Newspaper editors must feel blessed to have the benefit of so much advice from disinterested observers. Imagine how tough it must be for bosses in other industries who never get to read how misguided they are – or how much better the guys who used to be in the business would do their job. You know, pieces by guys like me.
Why, thanks to the wonders of the internet, lucky Tristan Davies was able to read how useless his redesign of The Independent on Sunday was before he had even published it, for The Guardian media blogger Roy Greenslade and several of his readers were confident of disaster a whole week ago, merely from reading Davies’s account of the changes he intended to make.
Were they right? Well, two of Davies’s three Sunday rivals – John Witherow at the Sunday Times and Patience Wheatcroft at the Sunday Telegraph – can be pretty confident their readers won’t be moving. If punters have stuck with the Times and Telegraph this long it would be strange to run for the IoS now.
I imagine Roger Alton is in agonies, not because he ought to be, but because it is his reflex reaction to any development. He will be cradling his head in his hands and swearing: ‘It’s brilliant, it’s brilliant. Why didn’t we do this?’
And he would be right to wonder whether just a few of his readers may be tempted by the design statement that Davies and his team have made – and right to be reassured that there is more to read in his own paper.
But thank heavens Davies has given them a nudge. All three editors should have peered at some of his neat design touches with a view to working out what they might steal – and all three would be remarkably complacent if they did not admire Davies’s determination to reinvent a title that sits at the back of a stagnating market.
The Sunday Times broke the £2 barrier in the belief that the Sunday habit was ingrained in readers. Then it found it wasn’t.
Now it is quite right that readers tell market researchers they would like a smaller paper and then go out and buy a bigger one. I was working at The Sunday Telegraph in the late Eighties when we made a virtue of being concise.
We had that elegant marketing campaign with the arrow-like pencil, the one based on our paper becoming fitter as others got fatter – and a fat lot of good it did us.
But Davies has pointed out that he did not suggest that people no longer wanted multisection papers. Rather, he proposed that, as three titles were already doing multisection papers pretty well, his own should look elsewhere.
He also avoided the trap that most of us have fallen into, which is to believe that our new paper looks so nice that readers will come rushing across. It’s one thing to get people sampling your paper and agreeing it is good, it’s quite another to make them decide that it is so good that they will desert the paper they have grown used to reading.
You get them for a week or two, then they remember how much they like reading Simon Jenkins, or Lynn Barber, or being able to solve The Sunday Telegraph crossword.
No, Davies has said he thinks he can find new readers, the ones who either stopped buying on Sunday or never got into that bad habit in the first place. To achieve that, he had to offer something different.
This was also the proposition back in 1990, when the IoS launched. Before it did, I went to a job interview with Ian Jack, the deputy editor, with whom I had worked at The Sunday Times.
Jack had in mind a nuts-and-bolts reporting job. I had in mind the beautiful Review he was creating, a magazine that was to achieve a small and short-lived revolution in the Sunday market. I stayed where I was, but eight years later, when the revolving door policy then in operation deposited me in the IoS chair, I found the Review still regarded as a touchstone of the paper’s quality by an editorial advisory board reluctant to see how diminished it had become as a result of the paper’s recent vicissitudes.
That, in essence, continued to be the story of the IoS, a yearning for a lost magazine and a regular, orthodox reordering of the paper based on whatever the small budget, diminishing staff and frustrating printing contracts would allow.
There’s always been some good stuff in it, but it is a long time since it genuinely competed with its well-funded, big-staffed, multi-sectioned rivals.
Now, rather than sit and mope, Davies has done a commendable thing in striving to rethink the market and come up something different. With any luck he will hang on to the readers who have stuck by him so far – though readers, of course, are always less keen on change than editors – and maybe, just maybe, those understated headlines and groovy Spanish design ideas and that neat, two-section notion will offer a few thousand trendsetters a reason to start buying a paper.
Certainly, back in the late Eighties, there were many fashionable folk who latched on to the Independent not because they read it, but because it was smart to be seen carrying it.
Best of all, this is a move that should lift the morale of the staff, a sign that that there is life in the young dog yet and a gesture of defiance to those old bores at other titles. As all journalists should remind themselves, as well be hanged for a sheep as for a lamb.