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About A Week: Newspapers In Decline

Readers in search of news are increasingly unlikely to buy a newspaper in the UK, as Peter Hinchliffe reveals.

It's lunchtime in Manchester and the thousands of office workers and shoppers crowding the streets of England's most vibrant provincial city are being offered a free copy of northwest U.K.'s newspaper of the year.

Many choose to accept the gift. More than 71,000 copies of the Manchester Evening News's city edition are now handed out every weekday.

MEN Lite was launched in 2005 in response to declining city center sales. It is also given away at Manchester's busy airport.

The Evening News costs 35 pence in the city suburbs. Some 110,000 copies are sold daily.

Of Britain's 85 regional newspapers, only one -- the Irish News based in Belfast -- increased its paid-for circulation.

On average provincial papers are selling 5 percent fewer papers each year.

Sales of Britain's national newspapers are also in steep decline. Audited circulation figures revealed this month that six national Sunday tabloids lost a total of 750,000 copies year on year. The News of the World, the country's biggest-selling paper, alone lost 363,000 copies, a 9.57 percent decline.

Sales of daily papers -- tabloid and quality -- are also declining, despite intensive marketing efforts which include free giveaways such as DVDs.

The Manchester Evening News free city edition is preceded earlier in the day by a free distribution of the Metro newspaper. Metro, a free newspaper aimed at morning commuters, first hit the streets of London in March, 1999. Commuters in 16 British cities can now pick up a free copy.

More than 1,134,000 copies of the paper -- a bright tabloid with concise stories edited for easy and quick reading -- are distributed daily across the U.K. Metro is the world's largest free newspaper and the fourth biggest newspaper in the U.K.

It is distributed in London, Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, Leeds, Sheffield, Newcastle, Leicester, Derby, Nottingham, Bristol, Bath, Brighton, Cardiff, Glasgow and Edinburgh.

Meanwhile an intense give-away newspaper war is being fought out on the streets of London. London Lite, owned by Associated Newspapers (publishers of the Daily Mail and the Evening Standard) is engaged in fierce combat with thelondonpaper, part of Rupert Murdoch's huge News International stable.

Both firms aim to distribute some 400,000 copies daily. Whether all these free sheets are read is a different matter. Some are immediately thrown away. There are frequent complaints about littered London streets.

The decline in paid-for newspaper sales is of course not confined to Britain. Newspapers in North America are on the same slippery slope which leads, if not to extinction, to a vastly decreased role in the daily lives of millions of people.

Arthur Sulzberger, publisher of the illustrious New York Times, was recently reported as saying, "It is my heartfelt view that newspapers will be around -- in print -- for a long time. But I also believe that we must be prepared for that judgment to be wrong. My five-year timeframe is about being ready to support our news, advertising and other critical operations on digital revenue alone ... whenever that time comes."

To someone such as myself -- a print journalist for five decades -- the present state of the newspaper industry is shocking, almost to the point of being unbelievable.

When I became a reporter on a Yorkshire weekly in the 1950s newspapers were enjoyed and respected, an essential part of almost every adult British life. I went on to work for two big British metropolitan dailies, then newspapers in Texas, Indiana and Nairobi. All of them were thriving 30, 40 and 50 years ago.

In the mid-1960s the Newcastle Evening Chronicle, for which I worked as chief reporter, was selling 254,000 copies a day. It now sells 81,000 a day.

The Yorkshire Evening Post in Leeds, which I also worked for as a reporter in the 1960s, had an audited sale of 274,000 copies a day. That has now slumped to 61,000 copies a day.

The reasons people are turning away from paid-for papers are all too obvious. If price were the only factor, people in Britain have cause for thought. A quality newspaper is no longer a cheap item. To take The Guardian six days a week, along with its sister paper The Observer, now costs more than $13 a week.

But breaking news is now readily available 24 hours a day from radio and TV networks. It is beamed to millions of cell phones. The world's news is brought to computer screens in every land at the click of a mouse.

The free copy of the Manchester Evening News which was thrust into my hand this week -- ironically outside a newsagent's shop -- contained in the top right-hand corner of the first of its 52 pages a box hinting at the reason for the turning-away from print journalism.
Online now:

Police have released CCTV footage of a vicious racist attack on two men in a Wigan takeaway. You can see the shocking film online now and read details on page 6. Also get our daily lunchtime video bulletin straight to your desktop -- log on to manchestereveningnews.co.uk

Perhaps the only future for printed newspapers -- all of them given away -- is as come-ons to persuade readers to visit a news Web site.

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