at the Belfast Telegraph dropped sharply. Net circulation is down by 7.9% (4,241 copies) compared with the same period in 2011 (and similarly down 8.0% compared with first half of 2012). When the discounted/bulk copies and free copies (distributed at third level education campuses as well as retailers in Derry, Donegal, Fermanagh and Tyrone) are removed, there are 4,988 fewer copies being sold than this time last year.

I wonder whether some Home Delivery households have become dissatisfied with getting a morning paper delivered through the letterbox at teatime?

table of change 2

(Special Edition sales sold at Basic Cover Price are included in the Full Basic Cover Price figures above.)

In a similar move in the lead up to the ABC figures released six months ago, the Belfast Telegraph have spent the last week blowing their readership trumpet with a spread of alternative statistics on pages 2 and 3. [Some of the readership statistics are the same ones they published six months ago – daily 174,000 readers, weekly 413,000 – as the Kantar Media’s Northern Ireland TGI survey they’re quoting is only run annually.] Their website figures are high, and other local papers cannot claim to have had their number of smart phone app downloads.

Sales of all local daily papers are in decline.

  • The Irish News is dropping sales less quickly than its morning rivals, only 2.4% (around 1000 copies) year on year.
  • The News Letter’s fall in circulation is running at double that rate, year on year. Their Monday-Friday sales (80p) continue to run at around half those of the Irish News (70p) and Belfast Telegraph (70p).
  • The News Letter’s Saturday Farming edition (90p) continues to be very strong (34,548).
  • In contrast, Saturday is like any other day for Irish News sales, while the Belfast Telegraph circulation dips to 43,750 (their big day is Friday 58,637).

The graph below shows the long term trend of net circulation:

Average Net Circulation trends

A belt-tightening economy, declining public engagement with politics and the management of public services, together with alternative online news sources are all continuing to impact newspaper sales.

Update – You can read Roy Greenslade’s analysis of the slipping Irish newspaper market in Media Guardian.

Update – Hold the Front Page have the list of all dailies and weeklies – showing that all but two paid-for weekly papers suffered losses. North Belfast News (4.1%) and Newtownards Chronicle & County Down Observer (0.2%) bucked the trend. Quite a number of weekly had circulation drops of more than 10% – Coleraine Times, Derry Journal, Newry Reporter, Ulster Star – though as overall circulation figures shrink, 10% drops become easier to achieve.

Update – Here’s how the Irish News and Belfast Telegraph ‘celebrated’ their circulation/readership this morning. (The News Letter was sold out in the two shops I looked in, so it’s not included!)

Irish News and Belfast Telegraph celebrate circulation/readership figures

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