Sun on Sunday editor Victoria Newton on Rebekah, Rupert, paywalls and filling the gap left by the News of the World

Three years ago this week, Rupert Murdoch shut down Victoria Newton's old paper, the News of the World. Seven months later, he gave her and a group of Sun colleagues just a week to launch its replacement.

But she sees that frenetic week in the run-up to the launch of The Sun on Sunday (which she now edits) as one of the high points of her career.

“It was exciting. I’ll never experience anything like that again,” she says.

“Rupert flew in to town and suddenly he was in the office here with Dominic [Mohan, then Sun editor] saying: ‘Right, we’re launching a paper in seven days.’ So yes we had to turn it around pretty quickly.”

On launch, the paper recorded a circulation of 3,213,613, which put it well above the News of the World's circulation in June 2011 of 2.7m. But the following month that figure fell to 2,426,894, and it now averages just over 1.7m sales a week.

“Obviously in terms of print it’s a declining market,” says Newton. “A huge chunk of readers went out of the market with the News of the World. About 800,000 readers just went, which is devastating because you find it very hard to get them back – especially in the digital world.

“But I think our digital strategy hopefully means that in the long-term we will be in a better position to survive and make a handsome profit.”

Newton reveals that more than half of The Sun's new online subscriptions come from people clicking on Sunday stories.

The Sun's website went behind a paywall in August 2013 and charges readers £2 a week for access while also offering day-passes to print readers via a code printed in each day's paper.

News UK has invested tens of millions in sport video highlights as part of its newspaper digital package (including Premier League football). It has not revealed any digital subscriber figures for The Sun since January, when it said numbers had exceeded 100,000.

Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger recently described the paywall as a “19th century business model”, and said: “I don’t know of a single journalist… who would prefer to have a closed model.”

But Newton doesn’t accept this. “He probably doesn’t know that many journalists,” she says. “It doesn’t have many readers The Guardian, does it? I’m pretty sure that most of our stories, even behind our paywall, have more people reading them than his.”

She is also critical of the UK's most popular (and free) newspaper website, Mail Online: “They’re not providing new content. It’s just recycling everybody else’s content… We want to concentrate on making our own journalism.”

Newton says she is fully behind News UK’s paid-for online strategy (“we’re not allowed to call it a paywall”), a demonstration, she feels, of Murdoch’s commitment to the business.

Asked if she has many personal dealings with him, she says: “He rings the office sometimes to find out what’s going on on a Saturday. He’s always keen to know what stories are going around.

“He loves newspapers, which is the fantastic thing. He’s invested his whole life in them. And he still loves a good headline and a great story.”

She says that Murdoch has a “close relationship” with Sun editor David Dinsmore, who Newton reports to, and adds: “We’re lucky to have him as somebody who’s willing to invest in newspapers at a time when many companies don’t.

“Ours does, and I think that’s what you see in our digital strategy, the football rights that we’ve bought. It’s all about investment in our future.

“And the move to the new building [in London Bridge later this month], we’ve got a 30-year lease on that building. If that’s not an investment in journalism then I don’t know what is.”

Newton started her national newspaper career on the Daily Express, joining as a trainee in 1993, before moving on to the Sunday People’s showbiz desk.

She first joined The Sun in 1998, when she was joint editor of Bizarre with future Sun editor Dominic Mohan for a year before becoming Los Angeles correspondent for two years, “which was a great job”.

In 2002, she joined the Daily Mail as showbiz editor. Along with Rebekah Brooks (below, Reuters) and her first showbiz editor, Louise Gannon at the Express, Newton lists Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre as one of her biggest inspirations in journalism. She says: “I got on really well with him and have huge admiration for him, and still do.”

After a year, Newton came back to edit Bizarre between 2003 and 2007, before being made Sun head of features and entertainment by Brooks when she was editor.

She joined the News of the World in October 2009 as deputy editor and when it closed moved to become Saturday editor of The Sun.

Newton was officially unveiled as the editor of The Sun on Sunday last September, but she has effectively been editing the title since launch. 

Asked what the main differences are between The Sun on Sunday and the daily edition, she says: “I think it’s the revelations that are important. What sells a Sunday paper is often just a one-fact story, it’s something that people didn’t know.

“I found what’s quite interesting, it doesn’t matter how important the celebrity. If it’s an A-list celebrity in Hollywood whose marriage has broken up, it’s probably not going to sell as well as a story about a C-list celebrity here like Katie Price. It’s the revelation that people want…”

And is it more difficult to break exclusive celebrity stories, such as kiss-and-tells, nowadays? “The creeping privacy laws that have come into this country have clearly made those more difficult to get into the paper, and I think that the impact that Leveson has had is chilling,” she says.

“Before we even research a story sometimes about the rich, the famous, the powerful, people in public life, even stories that are in the public interest, sometimes we’re questioning whether we can research them, which I think is really worrying.”

I was told before the interview that Newton would not be talking about the phone-hacking trial, which mainly centred around activities at her former newspaper from before she arrived. But [speaking after the verdict] she says there is “great sympathy” for Rebekah Brooks in The Sun office. She describes Brooks as one of the most inspirational figures in her career and a “great icon in terms of her being a female editor”.

“She had two to three years of her life going through a terrible experience and we’re all delighted that she’s been cleared unanimously,” Newton says.

“As we are for the other ex-members of staff, like Cheryl [Carter] and Stuart [Kuttner]. And now we’re just concentrating on our current members of staff here who are potentially going to go through similar things as the trials come up. We’re doing everything we can to support them.”

Newton does not shy away from controversial topics during this interview. 

Unlike the daily title, The Sun on Sunday, does not carry a topless Page Three model, but Newton gives the feature her backing. "My view is as long as the readers want it then we should continue to do it," she says. "If that changes and they start telling us they don’t want it then we’ll listen to them. But that hasn’t happened.”

Another Sun controversy that has resurfaced in recent months, with the opening of the Hillsborough disaster inquest, is Kelvin MacKenzie's infamous "THE TRUTH" front page (right).

Newton herself is a Liverpudlian and a life-long fan of Liverpool Football Club. Her office is decorated with a mixture of Sun front pages and Liverpool memorabilia – including a life-size cardboard model of captain Steven Gerrard.

“It’s difficult,” she says. “Look, my family were at Hillsborough. It was a dreadful mistake that The Sun made back in the day. We’ve apologised for it. I don’t know what else we can do. We’d love to find a solution, but don’t expect them to forgive us. So we’re realistic about that.”

She describes Labour leader Ed Miliband's apology in Liverpool for posing with an edition of The Sun last month as a "bizarre U-turn", and says: "We have a good relationship with politicians from all sides. And he’s regularly written for us and done pieces, as have his colleagues."

And this brings us on to the next big issue for The Sun: who will get the paper's backing at the 2015 general election – and who will make that call. Newton declines to reveal anything, but plays down the role of Murdoch. “It will be the editor’s decision which way we go,” she says.

“I think at the moment we’re just concentrating on the political issues, backing whoever we agree with on certain issues, whether it’s immigration, welfare, the things that really matter to our readers. So we haven’t said whether we’re coming out either way at the moment.”

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