Not such a good news for newspapers

The Guardian

London, June 6:

The news could not have been more welcome nor more surprising: not only have newspaper sales risen across the globe in the past year, there have even been circulation gains in the mature markets of some developed countries. Could this really be true? The fact that it was stated by Timothy Balding, director general of the World Association of Newspapers (WAN), suggested it could. His organisation has published accurate data on circulation statistics from around the world for the past 19 years, and it has never shied away from gloomily reporting decline. “Newspapers are clearly undergoing a renaissance,” a bullish Balding told a gathering

of publishers, editors and senior executives at last week’s world newspaper congress in Seoul. He pointed to a worldwide increase in sales of 2.1 per cent last year and an increase in newspaper launches, with 4.6 per cent more daily titles available now than there were in 2000. So, despite warnings about the electronic revolution sweeping the printed word into the dustbin of communications history, newspapers are back in business.

But hang on a moment. A closer study of the figures reveals that Balding may have been pulling the newsprint over our eyes. The overall increase is undeniable in the light of WAN’s comprehensive survey. But the big gains are all concentrated in developing countries. By far the greatest expansion has occurred in the world’s most populous nation, China, which now has 23 of the world’s 100 best-selling titles and has the potential, given its low penetration, for a massive sales boost in future. China’s success was a major factor in Asia’s annual rise of 4.1 per cent, also helped by sales surges in India and Pakistan. African and South American

papers performed well, both recording six per cent increases. Balding made much of the fact that eight EU countries reported sales increases, but these were minor and often achieved at great cost. They also include four nations — Estonia, Poland, Portugal and Spain — that historically have low newspaper readership. Anyway, across the whole of Europe the year-on-year decline was little different from the one per cent loss that has been a constant for more than a decade.

Some mature markets, with previously high sales and penetration, such as Norway and the UK, recorded declines of 6.7 per cent and 4.4 per cent respectively. The situation in the US is equally depressing. While recording a tiny increase in morning paper sales, of 0.25 per cent, its evening circulation went down by 14 per cent, contributing to an overall decline of 2.06 per cent. The decline in Australia and New Zealand was just as bad. As for the rosy picture about the launching of new titles, it is instructive to note that the overwhelming majority were published in Asia and Africa. There is a hunger to read among the peoples of the developing nations, just as there was among Europeans and north Americans in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Balding’s other great claim, about the increase in global advertising revenues, was equally flawed. Again, the big increases in market share have occurred in developing countries starting from a relatively low base. Is a 31 per cent increase in advertising revenue in Russian papers truly significant in terms of world trends? It is understandable that WAN wants to put a positive spin on the industry it represents. But why have journalists, who are supposed to inform their readers by separating hype from fact, allowed themselves to be taken in? There is no renaissance. There is, instead, a very interesting trend that requires proper analysis and thought. Developing countries in Asia and Africa, and some countries emerging from communist totalitarianism, are revelling in the chance to publish and read newspapers. This is to be applauded. It is a birth, not a rebirth.