So, what do we make of the news that the Sun on Sunday is to launch this weekend? Veteran Fleet Street watchers, like Roy Greenslade, have declared that Rupert Murdoch has pulled a rabbit out of the hat, simultaneously getting Sun journalists back on board after talk of mutiny in the ranks and reinforcing his commitment to UK newspapers.
I’m not so sure. It could equally argued that this is a short-term fix designed to appease the Sun mutineers rather than a real commitment. However, I can see the business logic in narrow UK terms, in that the new paper has the potential to do ‘massive numbers’ (as media planners are quick to tell us) and Murdoch needs a big selling ‘Sunday’ to bankroll his other loss-making UK newspapers.
But, and this is the crux, strong interest from advertisers does not always turn into strong sales and readership. Despite lots of positive vibes coming from media planners and News International, I still think it is going to be an uphill battle to get the British public to go out and buy in big numbers.
Firstly, it is going to be very difficult to get back all of the NOTW’s 2.6 million readers in an overall market for Sunday newspaper reading which is in decline. In August 1991 national Sunday newspapers collectively sold an average of 16.2 million copies. By August 2001 this number had reduced to 13.6 million. By August of last year it had fallen it had fallen off a cliff to a mere 8.3 million.
What’s more, circulation figures from last year suggest that more than a million NOTW buyers appear to have vanished into thin air. They did not switch allegiance to the Sunday Mirror or The People or The Mail – they just left the market entirely.
Secondly, reaction from competitors is likely to be brutal in terms of price-cutting and other incentives, as those titles which benefited from the closure of the NOTW attempt to hang onto their gains. News International will launch with huge promotional activity, but all of this eats into profits and cannot be sustained over the long-term.
Finally, there is one other issue which is going to make life difficult for this successor to the ‘Screws’. The NOTW made its name exposing the antics of the rich and famous, but we now live in an era of super-injunctions which can stop an invasion of privacy in its tracks. What’s more, the newspaper industry is fully aware that the Leveson Inquiry is on-going and is on its best behaviour. It will take a very brave editor indeed to splash a typical NOTW scandal story, of the type that made its predecessors name, in the opening weeks of this new venture.
News International will be very gung-ho about this weekend’s circulation figures regardless of what happens, but the real proof will come in March, April and May as the market begins to settle down again. I’m no media buyer, but I suspect with a print run of three million, News International will be hoping for an opening weekend north of NOTW’s final circulation figure of 2.6 million. That is an awfully tall order to sustain once the initial excitement wears off.