Newspaper sales on the decline as TV overtakes its traditional rival

PARIS – Newspapers in developed countries are in slow decline and must concentrate on being useful to readers and advertisers rather than on filling their pages with politics, a report published here warns. While noting that the trend of declining sales matches the rise of television, the report by the Academy of Moral and Political Science, part of the Institute of France, said that sales and profits varied sharply depending on the state of the economy and on news such as the fall of the Berlin Wall. Even in the United States, which has the most dynamic newspapers, readership of dailies had declined for 20 years, and by 1 percent per year for 10 years. The 116-page report, directed by former AFP President Henri Pigeat and Jacques Leprette, found that «people are reading fewer and fewer newspapers, in France, as in most countries. The political press is dying. Television has become the main media.» «Whatever the reasons, and there are probably many, the fact is that the circulation of general-interest newspapers is declining constantly.» But the Internet was less of a competitor than an opportunity to increase revenue from news. Through long analysis, the report, compiled by Jean-Charles Paracuellos and published at the end of last week, shows that some trends, notably in developed countries, are general but cover big differences in the cultural role of newspapers. Daily newspapers have to be close to their readers while concentrating on three economic imperatives, it suggested: Justifying themselves in the marketplace and not being under state or semi-state control; providing services and advantages, in terms of content, distribution and price, which satisfy readers and, separately, advertisers; and separating editorial matters from commercial interests to ensure credibility while bringing out editorial content that attracts readers of use to the advertiser. “These principles raise contradictions and difficulties in the management of a newspaper. They may appear irritating in social, political or human terms. Even so, they are unavoidable in terms of economic realities, which alone determine the life and independence of the written press.» The so-called «popular» (tabloid) type of newspaper was declining, although circulations in Britain and Germany, for example, remained in the millions while in France they had fallen into hundreds of thousands. Popular newspapers drew much of their readership from young people who, in general, preferred television to newspapers. A chapter on daily newspapers in the United States said the number of titles and sales had diminished for 20 years and that newspapers were increasingly reliant on advertising revenue. However, they adopted new ideas, closely monitored the needs of readers and advertisers, and maintained efficient distribution. These factors were part of the reason why they were the most efficient and prosperous in the world, with margins sometimes exceeding 20 percent, while also being investigative and challenging vested interests. Noting cultural differences, the report asked why the Swiss and Norwegians prefer to subscribe for a year rather than buy daily; why the British read newspapers while commuting and the French read books; and why the British and Americans spend much of their Sundays reading Sunday newspapers, a role filled in France by weekly news magazines, although the Sunday market was the only one to grow. The Japanese stood out because they like to receive standard information from different newspapers, part of the process of sharing in group culture which did not demand diversification of the press, but Japanese newspapers had one of the highest rates of market penetration in the world. Quoting from a recent report for the World Bank, the study said that state ownership of the media, strongest in Africa and the Middle East, occurred in countries with the poorest records on civil rights, administration, market development and health and education services. State ownership provided «no advantages.» Tables in the report showed that of 26 countries, Japan had the lowest number of daily newspapers per million inhabitants at one title per million, compared for example with 2.2 in the United Kingdom, 5.6 in Germany, 6.9 in the United States, 13 in Sweden and Finland and 23 in Norway. The data from various sources including the World Association of Newspapers showed that the number of newspapers sold per 100 adults was lowest at eight in Greece, 18 in France, 20 in Ireland, 25 in New Zealand, 35 in Germany, 68 in Japan, and highest at 72 in Norway.