The traditional Sunday spent lazily mulling over newspaper supplements before falling asleep in front of the TV has been in decline for some time. Nonetheless, news that the Guardian Media Group (GMG) is considering the future of The Observer came as a shock to many.
Total readership across all Sunday titles in June was down 4.6% year on year, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC). Meanwhile, the National Readership Survey suggests that about 15% of adults read only a Sunday paper, whereas 59% read a paper at least one day of the week.
With lifestyle changes having a far-reaching impact on Sunday newspaper sales, it is difficult to see how this failing market can be revived.
After The Observer suffered a year-on-year circulation drop of 6.4% in June, GMG's chief executive, Carolyn McCall, told staff that management were weighing up several options for the title. These include replacing the 218-year-old paper with a weekly news magazine, much like The Week, printed on a Thursday, or streamlining the content for a smaller Sunday edition.
According to Alan Brydon, head of press and outdoor communication at media agency MPG, the Sunday press is in a downward slide. ‘It will be a sad day if the oldest national newspaper closes,' he says. ‘However, I can't imagine many advertisers would lose sleep if titles such as The Observer, The Independent on Sunday or The People disappeared.'
The head of press at PHD, Tim Caira, suggests that the Sundays miss out on ad revenue because the biggest sector that uses press advertising tends to avoid them. ‘The retail sector doesn't use Sunday ad space because shops simply don't sell as much on that day,' he says. ‘People have generally done their weekly shop, so there's not much activity from grocers.'
Other newspaper publishers are also reviewing the business models for their Sunday titles. News International (NI), for example, is pursuing a strategy of independence for The Sunday Times, which managed to increase its year-on-year circulation by 5.4%.
There are plans to launch a separate website for the title in November, that will charge users to view content. This is likely to pave the way to NI charging for all its online news content next year.
If some Sunday titles do close, their disappearance could boost the market for the remaining papers. However, the Sundays are increasingly competing not just against each other, but also against the Saturday papers. The latter have grown to offer enough content for weekend reading, meaning there is less call for another big package on Sunday.
Mark Dixon, managing director of Fuse Sport and former marketing director at The Telegraph Group, thinks some Saturday and Sunday sister papers would be better off merging. ‘There could be more collusion in weekend titles,' he says. ‘At some point you may just have a Weekend Telegraph.'
The recession hit the newspaper trade at a particularly vulnerable time, when circulations were already in decline. Publishers had been investing in their online operations and need to find a way to offset this expenditure, as well as the decline in ad revenues from print.
Nl looks determined to lead the industry into an era of paid-for content. However, whether this model will work for the Sunday news press, which was arguably facing obsolescence anyway, remains to be seen.
With the current total readership of Sunday papers amounting to more than 10m, the market is far from dead. However, unless its relentless decline can be stopped, there is a danger that more newspaper publishers will be forced to do what was once deemed unthinkable, and review the future of their Sunday titles.