Demise of print tad exaggerated

By Peter Preston

Fed up with newspaper woe? Bored to distraction by dirges about digital demise? Then try some quite exceptionally cheery statistics: global newspaper sales up 2.3 per cent last year (and 9.48 per cent in the past five years), ad revenues up 3.7 per cent and 15.7 per cent over the same two spans.

If this is doom and gloom, give me another helping ... But hang on (you say): circulation figures like these, as collated by the World Association of Newspapers, always look on the bright side because China (up 15.5 per cent since 2002) and India (up 53.6 per cent) skew everything. The depression in Europe and America is palpable.

Except that it's not. European paid-for daily titles sold 0.74 per cent more copies last year than the year before. Add in free dailies - and why not, because that's free print versus free screen - and that's a 10.2 per cent circulation rise year on year, or 12.2 per cent since 2002.

Maybe the tighter EU area showed a tiny drop on 2005, but there were still plenty of buoyant, fully developed stories to tell: Austria, Ireland, Italy and Portugal all doing famously, Romania (up 25.7 per cent) getting a true Brussels bounce.

Whatever happened to supposedly inexorable connections - like the law that sees online grow and print sink as though they were yoked together in some suicide pact? Vienna and Rome aren't exactly technical black holes.

Japan, where they sold 69.1 million copies a day last year, has computers on every desk. China - at 98.7 million copies a day - is also a supreme internet growth area. It's much too facile to hail simple cause and effect.

In New Zealand, Audit Bureau of Circulation figures show that newspaper sales for the six months to March this year were down about 1.5 per cent on the previous six months.

Former Communist countries in eastern Europe got a shot of democratic adrenaline when they joined the union - more sales, more titles - and now see that slip back a bit as the thrill wears off. Immigration (influxes of people who don't read too easily or recognise many of the cultural icons) can be a bit of a dampener.

But look at the larger developed countries hanging in or around G8 status. After Italy (up year on year, but a bit down over five years) there is France at -1.55 per cent (-5.7 per cent over five years) and Germany at -2.1 per cent and -9.35 per cent. Spain - 2.14 per cent and -1.13 per cent - did rather better. But guess who fares worst on both the one-year and five-year fronts?

Yes, UK total circulation dropped 2.66 per cent in 2005, and has fallen 12.5 per cent since 2002. That's the lousiest result on offer. US dailies lost 1.9 per cent in 2006 and 5.18 per cent over five years - but even those figures are warped by the collapse of what's left of the evening paper market there (down 19.62 per cent over five years). America's morning papers have merely seen 2.52 per cent of readers toddle away - and their ad revenue grew 5.69 per cent in 2006.

Of course there are all sorts of special factors. Continental European papers don't have traditionally high market penetration levels.

Histories, styles and audiences vary hugely. Distribution methods define what's possible. Much of British sales decline has come at the red-top end of the market.

Nevertheless: the German market - at 21.1 million - is formidable in penetration and stability. Australian papers sold 2.1 per cent more.

After all those statistics, there are only two speculative hints of a conclusion. Perhaps it isn't demonic digitalisation that's bringing us down. Perhaps it's just us - and what we produce. And perhaps we're too damned morose about change. So perhaps, with a cheer, there's something more we can do.

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