Innovation is the biggest story

With sales declining across the newspaper sector, national titles must look to innovation and new media channels to drive future growth and success

The UK has a big appetite for news. Last year the UK consumed 4.58 billion national and daily newspapers – or 78 papers for every man, woman and child in the country. But this appetite is declining and the market is shrinking in volume. This dip, combined with consumers’ demand for increasingly varied content, has been a catalyst for change across the newspaper sector.

The latest newspaper research from Mintel shows that 46 per cent of all adults think that current affairs and UK national stories are the most important factor when buying a national newspaper. However, sports coverage is increasing in popularity and readers consider it to be the second most important topic in their newspaper, along with international stories.

The rise in demand for sport is attributed to its importance to male readers, who believe it is equally as important as national news. Women, on the other hand, do not, which shows that while some topics, such as current affairs, are relevant to all, other subjects will only interest certain readers.

The topic that the UK population has fallen out of love with is human interest. The Mintel data shows that just one in five adults (21 per cent) feels that this kind of story is important for a newspaper to cover, down from one in three (32 per cent) in 1999. Human interest stories were previously rated by consumers as the third most important in a newspaper, alongside international coverage, but last year this topic dropped to sixth position.

Almost half of the UK’s adults read a national daily paper with the same proportion also reading a national Sunday newspaper. The research shows that men are more likely to read a daily paper than women, but there is less of a difference in the proportion reading Saturday papers.

Any difference between the number of male and female readers almost disappears when it comes to Sunday papers. This is attributed to the high level of feature-oriented content in weekend editions. In terms of age, more than three-quarters of adults over the age of 54 read a daily newspaper – the highest level of readers across all age groups. But again, as with the gender gap, the age gap decreases for readership of weekend newspapers.

The tabloids sell the most newspapers and still control the lion’s share of the market, despite experiencing a recent fall in sales of seven per cent. It is the broadsheets that have seen the greatest fall between 1998 and 2003, with sales dropping by about ten per cent. The mid-market tabloids, the Daily Mail and The Express, have seen the smallest decline in volume sales at just two per cent.

However, these trends are reversed in the Sunday sector, with broadsheets faring much better than Sunday tabloids. Sunday tabloids have seen a massive 13 per cent fall in sales during the past five years, while there has been a small rise in sales of broadsheets.

In general, national newspaper sales have continued to decline over the past five years, despite encouraging wider trends, such as a growing number of households and an ageing population. This suggests other trends such as the increasing demands on leisure time and the huge variety of media choices available, are heavily influencing consumer behaviour.

Competition in the newspaper market is fierce and innovation is vital to stem falling sales. Newspapers have become more active over the past two years, with innovative ideas regularly being introduced while some of them are changing their appearance and content.

The most recent example is the trend towards tabloid-sized/compact versions of broadsheets, led by The Independent and swiftly followed by The Times. The Guardian is expected to follow suit shortly and it remains to be seen how The Daily Telegraph, the Financial Times (FT) and even the The Scotsman decide to react to the trend.

The Guardian and the Observer have made a number of editorial additions, including monthly Sunday supplements, over the past two years. There have also been a number of revisions and additions to The Daily Telegraph, particularly the Saturday edition. The Times has undergone a comprehensive relaunch with new writers and supplements/ “seconds”, including a monthly arts guide and a review CD for The Sunday Times. The FT has also been revamped to broaden its appeal.

This readiness to explore new ideas is an encouraging sign for the future of national newspapers. It is unlikely that every innovation will prove a success, but newspapers’ willingness to experiment creates a healthy market and a fertile environment for growth.

This has already been seen with the internet editions of some newspapers, which offer titles greater revenue opportunities through rolling news updates, access to archives and news alerts on mobile phones. Newspaper brands are well placed to provide their information in this way and their future success appears to be rooted in their ability to generate greater access to news and thus create new revenue sources.

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