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British Newspaper `Heavies' Gain

As tabloids lose readers, serious Sunday journals show new vigor

THE landscape of what the world used to call Fleet Street is being jolted and reshaped by a mix of economic and high-tech factors.

But in an age when many sections of the media are heading "down market" in the naked pursuit of profits, there are signs that the forces of change are producing some beneficial effects.

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The most encouraging development is clear evidence of vigor among Britain's "quality" Sunday papers. A decade after newspaper publishers began fleeing the famous "Street of Ink" to premises on the fringe of London, serious readers are reaping the benefits of the revolution.

Brian MacArthur, a leading commentator on media trends, notes that except for the 202-year-old Observer, the so-called "heavies" of the Sunday press are on an upward circulation curve. By contrast, most mass-market daily and Sunday titles are in circulation decline.

Mr. MacArthur forecasts that the ailing Observer, which last month was saved from closure when it was purchased by the daily Guardian newspaper, will benefit from injections of cash and fresh ideas from its new proprietor.

If the world's oldest Sunday paper - it reported the death of Mozart - manages to stage a successful comeback, British readers will be able to choose from four high-grade Sunday titles. Faced with the Sunday Times, Sunday Telegraph, the Independent on Sunday, and the Observer, many will buy more than one, and some readers will buy them all.

Charles Wintour, author of "The Rise and Fall of Fleet Street," describes the British as "a nation of voracious newspaper readers," and the figures bear him out.

Every weekday, Britons buy nearly 14 million nationally circulating newspapers. On Sundays, the figure rises to around 16 million. In British cities, towns, and villages on Sunday mornings, men and women trudging home from newsagents and corner stores laden with several papers are a common sight.

According to MacArthur, economic recession has cut deeply into the tabloid market and handed an advantage to the serious Sunday press. He says that on weekends people look for "a good read" and are more likely to find it in the quality press than in mass-circulation papers that emphasize sex and scandal.

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When it moved to London's dockland seven years ago, the Sunday Times, owned by Rupert Murdoch, took full advantage of new, more spacious premises and technology that made it possible to produce multisection newspapers on the American pattern.

This approach has enabled the Sunday Times - now equipped with a fat color magazine and comprehensive sections on business, home finance, travel, leisure, books, and the arts - to boost its circulation to 1.24 million, making it the market-leader among the "heavies."

Peter Preston, editor of the Guardian, forecasts that his company's acquisition of the Observer will enable it to do battle with its Murdoch rival on more equal terms.

If the Observer begins to rival the Sunday Times in variety and reader appeal, pressure will build on the Sunday Telegraph and Independent on Sunday to follow suit, and once again readers are likely to benefit. The four titles at present attract total sales of 2.7 million copies.

The future for tabloid newspapers is much cloudier. Average sales of Murdoch's Sun are around 3.5 million, a fall of 125,000 from last year. Its Sunday stablemate, the News of the World, fell 141,000, to 4.6 million. The Daily Mirror, which currently sells 2.6 million, is down 164,000 from 1992.

Media analysts say some of the worst tabloid losses are among readers in younger age groups. Chris Davies, assistant editor of the Sun, thinks the explanation is to be found in the impact of electronics.

He notes that while his paper has been losing ground among readers aged 16 to 34, television viewing figures for the same age group have risen by 11 percent since 1987.

Mr. Davies says that in the future, tabloid newspapers will have to appear in personalized, electronic form, enabling readers to download daily editions into their home computers.

Detailed examination of media statistics suggests, however, that the need for radical change may not be as great as Davies supposes.

According to Harry Henry, chairman of the Advertising Association's statistics committee, in the last 30 years the inflation-adjusted price of newspapers here has risen 126 percent for national dailies and 157 percent for Sunday papers.

Over the same period, overall circulations have fallen only marginally.

Mr. Henry says this suggests that the newspaper industry is fairly healthy.

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