Peter Preston

The Observer, Sunday 17 October 2010

There is no clear correlation between a rise in internet traffic and a fall in newspaper circulation. Some papers are growing in both formats, others are succeeding in neither, according to new research.
The woe, as usual, is more or less unconfined. September’s daily newspaper circulation figures, as audited by ABC, are down 5.31% in a year: Sunday totals are 6.7% off the pace. And, of course, we all know what’s to blame. It’s the infernal internet, the digital revolution, the iPad, laptop and smartphone taking over from print. Online is the coming death of Gutenberg’s world, inexorable, inevitable, the enemy of all we used to hold dear. Except that it isn’t.
A fascinating new piece of research this week looks in detail at the success of newspaper websites and attempts to find statistical correlations with sliding print copy sales. As one goes up, the other must go down, surely? These are the underpinnings of transition.
But “in the UK at least, there is no such correlation”, reports the number-crunching analyst Jim Chisholm. “This is true at both a micro-level in terms of UK newspaper titles and groups and at a macro-level comparing national internet adoption with circulation performance. Indeed, the opposite case could be argued: that newspapers that do well on the web also do better in print… Understandably worried traditional journalists should know that the internet is not a threat.”
Chisholm’s aim is to prod British publishers into renewed web action – citing the Guardian, Telegraph and Independent particularly for producing the highest ratios of monthly unique visitors to their sites when compared against print circulations. (The Guardian, with a 125 unique-visitor-to-print ratio, is far higher than any other European paper he can find, and also generates over three times the number of UK page impressions relative to its circulation). Moreover, UK national papers as a whole score well on such tests, clear top of the EU league and walloping German performance nine times over.
Could they, and British regionals, do better, though? Indeed they could. “The issue is not one of total audience, but of frequency and loyalty – and online, as in print, newspapers are great at attracting readers from time to time, but they don’t attract them often enough, and they don’t hang around.”
At which point, perhaps, it’s time to look at the flipside of Chisholm’s findings. If the name of one game is frequency and loyalty – via investment, innovation, constant linkages and promotions – might that not also be an answer to drooping print sales as well? If you reject the net as an agent of newsprint doom, then reverse scenarios also apply.
Go back to ABC circulations before newspaper websites really began – say September 1995 – to make the point. One, the Daily Star, is doing better than 15 years ago with no net presence to speak of: 757,080 copies in 1995 against 864,315 last month. The Daily Mail, at 2,144,229 this September against 1,866,197, is well up, with a website growing by more than 60% a year. Some – say the Mirror, down from 2,559, 636 to 1,213,323 – have suffered direly. See: no correlations?
The Guardian, Times and Telegraph are all down by around a third, and the Sun has lost more than a million: but again there’s no mechanical relationship here. Price matters. It always does. But investment and innovation matter as well. They always do. And you can’t help by being struck how little of that goes on in print these days. A pull-out section vanishes, and comes back. Single-theme front pages come and go at the Indy. The Telegraph still looks for somewhere else to put its features. Nothing much changes. Another researcher (at Enders Analysis) calculates that papers have lopped 20% of the pages they put in a decade ago in order to bulwark sharply rising cover prices.
No correlations here, either? Nothing to prove that the more effort and talent you put in, the more you get out? More, more, more … and more research, please.