A million iPads and Kindles may have been unwrapped on Sunday – according to tentative analyst estimates – an influx of portable technology that is expected to hasten a decline in the already faltering sales of printed newspapers, adding pressure on traditional business models that have traditionally supported so many titles around the country.
Publishers, preparing for the handheld arrivals, took the chance to break with a tradition that dates back to 1912, when publishers agreed not to produce Christmas Day papers to give paperboys, among others, a day off. For the first time in its 190-year history the Sunday Times published a digital-only edition on 25 December – with the normally paid for product given away in the hope of luring sought after digital subscribers.
Boxing Day publication, for dailies like the Guardian, has also become a necessity – to ensure digital editions for new Kindle and iPad owners to read. The result is that what was a traditionally quiet period for news has become a critical moment to showcase new work, at a time when an industry already riven by the phone-hacking scandal and under judicial examination, is facing what can be described as an existential crisis.
Fifty years ago two national dailies – the Daily Mirror and the Daily Express – sold more than 4m copies each; today the bestselling Sun sells 2.6m. In the last year alone, printed sales declined by 10% for daily broadsheets and by 5% for daily tabloids – and when the News of the World stopped printing last July 600,000 copy sales simply disappeared.
The knock-on impact of the decline has been a push for digital readers that have seen newspapers like the Daily Mail win 5m unique visitors a day – compared with its printed sale of 2m – but struggle to generate revenues to match. The Mail generated £16m from its website last year, out of £608m overall.
Some specialist titles, such as the Financial Times, are managing the transition well – it has 260,000 digital subscribers – up 40% this year – compared with 337,000 buyers of the printed product, where sales are down by 12%. Digital subscribers generate £180 a year and the paper, priced at £2.50 on the newsstand on a weekday, is profitable.