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Can high-readership Saturday papers save the newspaper industry?

Last week the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) released readership figures for national newspapers which for the first time counted Saturday editions separately from weekday ones (usually Monday-Saturday figures are averaged into a daily readership). The data revealed that Saturday papers are overwhelmingly out-selling their Sunday counterparts; as Roy Greenslade put it in his Evening Standard column, “the secret which we in the business have known for quite a while is now out”. He cited a key ABC statistic: in the month of April, 10 national titles collectively sold an average of 10m copies in the UK and Ireland on Saturdays, compared to 8m on Sundays. This is not a negligible difference.

ABC Saturday-Sunday readerships

The crux, as Greenslade already suggested back in September, is that “Sunday papers have lost their unique selling point”. Which is to say: minus the distinct masthead, Saturday papers offer a Sunday package, a whole day in advance. The weekend’s nowhere close to over, so readers can sit, relax and draw on inspiration for plans and activities. (Purely anecdotally, it seems many people buy the Guardian’s Saturday edition because it comes with The Guide, a handy companion for deciding how to spend one’s leisure time.)

The most recent UKPulse, Metrica’s annual survey on media consumption habits in the UK, shows that 40% of the over-16 population reads a Sunday paper; in particular, 11% only reads a Sunday edition when it comes to print newspapers. Meanwhile, 58% of the population reads a daily (i.e. non-Sunday) paper; 22% only reads this. There is no separate data for consumption of just Saturday papers, but it is very likely that the figures are higher than those for Sunday titles. Perhaps next year’s survey could gather Saturday-specific data to see if this bears out.

In the meantime, it will be interesting to see what trends emerge as ABC releases future Saturday figures. For now The Sunday Times is the only title vastly surpassing its Saturday sibling (it is read by twice as many readers), which can be chalked up to its uniquely iconic standing (the Sunday Times Magazine is currently celebrating its 50th year). Indeed, UKPulse data shows that it is the quintessential Sunday paper: while 4% of UK adults consume it, 11% of those who only read a Sunday paper opt for The Sunday Times, a greater proportion than those opting for the high-readership Mail on Sunday (8%) or Sunday Mirror (3%). But for nearly every other Sunday paper, the eclipse looks set to continue.

Looking over both ABC and UKPulse data, I am inclined to agree with a prediction already voiced by many: that in the not-too-distant future we will see some newspapers pull the plug on their weekday editions, making these online-only. The luxury of physical copies will be reserved for the weekend. Yet it also looks likely that some newspapers may consolidate their Saturday and Sunday papers into one combined weekend edition, in the style of the Financial Times. If this is what it will take to make newspapers less unprofitable—without significantly cutting back on quality or content—it may be all too sensible.

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Written by Nuria Haering

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