Despite the move to compact, the trend is downwards for The Age and SMH
Press announcements issued on the afternoon before a public holiday rarely contain news the sender wants to go far and wide.
So I’m using that filter to view the arrival of the first numbers from Fairfax Media since it switched the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age to compact format.
Sadly though, it looks like we’re going to have to wait until early August before we know for sure. But here’s how it looks to me.
The first point to make is that Fairfax has data that it has chosen not to release. About a year ago, it started publishing a monthly audience report for Sydney and Melbourne. This used to include details of average print circulation for its metro titles Monday to Friday, Saturday and Sunday. But it has now stopped doing so – instead, it has released a combined print/ digital circulation number.
Even with that smokescreen, the trend is undeniably still downwards – particularly in Sydney. As you’ll see below, that combined print and digital circulation number for March is down by 17 per cent Monday to Friday, compared to the same period a year before.
The fact that the still broadsheet Saturday SMH’s fall is slightly less – at 14 per cent – suggests that the change of format may not have made much difference at all.
I was expecting a bigger lift. When I covered the move of the UK broadsheets to compact nearly a decade ago, they experienced an annual sales uplift approaching 20 per cent, admittedly before resuming their downwards path.
Another reason to expect a bigger bump was the accompanying marketing push and media coverage of the relaunch. It wasn’t a great campaign, but at least it created noise in the market.
What makes this harder to read though is that we’re probably not quite at the one year anniversary since Fairfax switched strategy to stop giving away cheap subscriptions, meaning a year-on-year drop was always likely.
This is probably why the company’s press release chooses to focus on month-on-month changes rather than year on year.
It says that it saw paid circulation in Sydney and Melbourne across March rise by three per cent compared to February. This though is an average – my read is that Sydney was less than this and Melbourne a little more.
But any increase is an achievement. Few newspapers in the world can claim any positive territory whatsoever. It is, however, worth looking at those numbers a little more closely.
The statement from Fairfax also says that newsstand sales (which of course excludes home delivery subscribers) rose by 10 per cent in the first week and were up by five per cent over the whole month. Again these numbers are compared to the previous month and are, I’m sure, down year-on-year.
The number imply that the average increase for the next three weeks was only about three per cent, month-on-month. More likely the increase was something like 10 per cent in the first week, five per cent in the next , then three per cent, then two per cent – equating to that five per cent average across the month. And also suggesting that we’re already on the way back to a downwards trend.
In a couple of weeks, we get to see the audited numbers, when the Audit Bureau of Circulations results are published. However, these will cover an average of January, February and March’s sales, so the impact of the March 4 change will be somewhat blurred. Hence we’ll have to wait a further three months until early August.
There is also information to be gleaned from The Age’s numbers.
Most curious is the fact that the Saturday – broadsheet – edition grew its sales by 5 per cent while the new compact shrank by 4 per cent. I wonder if this could also be partly down to the Age brand getting a boost thanks to marketing of the compact move.
A further sales line to look at is Sundays. The compact Sydney product, the Sun-Herald, continues to freefall, down 28 per cent year-on-year. The broadsheet Sunday Age was down by eight per cent.
Despite the disappointing numbers, my own view is that the move to compact had to come. The new product is an improvement. The current management are simply suffering from the fact that their predecessors failed to make the jump eight or nine years ago. Now they’re doing what they can to catch up.
We remain on a timeline that means one day (hopefully in the medium rather than short term future) the papers won’t be print titles any more.
The move to compact format was one of the last levers to pull to delay that day.
It looks like it hasn’t worked.