Read all about it

by Stephen Tall on March 13, 2006

You can observe two inverse trends in newspapers today.

First, newspaper circulation is down: 13 million daily papers were sold in February 2003, compared with 12 million last month. And, secondly, as fewer and fewer newspapers are sold, so each and every newspaper will onanistically proclaim how many more copies they are now selling (usually by comparing the sales of the latest DVD freebie issue with a slow-news August bank-holiday edition) – and how much they welcome all readers, new and old.

So it’s intriguing to cast our eyes down the figures provided by the National Readership Survey, and reported in today’s Media Guardian.

Readership figures (how many people each day read a particular paper) of course differ from circulation figures (how many copies are sold each day). Circulation is what is normally quoted, slightly bizarrely: after all, you would not judge the popularity of a TV show by the number of sets which are switched on, but by the number of viewers who watch.

We can assume the survey is reliable for two reasons. First, the NRS is a continuous survey based on interviews with a large, representative sample of 36,000 adults – which means a small margin of error. And, secondly, the figures are used by the media industry as the basis for negotiations to buy and sell advertising space: they simply cannot afford to get it wrong.

Below are the readership figures for the daily newspapers (Mon-Sat), followed by the Sundays. The year on year increase/decrease is given in brackets.


Sun = 8,140,000 (-8%)
Mail = 5,640,000 (-2%)
Mirror = 4,150,000 (-11%)
Torygraph = 2,160,000 (-1%)
Express = 1,980,000 (-7%)

Times = 1,810,000 (+9%)
Star = 1,780,000 (-9%)
Grauniad = 1,220,000 (+14%)
Indy = 705,000 (+10%)
FT = 391,000 (-10%)


News/World = 8,630,000 (-9%)
Mail = 6,310,000 (=)
Mirror = 4,570,000 (-6%)
Times = 3,550,000 (+9%)
Express = 2,230,000 (+1%)
Torygraph = 2,040,000 (=)

People = 1,980,000 (-11%)
Observer = 1,290,000 (+11%)

Star = 1,020,000 (-16%)
Indy = 788,000 (+18%)

Newspaper figures are rarely compared in this way. Most tables you will see in newspaper media supplements divide the ‘broadsheet’ (as was) and ‘tabloid’ markets, occasionally adding a third ‘mid-market’ category to cope with the Mail and Express. Increasingly, this seems to me an artificial division, as the red-top Sun and Mirror attempt to become more middle-brow to ward off the all-conquering Mail, while the qualities ‘dumb down’ in order to take on the Mail’s icy grip on middle England.

In any case, fusing the figures into one table, ranked in descending order of readership, points up some curiosities. First, of the 28 million adults who read a national daily newspaper (roughly 70% of the adult population in the UK) some 30% of them read The Sun. Indeed, more people read The Sun than read the Telegraph, Express, Times, Guardian and Independent combined. It’s an astonishing achievement (whatever you think of it).

Conversely, it’s pretty impressive how the Guardian continues to punch above its weight, considering it finishes eighth out of ten in this readership league table, with less than 5% of the daily newspaper readership. (Its far-sighted investment in its hugely popular website is probably the main explanation, rather than any intrinsic leftist bias among the commentariat.)

Secondly, that the popular newspapers are not necessarily those which are often termed the ‘popular press’: the Daily Star Sunday languishes between the Independent and Observer on the sabbath, and its daily sister paper fares little better the rest of the week. And the mid-market Mail has long since usurped the red-top Mirror as the UK’s chief rival to The Sun (though many might think the Mail a good deal more titillating and socially destructive than either).

Thirdly, that the only daily newspapers to record increases are those which have downsized in the last year: the Indy, Times and Guardian are up between 9-14% on the back of their re-designs. Which prompts two questions. First, will that growth be sustained, or will these prove to be short-lived spikes, delaying, but not halting, their inexorable decline? And, secondly, if they do continue to buck the trend, how long will the Telegraph be able to hold out against the ‘compact’ momentum?

Finally – while it’s debatable whether newspapers’ endorsements of political parties in reality has much effect (as opposed to the constant drip-drip of positive/negative news, which demonstrably does) – it’s interesting to tot up the numbers.

The Labour Party was supported by five daily newspapers at the 2005 general election (Sun, Mirror, Times, Guardian and FT), with a combined readership of 15,711,000 (56% of total readership). The Tories could count on just three (Mail, Telegraph and Express), with readerships of 9,780,000 (35%).

Rather quirkily, the Star and Independent have this much in common: both declined to endorse any one party (one out of utter disinterest, the other out of split loyalties). The Sundays, far less influential, were slightly more even (51% to 44%), owing to the Sunday Times’s tepid support for the Tories.

But these figures illustrate how important is Rupert Murdoch – whose 75th birthday it was last week-end – to Gordon Brown and David Cameron. (I suspect Ming Campbell has probably written off the chances of gaining this senior citizen’s vote.) The 56:35 split in daily newspaper readership figures in favour of Labour could easily be reversed if Mr Murdoch were to decide the Sun (and Times) should switch sides next time, and back the Tories.

Would it, or should it, matter? Perhaps not. But Mr Brown’s big problem in 2009, or whenever, will be to prove that he can renew a wounded and tired Labour Party, make it fit and fresh for government, and seize the national momentum. What he will not want is for it to appear that time is running out on him. Which is why The Sun backing Dave is Gordon’s worst nightmare.