It’s not a pretty picture if you’re a newspaper publisher. Daily newspaper sales dropped by more than 72,000 copies over the past three months when compared with the same period last year, according to the latest Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC) numbers released today.

Of the four major newspaper groups only Caxton managed to return positive numbers for the quarter with The Citizen gaining 1,324 sales when compared with July-September 2010. Independent Newspapers dropped 18,991 sales in the same comparison, Media24 lost 46,452 and Avusa shed 8,379.

Among the few dailies that increased sales were Beeld (+3,496) and Isolezwe (+9,096).

What must be most perturbing for publishers, however, is that there is now a distinct sales trend, and it’s not in the right direction. Daily newspaper sales have been in decline for the best part of four years. The last increase in daily newspaper sales was in 2007 and it’s been all downhill since with more than 280,000 sales lost since the July-September 2007 peak.

A significant portion of those losses are attributable to the Daily Sun, which has lost more than 144,000 sales since the July-September 2008 quarter. Targeted as it is at the lower end of the market it’s easy to imagine that Daily Sun would be among the newspapers least affected by the rise of online news which requires access to technology. And yet it has lost a quarter of its sales over the past three years. Could this be the result of the rapid growth in mobile phone ownership in this market?

I also hear many in the newspaper industry talking about “bad trading conditions” and the global recession as reasons for the downturn in sales but I think if we’re honest this is more than a speed bump. This is a serious downhill with very little to slow them down at the bottom.

Newspapers are now well and truly a “twilight industry”, a term economists use to describe industries that are no longer developing, are stagnant or have been superceded by new and better technologies. Most newspaper publishers would do well now to follow the likes of MediaNew’s chief John Paton who is transforming the US’s second-largest newspaper group to move beyond print.

Addendum: Some of the country’s weekly newspapers performed a big better than the dailies, in particular the Mail And Guardian. For more on the weekly and magazine market see Bizcommunity.