Any old Sunday?

The highly successful `Mail on Sunday' has been relaunched. It's certainly new, but is it improved?

The Mail newspapers have become the great exceptions. As we discuss the general decline in sales of newspapers, talk of irreversible decline, and search for reasons (young people don't read, the Internet etc), we have to qualify all such conversations with "except for the Mail and The Mail on Sunday, of course".

Why "of course"? There's no "of course" about it. It is the easiest thing in the world to hide behind a trend - if all papers are losing sales then it cannot be our fault - but it's the hardest thing in the world to buck one. The Mail's daily and Sunday newspapers consistently do just that, and have done over a long period of time.

While the Sunday Express is losing sales at a rate of 11 per cent a year (comparing the most recent six-month period with the same period a year ago), The Mail on Sunday is increasing sales at 4.8 per cent. The Express has sunk to just over one million sales; The Mail on Sunday is selling over 2.3 million copies, and rising.

It is a spectacular success, much envied by other editors, who spend their time discussing how it is done. I have always thought the Daily Mail does it better, with more conviction, but the formula, put simply, is understanding the audience with great precision, knowing, anticipating and reinforcing their preoccupations and prejudices, being confident enough not to follow the pack, ie sticking to their own news agenda, promoting hard, and employing fine journalists over a long period of time - the Mail has never been susceptible to the "clear out the old guard and hire young writers" ethos so common today.

The Mail on Sunday has just repackaged itself, more a face-lift than a new model, a few "extras" thrown in as standard. It has changed the feel and content of its magazine, Night & Day, and added a Review in the format of the newspaper. Why? Why fix it when it was manifestly working?

Generally the paper seems to have tightened up under the new editor Peter Wright, with more emphasis on news than is often the case on Sunday, and a harder political edge. It was brave to name Joe Ashton as the MP not having sex in the Northampton Thai brothel, when most other papers left out the name "for legal reasons".

The launch of former Express editor Richard Addis' new section, Review - nobody tries to think up clever titles any longer, they all use the same - has an impact on the main section. One of the attractions of The Mail on Sunday was that it offered a more consolidated package than most of its rivals - but with the new section not only Stewart Steven's column but many of the topical personality features in which the paper specialises, which provided engaging variety to the old main section, have moved out of this section and into Review. It has left the first section news-and- sport only, and presented the usual problem of the early pages of a Review section, before you get to the reviews. What makes a Review front page? The early signs are that The Mail of Sunday is going to find this as much a problem as the other papers.

So why introduce the new section? I suppose because the evidence from The Sunday Times, which has so much in common with The Mail on Sunday - each paper is probably the other's main rival, which makes it the more interesting that they are the two most successful Sunday papers of the moment - is that the public likes multi-section newspapers. But Review will have to improve.

The Mail on Sunday's financial section, which includes personal finance, is probably the best such section around, but that was there before the face-lift, as was Night & Day which, unlike Financial Mail on Sunday, has been substantially changed in this new package.

The previous Night & Day was accused of being too masculine, but then there was You magazine, the most women's magaziney of all Sunday magazines (that continues relatively unchanged). Now Night & Day, which was refreshingly different from its rivals, has taken on a glossy cover, absorbed the broadcast listings magazine Programme, now called Choice, and lost the reviews to Review, obviously. But in so doing it has made both Review and Night & Day more conventional. The old Night & Day had an original approach to book reviews in particular.

The original conception of Weekend, the Mail's outstanding Saturday TV and features magazine, was Christena Appleyard's. She later left for The Times, but is now back at the Mail and behind the Night & Day relaunch. She had a "sex and shopping" item in Weekend which included a sex questionnaire for willing celebrities with something to sell. That ran its course and was replaced by an unreadable questionnaire on moral dilemmas. But the sex item is back in the revised Night & Day as "A lay in the life of", which allows an exhibitionist non-celebrity to reminisce in a softer-than- soft porn way. It comes across as precious and rather tacky. "The lowdown" is another of those fact-box features, which seeks to provide an accessible brief on a major figure from the arts. It's a rip-off of The Guardian's Pass Notes, which was itself a rip-off of the late Sunday Correspondent's Pass Notes.

So here is the problem. When the Mail (daily or Sunday) did something new it tended to be original. This latest Mail on Sunday revamp has made the paper more conventional than it was before, more like other papers. It has produced the packages in the same shape you find elsewhere, nicked some old ideas, produced a magazine which, on the outside at least, feels like any other colour magazine - only The Mail on Sunday has already got one of those, so now it has two.

It will continue to sell because the journalism's good and the opposition is lousy. But it lacks that spark of flair and originality David English always contributed, or demanded.

Peter Cole is the former editor of the `Sunday Correspondent' and is now a professor of journalism at the University of Central Lancashire, Preston

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