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There are lies, damned lies and newspaper circulation figures

7 September 2002

12:00 AM

7 September 2002

12:00 AM

Newspapers, as we know, love truth. They castigate evasive politicians and track down dodgy businessmen. They deliver ringing lectures in their editorial columns when ministers do not come clean. And yet this love of truth has one blind spot. When newspapers – and I would say in particular broadsheet newspapers – come to present their own circulation figures, they become considerably more economical with the truth than the slippery politicians whom they are wont to criticise.

In the hands of a skilled propagandist, a small decline in a paper’s monthly sales can be made to look like an impressive increase. The same propagandist can represent a rival title’s modest gains as a catastrophic setback. Whenever I read these short puffs, which are usually displayed on the front page, I marvel at their ingenuity. But I also wonder at whom they are aimed. For the average reader, if there is such a person, surely does not care very much whether his paper sells more or fewer copies than its rival which he has chosen not to buy. And anyone remotely connected with newspapers knows that absolutely no credence can be attached to these wildly one-sided accounts.

Can it be that newspaper executives and editors are in some strange way trying to reassure themselves? I ask because of a related phenomenon, which is the tendency of some newspapers to massage their sales figures so as to remain above what is deemed a psychologically important figure. There are ways of boosting your official circulation figures so as to appear to have sold more newspapers than you actually have. One wheeze is to sell copies at less than full price, or even to give them away. Another is to boost your foreign sales. For it is an extraordinary fact that all copies sent abroad are deemed to have been sold, even if they end up mouldering in a field in northern France.

The truth-loving broadsheets are again probably the worst sinners. The Independent is really selling fewer than 200,000 copies a day at full price but is able to claim a figure which is invariably above 220,000. The Guardian does not like to fall too far below 400,000, though it massages its figures less than its rivals do. For a long time until recently the Times has regarded 700,000 as the figure below which it could not afford to be seen to fall. Its new editor, Robert Thomson, apparently prefers to spend money on editorial improvements which has hitherto gone on inflating sales figures, and in July the paper allowed its official circulation to dip down to 682,672. The Daily Telegraph, however, is engaged in trying to stay above the one million mark. Observers have noticed that its foreign sales have been showing a healthy growth.


One must ask why the Telegraph is so obsessed with remaining above one million. Readers, as I have suggested, don’t care one way or the other. Nor do advertisers, who know what the paper is really selling, and in any case study readership figures (the Daily Telegraph has nearly 2.3 million readers) rather than bald circulation. Nonetheless, the one million figure has become an obsession with some of the paper’s executives, though others are arguing that it is a futile and expensive battle. Some people may remember that it was when the Telegraph’s one million figure was threatened several years ago, after the Times cut its cover price, that the paper decided to follow suit. Now it finds itself in the position of an army determined to defend a hill at all costs, for no other reason than it is there.

Surely one should look at the problem in a more positive way. It is true that the Daily Telegraph’s sales have been in slow decline for more than 20 years. Nonetheless, the paper still sells significantly more copies than any of its broadsheet rivals. In particular, the Times, whose proprietor Rupert Murdoch once set his eyes on a million copies, is itself subsiding. If the Times were making advances, one could see the point of the Telegraph sticking above one million copies, but it is not so. We find ourselves in the midst of the worst advertising recession in living memory, and yet the Telegraph is spending precious resources on a ruse which convinces no one.

Newspapers have been spending more and more on their sports coverage, though sports pages remain a minority interest and do not attract some advertisers. It is also a fact that in surveys the higher AB social classes express less interest in sport than do the lower ones. Nevertheless, the Times (AB readership circa 55 per cent) has just produced a new weekly sports supplement, while the Observer (similar AB readership profile) produces a beautiful, glossy monthly sports magazine.

I suppose they would argue that you must employ every hook you can to attract new readers. I expect that is right. All the same, supposedly upmarket newspapers should not assume that all their readers share an interest in sport or in sporting heroes.

On Monday the Sun and the Daily Mirror carried pictures of David Beckham – father of Romeo – on their front pages. Fair enough. The Daily Mail and the Daily Express, judging their readers to be less entranced by Romeo’s dad, ran much smaller pictures of him. Fair enough again. The Independent did not carry any picture of Beckham on its front page, and the Guardian used a single column mugshot. About right, I would say. The Daily Telegraph and the Times, however, both ran large front-page pictures of a poorly shaven Beckham wearing a sort of white ski hat and sporting a pair of earrings. Both papers also published unfunny third leaders with Shakespearean allusions.

The case for the defence might go as follows. David Beckham is a national icon for many people, especially the young. The Times has quite a lot of young readers and the Telegraph is hoping to attract more of them. Moreover, it was not a great day for pictures. Beckham has a pretty face, and Romeo made a good story. Why not stick the chap on the front page?

I say bunkum. I say that even in sport-loving homes a couple of million hearts, young and old, sank when people saw these pictures (across six columns in the case of the Times) of an idiotic, publicity-seeking twerp who should be on a charge for calling his poor son Romeo. If he can’t be confined to the sports pages, at least keep him off the front.

A couple of weeks ago I mistakenly described Hugh Cudlipp as editor of the Daily Mirror in its 1950s heyday. Of course, he never was. He edited the Sunday Pictorial before the war, but was editorial director of the Mirror from 1952 to 1963. I knew this in part of my brain, but I seem to be hard-wired to keep on repeating that he was editor. I’ll try not to do so again. Meanwhile thanks to David Thurlow for so gently pointing out my error.


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