Our circulation story during the pandemic

Business Comms

It is no longer mandatory for national newsbrands to report their circulation figures publicly, following an update to the longstanding ABC audit system. The ABC Board made the call to address “publisher concerns that monthly ABC circulation reports provide a stimulus to write a negative narrative of circulation decline.” 

That should come as no surprise as circulation has become the most talked-about measurement of newsbrands’ health since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Not to mention that we live in a multiplatform age and there are publishing touchpoints that aren’t covered in ABC reporting, such as subscriptions, app readers and online audiences, so the focus on just the printed copies as circulation is not a fair reflection of a newsbrands’ “health” anyway!

“Addressing the challenges of ABC data has been on the cards for some time”, says LesleyAnn Diffin, Business Comms Manager.

“Whether you’re in the ‘to publish’ or ‘not to publish’ camp, this move by ABC can only be a positive one. It means we get to keep the industry currency that stakeholders continue to need but ensures the focus isn’t on printed circulation data in isolation, but instead an opportunity to share data that reflects a more holistic view in line with today’s news consumption habits.

“Print will always be an important and precious way of distributing our editorial to readers. It is one of the most brand-safe environments for advertisers and that’s why we’ll always protect it.”

Reach is among the majority of publishers that will continue to make our figures public and there is no point in beating about the bush - the coronavirus pandemic has hit print circulation and advertising sales across the entire newspaper industry, and we are not exempt. But it’s not all doom and gloom.

In Ireland, Reach publishes seven print titles - the NI and Irish editions of the Daily Mirror and Sunday Mirror, NI and Irish editions of the Sunday People and RSVP Magazine - and five websites.  As we entered weeks 12 and 11 of lockdown in NI and the Republic of Ireland respectively, we never imagined we’d be in a position to actually offset the “narrative of decline” around print circulation. 

For weeks now, the focus has tended to be on declining print circulation and rising online audiences - and of course you’re thinking ‘it’s a no brainer’ - we’re in a new working from home reality (so people are not travelling to work every day when buying a paper would have been part of their routine), parts of our high streets remain shut and for two months, the UK and Irish Governments kept the nation at home (meaning people couldn’t get to the shops to buy their daily paper).  But closer scrutiny has shown surprising results. 

The immediate week after lockdowns in both parts of the country (which were one week apart), we saw the lowest decline in sales in both the daily and Sunday markets. The Irish Mirror was down 1.7% week on week after the first full week of lockdown but then increased the following week to 2.7% - in fact, our highest sale since the lockdown. Also, the same day the white van man returned to work in the Republic (week 8), our sales increased by 1.5%. Our interpretation of this - the initial panic and ‘stay at home’ mentality, within 7 days, shifted to ‘how best to keep informed, what news sources can be trusted to deliver impartial, reliable context on coronavirus and other news’? What happened next? The nation turned to newspapers. 

In NI, sales of the Daily Mirror were hit a bit harder with a decrease of 14% after the first week of lockdown, faring better in week 2 but still at a deficit of 3% week-on-week and it wasn’t until the third week of lockdown when we noticed an increase in sale, up 2%. Skip forward to week 11 and we actually had the highest average sale of the NI edition since lockdown began – up 7% on the Saturday edition alone - aided by the return of horse racing that same week which meant we could bring back our horse racing supplement which historically is a big sales driver, especially with the weekend papers.

Then, on the other hand, the Sunday market has seen different trends entirely. Ever since ‘stay at home’, it seems people are buying more than one newspaper at the weekends now to fill the time. The old traditional Sunday Newspaper market has seen a resurgence. Take the Irish Sunday Mirror and Sunday People, for example, they’re showing an increase of 5% and 1% respectively in May against the previous month. 

After the initial dip, we noticed a gradual recovery much sooner than even we envisaged ourselves with our papers operating at 82% and 92% of pre-coronavirus sales in NI and ROI respectively by the start of May - further proving the resilience of print. And we know the fall out could have been a lot worse considering there has been no sport whatsoever to report on - a key content pillar for our papers - and minus other key sales drivers for our brands such as the Grand National, Punchestown and Belfast Marathon which the Daily Mirror in NI supports as media partner.

“The fact we’ve managed to protect our sale despite the absence of Mirror’s ever-reliable sport reader base tells us that readership habits have changed. Our circulation trends during coronavirus not only tells us readers are relying on our coverage more than ever but also that we have new and different purchasers than before”, says our Circulation Manager Alan Kelly.

“Like many other publishers, we had to act fast to introduce ways to super-serve our readers during this period with the launch of the e-editions of our newspapers and home delivery services. We cover 28 postcode areas in NI and Dublin city and surrounding areas in ROI which has served new and current readers in both regions.

"Of course, we also publish RSVP magazine and it would seem a rediscovery of magazines is underway as people look for things to do because the April edition of RSVP, which you could say was put together during the peak of coronavirus, was the highest-selling issue we've had since September 2018, up 21% year-on-year. Says it all, really."

So as to not dwell on just the print side of our circulation story, during the same period, traffic to our online sites are at an all-time high. According to Alan: “March was a record month across the group with 84 million total page views, April was another great month but down on the previous month’s views and we clawed it back slightly in May but not quite as big as March. This lag could be down to coronavirus coverage fatigue with the big spike at the start but gradual decline as the weeks and months since coronavirus took hold here pass.”

This brings us back to the point made at the beginning, how we need to ensure the multiplatform reality of the news industry is measured as our total audience. Looking at our own circulation trends during coronavirus proves that newspapers are very much alive and people are relying on them.

This announcement by ABC isn’t about suppressing what we all know is exceptional data during the coronavirus crisis but about changing up the single narrative that 'print is dead' to, in fact, it’s actually stronger than you think.