It’s easy to read a lot into the surprise appointment of David Dinsmore as the new editor of The Sun last week. The tenth person to take charge of the country’s biggest-selling paper has not been elevated from the ranks of section editors or moved across from a sister title, like his most recent predecessors.
Instead, Dinsmore has moved into the editor’s chair armed with spreadsheets rather than notebooks, having been promoted from his role as News International’s (now News UK’s) director of operations, in charge of printing and distribution. His appointment is indicative of the fact that editing a title like The Sun today is about lot more than just stories and pictures.
The fact that he is giving Press Gazette an interview at all suggests a distinct change of atmosphere at Wapping. His predecessors Dominic Mohan and Rebekah Wade almost never spoke publicly to the media.
The 44-year-old Glaswegian acknowledges that the job has subtly changed over the years.
“I think, in the old days, you just had to think about how you put out a paper and now it’s so many different things,” he tells Press Gazette. “It’s a 24 hour a day, seven days a week operation and we’re trying to reinvent the business at the same time because the old-world business of just selling newsprint is under huge pressure both in terms of circulation and advertising revenue.”
So has his time learning about the business side of the newspaper industry helped catapult him into the top job?
“People have had to make pretty hard-headed business decisions about the way forward, and I think that my background has definitely helped in that.
“The thing that it’s opened my eyes to is how much knowledge there is outside of the newsroom about what the customer wants and what we can give them. Historically, we relied on our instinct and gut but now we need to go elsewhere too.”
If Sun reporters are worried that Dinsmore is expecting them to spend their days analysing readership data and trudging through Google Analytics, they should remember that their new boss also has a strong journalistic pedigree.
He cut his teeth on the Clydebank Post and worked on the Eastwood Mercury, Milngavie Herald and Kirkintolloch Herald before embarking on a business management degree. But even then he continued to keep his hand in as a reporter, doing night shifts at the Scottish Sun.
Despite managing to fail his shorthand exam an astonishing 25 times – “I took beta blockers because I got the shakes so much” – he was eventually offered a staff job at the Daily Star, making him ditch his studies before completing his degree.
Not long after, The Sun came calling. “And they’ve not been able to get rid of me since,” he jokes.
After nearly two decades with the paper, in as wide variety of roles as, probably, any other News UK employee, The Sun is part of Dinsmore’s DNA. He might be boardroom-minded but he also knows how to shift papers.
“You couldn’t do The Sun by numbers alone,” he says, explaining how he hopes to combine the instinctive with the practical. “The ability to take a George Osborne tweet and turn it into a splash is what The Sun is all about.
“You can’t do that through data. But what it can give you is an insight into what you should be doing more of, what you should be targeting more of.”
Even though he concedes that there is “much more management” in the editor’s role today than there was 20 years ago, and although the way people get their fix of The Sun is changing, Dinsmore is adamant that the essence of the job is the same.
“My primary focus will still be what goes on the front page, be it on a newspaper or on a digital format.”
Dinsmore returns to The Sun at a critical point in its history. Next month, the paper will go behind a paywall online for the first time in its history (paywall, by the way, is a term Dinsmore himself noticeably shies away from using).
His boss, News UK chief executive Mike Darcey, this week said (see page 12) that the future of online news would be paid-for, adding that the old model of expecting people to buy a print product but offering the same content free on a website looked “a bit silly”. And Dinsmore agrees that the direction of travel is now irreversible.
“The industry has been subconsciously wrestling with this for 15 years since the dawn of the internet. It didn’t have to do much about it for a fair chunk of time because the revenues were still coming in through print. But in the last five years it’s just accelerated to the point we’re at today.”
For Dinsmore, the key isn’t so much getting people to buy The Sun as making sure they keep buying it. What he hopes is that the innovation of giving print readers a code to let them access the day’s news online too will “drive some frequency”, which he believes is the biggest factor in falling sales.
“People still like newspapers,” he insists. “In fact, people still love newspapers, and print is still a big way of getting messages across, but they may only buy the paper two or three times a week instead of six or seven times.
“People still love the brand, it’s just they’re not loving it as often.”
Love it or not, whether people still trust the brand in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal and closure of the News of the World is another matter.
Dinsmore’s first public utterance on taking the job was to offer backing to those Sun journalists caught up in police investigations. But how far would that support stretch if arrests become charges or convictions?
“That’s a bridge we’d need to cross when we get there,” he responds, flatbatting the question. “We fully support our staff, both legally and in other ways.”
The Sun’s influence on public life in the UK has, for more than a generation, been a given. But is its influence diminished – along with that of its rivals – after two years of fire-fighting in the face of the scandal.
Dinsmore is adamant that isn’t the case: “Everyone spends their time running down the influence of newspapers but the very fact that every single news programme every morning flashes up the front pages of the newspapers because they set the agenda for the day shows the influence they’ve had historically and continue to have.”
To prove the point, he adds that the question of who The Sun will back in the next general election is asked in every interview he’s done so far, despite the country being two years away from going to the polls.
“That shows you the influence we have,” he says defiantly.
Dinsmore will not be drawn on which way his paper will lean come election time, though he believes the result will be crucial and set “the direction of the country over the next 20 years”. He also says The Sun has yet to decide on its stance on next year’s referendum on Scottish independence, despite rumours that Rupert Murdoch’s papers north of the border had cooled in their support for Alex Salmond’s Scottish National Party.
With so much on his plate, it’s little wonder that the new man has chosen to live in Wapping – “above the shop” as he puts it. But even without a commute to contend with, Dinsmore would still like a bit more time to deal with his bulging in-tray.
“If I could extend the 24-hour day to 30, that would help.”