The Sunday Times had a good story at the top of its front page last weekend. Prince Harry had admitted smoking cannabis, the paper reported. It then proceeded to give nuts, bolts and background in
two pieces totalling around 1,800 words, among which, in the page-three turn, was an oblique acknowledgement that the story was broken by The Sunday Times’s other-side-of-the-tracks sister, the News of the World.
Not that the story had been absolutely lifted from the tabloid source: there was an original quote of some 27 words in the Sunday Times material. But never mind the quality, feel the width. The Sunday Times may not originate much, but it can tell it longer than anyone.
I have for some time believed that the millions of readers who buy Sunday papers so heavy it is best to carry them home in a wheelbarrow are getting no more news for their money than when titles such as The Sunday Times were slim enough to pop through letterboxes. Today, with staffs downsized and budgets continually slashed as the advertising downturn shows no sign of becoming an upturn, it is especially true. News is expanded to fill the available space.
That this space is now the equivalent of several football pitches means many stories are tortuously overwritten (although the Prince Harry tale was worth widescreen treatment, even if ploughing through 1,800 words might require the support of a flask of black coffee). So, I reasoned, we need to read only the headline and the first paragraph of each to remain on top of the news at home and abroad.
Never mind the quality, feel the width. The Sunday Times may not originate much, but it can tell it longer than anyone.
Close examination of an issue of The Sunday Times proved me wrong, however. In some cases it is necessary to read the headline and the first two paragraphs.
And then there are those stories – more of which in a moment – where it is totally unnecessary to have anything to do with them whatsoever, on the grounds that they are old or inaccurate. If forewarned, one would fruitfully spend time kicking the cat or forging emigration papers in the name of Andrew Neil, rather than glancing at even the first word.
The issue under my microscope was that of 6 January. Here are a few examples of what I mean:
lVillage full of tycoons tops wealth league: "Britain’s most exclusive neighbourhood, home to the highest proportion of millionaires, is not a royal London borough but an upmarket housing estate near Watford in Hertfordshire." The second paragraph reveals that the village is Loudwater, where one in seven people has a "seven-figure fortune", and there is a handy graphic listing the top-30 districts in the millionaires league.
There’s the story, done, dusted and polished so you can see your face in it – but The Sunday Times went on for another 650 words or so. During the time it took to read the story, the fortunes of the Loudwater rich must have grown by several thousand pounds.
lCarey to announce his retirement: "The Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, is planning to announce his retirement this week. He will leave the job next autumn, just ahead of his 67th birthday, after 111Ãš2 years as primate of all England and leader of the worldwide Anglian community." Spot on, and no need to bother with even the second paragraph. But The Sunday Times chuntered on for another 600 words. lTaliban’s man on a motorbike evades capture: This featured a subdeck above the byline box, "Mullah Omar escapes", requiring the first paragraph of the story to supply no further information other than Mullah Mohammad Omar’s full name and the fact that he has only one eye. The one-eyed factor forced the death of Sergeant Nathan Chapman, the first US serviceman to be killed by hostile fire in Afghanistan, into the second paragraph. More than 500 words of "reporting", by two writers, followed, but I cannot tell you what they revealed as drooping eyelids forced my retirement from the front section of The Sunday Times.
I acknowledge that Sunday Times sub-editors are generally at the top of their game. Providing precise headlines and ensuring that intros are fact-filled is their job. But only 46 stories – plus, admittedly, a crowded News in Brief column – in 17 broadsheet pages smacks of prudent financial management rather than inspired journalism.
Readers might conclude that they would prefer wider coverage to reporting so "in-depth" that it vacuums up discarded chewing-gum wrappers from the cellar floor. And bearing in mind that the stories-per-news page average in this particular issue was only 2.7, they might at the very least expect verbosity to be accompanied by diligence and accuracy.
Yet a short story – a mere 300 words – on page five, headlined "Cunard to build Queen Mary 2", began: "The world’s biggest cruise ship, called the Queen Mary 2, is to be built by Cunard, the British shipping firm." Old news, I thought, ignoring writer Robert Winnett’s failure to mention that this British shipping firm is owned by the American Carnival line.
I trawled through the story to discover that "the contract was signed yesterday". That’s news, but why was it buried halfway down? I called Cunard. "Yes, it’s very old hat," I was told, "but nobody bothered to check it with us. And incidentally, the contract was signed 13 months ago."
The world’s biggest tabloid strikes again. If they keep this up, soon there will be conspicuously fewer wheelbarrows parked outside newsagents on Sundays.
The breaking by the News of the World of the Prince Harry story – a serious news whammy picked up by not just The Sunday Times but proper rival tabloids and the broadsheets, too – will have eased the nagging pain in the wallet that has been concerning News International. If the weight of the tale is reflected in sales, the distance between the Screws and the ailing Sunday Mirror and Sunday People will widen still further.
And, crucially, it will help Rebekah Wade’s paper to keep its nose – the one it so successfully pokes into everybody else’s business – just ahead of the magic four million. The latest ABC figures record an average weekly circulation, unadjusted for bulk sales, of 4,028,441 last year, but in December the paper took a 3.45 per cent tumble from the previous month, returning an average of a little less than 3,790,000.
As staying above four million was the raison d’?tre for Wade’s appointment, Rupert Murdoch would have been forgiven for wondering if the vast amounts of money he has thrown at the title since she arrived would not have been better invested in, say, the National Lottery. Senior Wapping executives insist that when the boss agreed to Wade’s demands for a massive increase in the NoW’s editorial budget – almost doubling it, they claim – he hoped for something better than an end-of-year circulation hanging on to 4 million by the tips of its fingernails.
It will be a happy New Year indeed for Wade and her proprietor if Prince Harry’s spliffs help to ensure Murdoch’s money does not go up in smoke.