Northern & Shell’s two Sunday newspapers, the Sunday Express and the Daily Star Sunday, have enjoyed contrasting fortunes of late, with the young upstart eclipsing the Sunday Express.
The Daily Star Sunday, which recently celebrated its fifth birthday, recorded a circulation of 485,415 in September, according to the latest Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) figures last week. The figure represents a stellar year-on-year increase of more than 20% in a Sunday red-top market that was down 1.52% year on year.
The Richard Desmond-owned Daily Star Sunday has not reached the giddy heights of August, when it broke through the 500,000 barrier. But the summer months have seen Britain’s fastest growing newspaper make ground on its Sunday rivals, such as the People, which has a faltering circulation of 722,148.
The Daily Star Sunday is run by one of the smallest teams on Fleet Street and has none of the heritage of its sister paper, The Sunday Express, which was a dominant force under the ownership of Lord Beaverbrook.
The contrasts do not end there, as the Sunday Express has had a miserable September. Its circulation of 727,429 was down more than 7% on August, and more than 13% year on year in a mid-market where sales dropped 3.75%.
While the Sunday Express’s headline ABC figure is stripped of bulk sales – unlike many other papers – it continues to be overshadowed by Associated Newspaper’s Mail on Sunday. The Mail on Sunday has a seemingly settled circulation of about 2.3 million, and its dominance is unchallenged across the mid-market sector.
One media buyer says: “The circulation of Express newspapers is declining, in line with the newspaper market. The problem is that the Mail and the Mail on Sunday’s circulations continue to be flat.”
The Sunday Express was selling about 4 million copies 30 years ago, but the paper has been hit by the relentless rise of the Mail on Sunday and the upheaval caused by a succession of new proprietors, observers say.
The right attitude
By contrast, The Daily Star Sunday is gaining ground on its rivals. While the paper’s circulation is dwarfed by that of News International’s News of the World and Trinity Mirror’s Sunday Mirror, observers believe its traditional mix of sex, scandal and showbiz is underpinned by an irreverence absent from its competitors.
Gareth Morgan, editor of the Daily Star Sunday, says: “We have had three months of good growth. We are getting things right. Papers are becoming stuffy and pompous. We’re all about having fun.”
Some, however, compare the Sunday red-top to a “rollercoaster ride”. They argue that the paper needs continuous financial and marketing support to compete against its better-established rivals.
Desmond has pumped significant funds into the paper during August and September, running a marketing campaign across TV and giving away a handful of CDs in September featuring the likes of Iggy Pop, The Stranglers and Bob Marley. Whether the paper will continue to increase circulation without these aids remains to be seen.
However, its bid to position itself as a family paper and build upon its core readership of mid-30s males has left some media buyers baffled.
Adrian Pike, press buyer at MediaCom, says: “I think it is difficult to try and position it as a family version of the Daily Star. The paper will struggle to get female readership. The problem for the paper is that the market it is targeting – the 25- to 35-year-olds – is the demographic that tends not to buy newspapers.”
Whether the Daily Star Sunday and Sunday Express will continue on their divergent paths remains to be seen. Sales of Sunday Express have fallen under Desmond, but many view his decision to strip out bulk sales and other circulation-boosting tricks as a positive move.
The Daily Star Sunday is enjoying its place in the sun, but there are those who believe it will struggle to build its circulation outside its core demographic.