The latest set of audited circulation figures for Irish newspapers were published yesterday by the Audit Bureau of Circulations.
While the ABCs show some minor growth in portions of the local industry, they still highlight an overall year on year decline. The most startling finding is that the Irish News has overtaken the Belfast Telegraph in terms of the number of copies sold each day at the full ‘basic cover price’. However, the Belfast Telegraph’s circulation has not plummeted as sharply as some industry figures predicted it would following its switch to be a morning-only paper in the middle of April.
ABC collect and collate a lot of different metrics. The average net circulation counts the total number of copies of a newspaper sold or given away. There are also tallies of sales and subscriptions below the basic cover price; regular multiple copy and bulk sales; as well as totals for free pickup copies.
For the first six months of 2012, the Irish News sold 1,284 more copies at full price than the Belfast Telegraph. That’s in marked contrast to the first six months of 2011, when the Belfast Telegraph outsold the Irish News by 2,524 copies (at full cover price).
News Letter sales slipped by 542 copies (2.5%) compared to the last six months of 2011, and were down 1,264 copies compared to the same period last year.
The Irish News sold 99.8% of their copies at full price – and the News Letter 98.6% – in the first half of 2012. However, the Belfast Telegraph figure is lower at 78.7% since it gave away on average 8,540 free copies daily, on top of regular sales below cover price. While there has been a small increase in the number of free pickup copies of the Belfast Telegraph, the main change is an increase of a thousand in the number of copies being sold at a discounted price.
In terms of overall net circulation, minor increases in Belfast Telegraph (0.1%) and Irish News (0.4%) net circulation over the last six months are lost in the overall decline experiences over the last few years.
ABC circulation figures for the Irish Times show that 3,296 copies were sold in Northern Ireland, down 2.5% from 3,381 in the second half of 2011.
The News Letter continues to sell strongly at the weekend, nearly doubling its Monday to Friday circulation of 19,329 to 35,551 on Saturday.
The Press Gazette’s coverage of the Irish ABC figures notes the Ballymena Times’ strong performance, with a year-on-year 6.7% rise to 3,499. Nearly all other paid-for weeklies showed a year-on-year decline.
Circulation figures are derived from counting them out (number of papers distributed) and counting them in (returns from newsagents). They cannot measure how many people nor what type of people (demographics) read a newspaper. That’s left to surveys that can fill in the detail about readership.
While the circulation figures are audited and trusted, surveys carry a larger margin of error. As with opinion polls, many respondents will reply truthfully; but some will reply with what they’d like the answer to be, or what the answer used to be, rather than with the accurate facts. However, under- or over-reporting of readership should affect different papers equally.
Last Thursday, the Belfast Telegraph devoted pages two and three to a double page spread celebrating their readership results, derived from a combination of Kantar Media’s Northern Ireland TGI 2012 survey and their Belfast Telegraph Total Audience Study. The full figures are not available, so we have to rely on the details given in Belfast Telegraph’s reporting:
In total, 413,000 people have read at least one copy of the newspaper in the last seven days. When our award-winning website is added, that figure rises to an incredible 435,000. A daily readership of 174,000 places us well above our home-grown rivals, the Irish News and the News Letter …
And the good news for the Belfast Telegraph does not end there. The newspaper has made great strides in attracting female readers who now account for almost 53% of our readership.
The Belfast Telegraph’s own media pack quotes last year’s NI TGI survey results, highlighting a combined weekly (unduplicated) readership of 426,000 adults across the Belfast Telegraph, Sunday Life and Community Telegraph.
However, it’s not clear if or how that 426,000 figure from 2011 is directly comparable with this year’s “incredible” 413,000 people who “have read at least one copy of our newspaper in the last seven days”. Maybe someone at the Belfast Telegraph can shed light on the figures and how to read the differences between 2011 and 2012 readership?
The NI TGI 2011 survey reported readership figures of:
- Daily Mirror – 218,000 (average daily readers)
- Sunday Life – 206,000 (3.8 people per paper)
- Belfast Telegraph – 181,000 (3.4 people per paper) [dropped to 174,000 in 2012]
- Irish News – 165,000 (3.9 people per paper)
- Community Telegraph – 141,000 (1.3 people per paper)
- News Letter – 68,000 (3.0 people per paper)
It’s not possible without access to the latest survey results to derive similar figures for 2012.
The next six monthly ABC figures for July to December (due out in February) will be the real test for the Belfast Telegraph and will show whether the Irish News can hold onto its circulation lead. Discounting policies together with free distribution can also be flexed to mask/counteract some of the shifting consumer behaviour. But maybe more importantly, quality journalism, good stories and engaging columnists could win back readers.
Ultimately, neither raw circulation numbers nor readership tallies are sophisticated enough to define a paper’s potential advertising revenue. Advertisers will trawl over these figures, along with the demographic data collected about the readership, to analyse the attractiveness of newspapers to their marketing campaigns. Bloggers will merely chart them to show the rise and fall in fortunes in the dead tree industry. Thank goodness Slugger doesn’t have audited circulation figures!
Update – Of the three Belfast morning dailies, the Irish News is only one that (I’ve spotted) mentions the ABC figures this morning. The page story celebrates the paper’s 0.4% rise in circulation which “bucked the trend” by highlighting:
In actively purchased sales, which strips out discounted and giveaway copies, The Irish News is selling 42,007, just 352 copies behind the Belfast Telegraph. The Irish News, which is 99.8 per cent actively purchased, is also outselling the Telegraph, which is 79.2 per cent actively purchased on a Saturday.
Editor Noel Doran said:
During an intensely difficult period for the newspaper industry overall, it is very heartening to find official confirmation that our circulation has actually increased over the last six months. The Irish News also remains among only a handful of titles across Ireland and the UK which can say that their ABC figure is at the same level as it was 25 years ago.
Alan Meban. Tweets as @alaninbelfast. Blogs about cinema and theatre over at Alan in Belfast. A freelancer who writes about and reports from civic, academic and political events, reviews cultural performances, chairs discussions, and live-tweets, streams and records lectures and conferences. He delivers social media training, coaching and consultancy, produces podcasts, is a member of Ofcom’s Advisory Committee for Northern Ireland, FactCheckNI board member, and is a member of the Corrymeela Community.