Britain’s fastest-growing national newspaper last month is not one that has mastered its online strategy, developed a 24/7 web-first operation or transported its staff to a state-of-the-art multimedia ‘hub”.
It is the Daily Star Sunday, which has just celebrated its fifth birthday. It is an old-fashioned Sunday tabloid that focuses on showbiz, sport, sex and scandal – and does so with one of the smallest teams on Fleet Street.
In the latest ABC figures for August, thanks to an aggressive TV marketing campaign and CD give-aways encouraged by proprietor Richard Desmond, it was 26.4 per cent up year-on-year to 533,248 copies a week.
The Northern & Shell title is rapidly encroaching on its closest rival The People, which has lost 13.8 per cent of sales year-on-year, dropping to 741,033. In July, before the recent free CD-backed campaign, the Star Sunday posted a 6.5 per cent year-on-year gain.
‘We’ve proven, without the aid of any marketing in the past month, that we’ve got the formula right and this month we are kicking seven bells out of everyone,’says editor Gareth Morgan.
‘It’s about knowing your audience. And we’re not hamstrung by the history of a paper, such as The People, which is stuck with this readership that is basically dying on it. They’re making it a lot easier for us.
‘We offer something slightly different from the Daily Star through the week”, he continues. ‘There is a misconception in wanky London media circles about us. We’ve had people going to Afghanistan, we’ve had people on the frontline. It’s not cheap as chips, but there is a sense of fun. The People has no sense of fun, even ‘the Screws’ (News of the World)â€¦ It used to be a must-read. There was a time when they were always breaking stories.
‘We just try and do simple things well – it’s the football analogy of playing to feet. It’s an easy thing, journalism: you just go out and talk to people, listen to what your mates are doing.
‘We’re a very small team, we’re all talking to each other so we know what each others’ mates and families are talking about.”
Morgan and deputy editor Michael Booker are positively bubbling with enthusiasm for their paper’s success and have the naughty, irreverent attitude in person that half a million readers see in print every week. ‘Every editor needs an inflatable hammer,’says Morgan, pointing to one in the corner. ‘You need something to hit subs with.”
They also don’t care who they offend, describing former Daily Mirror editor and MediaGuardian press commentator Roy Greenslade as ‘a knobstick”, and tabloid luminaries Piers Morgan and Kelvin MacKenzie as ‘dinosaurs”.
Morgan says the current circulation campaign came directly from proprietor Richard Desmond’s desire to go after the Sunday competition.
Morgan says: ‘We are being aggressive with the marketing; we’re really going for it. But we have got the formula right because last month there was none of it. We’re sorting out everyone’s record collection.”
It seems the choice of CD – the paper has given away music by Elvis Presley, the Happy Mondays, the Stranglers and, last week, the Ramones – says a lot about the paper’s target audience.
‘You can quite easily dig out what the reader profile is, if such an average reader exists. It’s a bloke in his mid-to-late 30s, family man, in a job, so that’sâ€¦ me,’says Morgan.
Morgan firmly believes that his staff and readers are of the same social group of ‘ordinary people’who like Big Brother, football, The X Factor, and, apparently, Seventies’ punk and Nineties’ indie music.
His staff’s understanding of their audience is key, says Morgan, particularly as he does not have as many at his disposal at his rivals.
He declined to be drawn on exact staff numbers, but insists the paper is not short on resources. ‘Yes, we have a lot fewer staff, but I wouldn’t say we have less resources because I know what everyone is doing, there’s no dead space. Why do you need a bigger staff?
‘Look elsewhere: everyone I know on other papers is always saying ‘I never get to go out on a job’, it’s a very select group of people that get to go out on a job. You wouldn’t get someone here who hasn’t had a byline for weeks.”
Morgan has a closing message for the rest of the Sunday tabloids: surrender.
‘There are a lot of positives about the industry. I’m not sitting here wringing my hands about it – if the other Sunday papers want to surrender or join our axis of joy, well, we’ll consider,’he said. ‘therwise we’re just going to smash them. It’s a great team, we’re having fun and we’re being a huge pain in the arse for everyone.”