Sundays get a roasting

The trouble with those Sunday papers struggling to keep their heads above the circulation waterline is that they come out on the wrong day. To use the latest in cool-speak, Saturday is the new Sunday and unless there is another social shakeup as radical as that which turned the day of rest into one of despair in the national newspaper industry, the Sabbath will continue to be the graveyard of broken dreams.

Few now can remember the time when the papers were as integral to the British Sunday as roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. In some areas, the roast lunch survives – wild salmon fishcakes with rocket salad still hasn’t properly caught on in Liverpool 8 and Jarrow – but the national Sunday papers are, by and large, considered as appetising as cold turnip.

The glory days were from the end of the Forties through to the mid-Fifties. Half a century ago the News of the World was selling in excess of eight million copies and on one Sunday in June 1950 peaked at around 8,500,000. That, as Matthew Engel calculated in his history of the popular press, Tickle the Public, meant that a copy of the paper could be found in one of every two households in the country.

At that time there were ten or so national Sundays and both The People – the muscular rival of the News of the World – and the Sunday Pictorial were each selling well over five million every week.

It was the scurrilous titles that had the greatest success, so some things never change. The News of the World, where, one suspects, reports of illicit rumpy-pumpy and the indiscretions of the great and the good remain far greater circulation magnets than sanctimonious campaigning of the "For Sarah" variety, is still leader of the pack.

Given the extraordinary way in which weekends were turned inside out in the final 20 years of the last century, it is remarkable that the News of the World still has a fingernail-hold on four million copies every week.

Those competitors that way back then were snapping hungrily at its heels have fared far worse. The bulk sales-excluded March figure for the Sunday Mirror, as the Pictorial became, was a little over 1,800,000. What is now the Sunday People – with the day itself the kiss of death, why advertise it in the masthead? – came in at 1,385,814. All three red-tops have for some years been in decline, although, as the monthly ABC figures demonstrate, the Mirror Group group titles are plummeting like unopened parachutes compared to the more sedate descent of the NoW.

But the shift of social emphasis at weekends, when the once-

desolate Sabbath suddenly became as crowded as the Northern Line and a lot more fun, has not penalised only the tits-and-ass end of the market. The Sunday Express, maltreated by a succession of uncaring proprietors, is on its knees, as prone a former heavyweight champion as was Lennox Lewis last month, at a genuine sale of not much more than 900,000.

Both The Sunday Telegraph and The Independent on Sunday, each of which offers an attractive editorial package, are drowning rather than waving in the wake of the mighty Sunday Times, whose aggressive marketing strategy has seen it weather and forge ahead despite the stormy seas.

The other long-term winner is The Mail on Sunday, a sickly infant when born in 1982 but subsequently nursed to robust health by the late Lord (Vere) Rothermere and David English. Like its big daily sister, the MoS holds the mid-market in a white-knuckle grip it would take a Hercules to prize loose.

Which brings me to The Observer, a paper that has actually managed only recently to come back from the dead, or, at very least, the terminally ailing. In March, the real sales of the paper were up an astonishing 7.2 per cent year-on-year – in Sunday circulation terms, a feat comparable with walking on water.

Students of the press will immediately spot what The Sunday Times, The Mail on Sunday and, lately, The Observer have in common. Each has benefited from considerable injections of serious money which has been spent wisely both editorially and on forceful marketing.

Roger Alton’s spectacular success with The Observer owes much to the introduction of a razor-sharp monthly sports magazine. Another splendidly produced monthly bolt-on, its delicious new food magazine, can only speed The Observer’s ascent from the no man’s land of the quality sector. Alton has improved the paper no end, too, but as one Observer veteran told me: "Having been at The Guardian for a long time, he’s the first editor to be really trusted since The Guardian bought The Observer. As a result, they are investing in it properly for the first time."

The word from Canary Wharf is that Tina Weaver’s appointment as editor of the Sunday Mirror – the promotion was on the cards long before predecessor Colin Myler’s debacle over the trial of the Leeds footballers, I hear – will be accompanied by a hike all round in budgets. Both Trinity Mirror Sunday national titles have been starved of serious investment, yet can any Sunday title survive, let alone thrive, without it?

When editing The People early last decade I advanced a similar theory. Sunday was already unrecognisable from just a few years previously: shopping, sport and an ever-increasing list of entertainment options had rendered almost redundant the leisurely reading of one and, often, two Sunday papers. The smart money – and lots of it – would, I suggested, initially launch a companion Saturday sports edition of the title, which just might lead to The People becoming a weekend paper, available on Saturdays as a direct competitor of The Sun, but not the then more sophisticated Daily Mirror.

A management intent on shedding jobs and cutting costs in order to boost the company’s share price treated the idea like leprosy. But it might work still. Should it do so, you read it here first.

 

MENTION OF THE dynamic management that arrived to defile a group already groggy from the embraces of the recently demised Captain turns my thoughts to reports of problems for Yava, the dot.com venture masterminded by David Montgomery. How it distresses me to think that the former MGN chief executive, together with Bridget Rowe and David Banks, two of his chums from those dark days when the Mirror was in turmoil, The Independent in shock and Live! TV in the process of becoming a laughing stock, could be facing hard times.

After all, the millions made by Montgomery during his tenure at the Mirror cannot last forever. Those wishing to contribute to the David Montgomery Hardship Fund – just in case, you understand – may send cheques, cash and any bloodstained old clothing they no longer have use for to me at Press Gazette.                

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