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About A Week: Gloomy Times For Newspapers

Peter Hinchliffe comments on the declining profitability of newspapers in Britain and the USA.

These are gloomy times for newspapers in the UK and USA.

* Fewer people are buying and reading them.

* Advertising revenue is declining.

* Raw materials and delivery costs are increasing.

The Newspaper Association of America reported that advertising revenue was 9.4% less in 2007 than what it was in 2006. This was the steepest decline since the Association started tracking revenue in 1950.

Trinity Mirror, the UK publishing giant, announced yesterday that its year-on-year advertising revenues were down 15 per cent in July.

The UK’s London-based national newspapers, with the exception of Rupert Murdoch’s Sun, suffered falling sales in June.

Sales of Britain’s regional evening newspapers were down by 5.3% in the second half of 2007 – and that decline is continuing.

Total average daily sale for the 72 evening newspapers in Britain was 2,629,193 at the start of this year, down from 2,777,041.

The Leeds-based Yorkshire Evening Post now sells 55,000 a night. When I worked for that paper in the mid-1960s it was selling 270,000 a night.

People in many parts of the UK are no longer able to get newspapers home delivered. Teenagers who were once eager to earn pocket money by trudging around at dawn and dusk popping folded newspapers through letterboxes no long find the task financially worthwhile.

Becoming a newspaper boy or girl was once seen as a rite of passage into the adult working world. A surprising number of my journalistic colleagues down the years began their association with newspapers by carrying them around in a Hessian sack, from street to street and door to door.

Fifty years ago almost every household bought the local newspaper. Those sacks could be mighty heavy when you started out on your journey.

In my teens I delivered newspapers in a rural area. It was a case of lane to lane, rather than street to street. My last call was at an isolated farmhouse. The first time I went there geese chased me, pecking at my legs. Quickly learning a lesson, I placed a stone in the newspaper bag so that, duly weighted, it could be whirled around to drive off the feathered guardians.

My long-time colleague Melvyn Briggs, who was deputy editor of his hometown newspaper, the Huddersfield Daily Examiner, recalls: “Wind was the biggest problem. I could manage the rain. You could fold the paper so that it didn’t get too wet. But when you take a newspaper out of the bag on a windy day it is whipped in all directions. It’s very difficult to fold it into some sort of order then get it through the letter box. I wouldn’t have missed the experience though.’’

At the recent conference of the National Federation of Retail Newsagents, which represents thousands of shops across the country, it was said that while no exact figures are available up to a third of all independent newsagents have given up home delivery in the past five to seven years.

One delegate to the conference said, "We just couldn't get the paperboys. We used to have a book full of names. We used to do 10 paperboys but it was gradually dropping off. Basically, they seem to have got too much cash. The majority seem to have unlimited funds from mum and dad."

Half of the 14,000 newsagents in England, Scotland and Wales are considering abandoning home deliveries.

Newspaper sales are declining, though there has been a significant increase in the volume of give-away newspapers, particularly in London. It is estimated that 12 trees go into the manufacturing of one tonne of newsprint, and that tonne can produce 14,000 copies of an average-size tabloid newspaper.

In 2001 the worldwide newspaper industry consumed 37.8 million tonnes of newsprint, which represented a total of 453 million trees.

Some 75 per cent of discarded newspapers are now recovered and recycled. Vigorous replanting programmes ensure that commercial forests are not diminishing.

Yet in this split-second electronic communications age it can be argued that newspapers are relics from the “Stone Age’’ of news dissemination.

I am reminded of the gloriously funny sketch by the American comedian Bob Newhart. Bob imagines a call from English explorer Sir Walter Raleigh (1552-1618), the man who “discovered’’ tobacco and exported it to Europe, to the head of the West India trading company in London.

The head is amazed to hear Sir Walt has bought 80 tonnes of leaves. ...“You can chew it or put it in a pipe, or you can shred it up, put it on a piece of paper, roll it up. Don’t tell me, Wal. You stick it in your ear, right, Wal? Or between your lips. Then what do you do, Wal? You set fire to it, Wal? You inhale the smoke? You know, Wal, it seems offhand that you can stand in front of your fireplace and have the same thing going for you. See, Wal, we’ve been a little bit worried about you, you know, ever since you put your cape down over that mud, you know. See Wal, I think you’re going to have kind of a tough time telling people about sticking burning leaves in their mouth.’’...

Imagine if the conversation had concerned timber.

...So you’ve bought a small forest, Wal. Ten thousand trees. That’s good, Wal. Always a need for more tables and chairs...What’s that? You’re going to mash the wood up? Squeeze it flat? Print news on it? What kind of news, Wal? Murders, road accidents, business news...And you’re going to sell this news every day? Sorry, Wal, did I hear you right? You’re going to get...children...to trudge round the streets, pushing this news through letter boxes? And what happens when the wood runs out, Wal? You plant more trees. I see, you chop trees down so you can plant more trees. And how many ships are you going to need, Wal? And lorries to carry these, who do you call ‘em, these news papers, from town to town?

Forests, lumberjacks, ships, printing presses, lorries...and an army of kids who will be paid a few shillings a day to deliver these newspapers...

You’ve got to be kidding, Wal...

Bob Newhart’s famous tobacco sketch


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