Marcus Evans Group | Worldwide Headquarters | American Offices | Latin America | European Offices | African / Asian Offices

The Leveson inquiry aside, are we going to have any newspapers left to regulate?

The ABC figures made gloomy reading, but even more depressing is a lack of consensus on the way ahead for the newspaper industry

Newspapers “are a tough, tough, tough business,” and sales “have never been so bad,” a momentarily sombre Richard Desmond, pictured below, informed Lord Justice Leveson last week. He must have seen December’s ABC figures coming.

If November seemed a wicked month on the newsstands, December was a wake to make even Tesco feel good. Mr Desmond’s Daily Star is down 13.6% in a year (to 616,000). His Daily Express has slipped 4.37% to below 600,000. Does it console him that the Sun has plunged 3.56% in a month and 6.65% year on year, and at 2,531,000 copies a day has kissed 3 million goodbye for ever? Or that his big chum Paul Dacre has watched his beloved Mail dip below 2 million a day? Possibly. But only in the most macabre of fashions.

Dailies generally are selling over 6% less than they did at the end of 2010. Redtop dailies, averaged over six months, are now down more than 8.7% in a year. The middle market has seen 4.8% disappear, and though the quality end – only 1.3% gone – is holding firmer, the fact is that the national newspaper business is, in Desmond terms, an effing and blinding nightmare. The grisly question for the day after tomorrow may not be what kind of press regulation we want, but whether there’s any press to regulate.

But wait a while, and ask a few hard questions. Ask whether sweeping generalisations about industry rises and falls make total sense – and whether there is anything around you could still call a British newspaper “industry”?

Old Fleet Street is still doing its cock-of-the-walk act (in pure Kelvin MacKenzie mode). We are the swashbuckling champions of the world! Except that isn’t true any longer, if it ever was. Rather, we’re near the bottom of the European league in rates of sales decline. We’re doing worse than the press over there, not better.

Do we ever bother to find out why? Well, you won’t see many Leveson witnesses at overseas newspaper conferences. Talk to them about the success (since its founding in 2009) of Il Fatto Quotidiano in Italy (straight facts, no spin) and you’ll get a blank look. How has Christian van Thillo set about reviving Belgian circulations since he took over De Persgroep? What can we learn from the rise of Fakt in Warsaw? Why is Norway the fountainhead of newspaper reading and its Schibsted group one of UK analysts’ best-buy stocks?

The America that British media automatically looks to has little to impart. Its newspaper industry isn’t national and is often perilously short on precise market comparisons. Why are British papers slipping so fast? Some of the answers are American, to be sure. Because they keep banging up cover prices (to .50 now at the New York Times; to £2.50 at an FT down 14.4% year on year). Because, under economic whips, they’re stopping selling at all outside their immediate areas: artificially ordained decline. Because, in a way the LA Times or Chicago Tribune would instantly embrace, they think offering less at a higher price is a great strategy – see the Sunday Herald in Glasgow, crunched of its sections by Gannett and down 28% in a trice.

Ah, but then there’s the internet… But what, in industry terms, does that mean? Some papers with healthy online audiences – such as the Guardian – openly look to a future beyond print. Some with even healthier audiences – such as the Mail – don’t. Some – such as the Telegraph – make money in print and online. Some – such as the Independent – can’t afford a readers’ editor. Some put up paywalls; some don’t. Some – most of the qualities – are keen on subscription sales and knowing who their readers are, because that means they can sell them goods and special offers direct. But whether that online approach works is a touch obscure because their print pages are loaded with residual house ads offering the same stuff to all and sundry.

There isn’t, in sum, any consensus about how newspapers can survive as an industry. The differences and disagreements have never been starker. The Newspaper Marketing Association does a valiant job, but it’s less and less clear what it is marketing. Too many paddles, far too few canoes. And it’s time, for a life after Leveson, to start paddling harder, together. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds