Media: A quiet revolution in Wapping

The Sunday Times has changed. But not so as you'd notice. How typical of its mystery editor.
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BY ITS own standards The Sunday Times made a few radical changes last Sunday. For the first time in very many years it put its comment and opinion back in the main news section, and altered the News Review, the former home of this content, to become a more exclusively commentary and features section. To other newspapers, particularly Sunday broadsheets, it was a very small bang indeed, a tinker.

Coincidentally, the monthly circulation figures were published, recording The Sunday Times's highest August sale for nearly 20 years, and showing the paper's share of the `quality' Sunday market at 47 per cent. The two events are closely related. While rival titles relaunch, repackage, sign new writers and change their editors, the market leader does very little. The rivals would be happy to trade innovation for that sort of success.

The Sunday Times's announcement of its "changes" was a modest front page column in very small print. None of your "new, improved Sunday Times", just an underplayed mention of the sales figures, a list of `top writers', and the welcoming of `a new clutch of top writers'. Three to be precise, of which two - Robert Harris and Zoe Heller - are familiar names to Sunday Times readers, simply making a return or appearing in a new spot. The third was Melanie Phillips, late of The Guardian and The Observer.

The Sunday Times is thus the prime national newspaper example of the old adage "if it works don't fix it". It remains the newspaper created by the former editor, Andrew Neil - enormous, multi-sectioned, well organised, conservative in design and opinion, complex in content.

Neil, impressed by most things American, imported the idea of a Sunday package rather than a Sunday newspaper, and sections proliferated during his era. He said he offered the "supermarket" approach: you could tour the newspaper's sections, stopping to "buy" when something of interest caught your eye.

It was, and is, one paper for many markets. News Review was the "intellectual heart" of the newspaper for the politically-inclined and thinking readers. Business, sport, arts and travel all had their own sections, some spawning other sections, such as Money for personal finance. And then there are the magazines. The formula has been much imitated, on Saturdays as well as Sundays.

The recipe - which is probably why it evokes so much snobbery among journalists who work elsewhere - is to present a mid-market package in broadsheet clothing, with a dollop of broadsheet values around the political and business areas. Elsewhere it is aspirational, puts the word "style" under the cosh, defines its own `society' and vigorously reflects the views of conservative middle Britain.

It works, to the tune of over 1.3m copies a a week. And while some rivals draw attention to the subsidised push into Scotland and Ireland as an explanation for the stubborn refusal of the circulation to fall, the fact is that English readers visiting the newsagent on a Sunday morning usually exchange pounds 1 for a copy. This is not an area where other Sunday broadsheet titles can throw stones without embarrassment.

Given this attitude to change, of keeping it evolutionary verging on imperceptible (it is usually driven by production factors - the challenge of printing so much on presses used by other titles), there is perhaps one interesting aspect of what happened on Sunday, one challenge to the Neil orthodoxy. By putting the editorial and op-ed pages into the main news section, The Sunday Times is moving slightly away from the "supermarket" formula.

By presenting those pieces which define where the paper stands in the traditional place, the main news section, and out of the ghetto, it is subtly binding the paper together.

This then is the first significant editorial content change from Andrew Neil's successor, John Witherow. Neil was a hard act to follow; he had the highest profile of any national newspaper editor, was forever appearing on radio and TV, was a man of considerable intellect with rare gifts of self-promotion and a pathological distaste for what he described as "the establishment". Although The Sunday Times is self-evidently bigger than anyone who edits it, that did not seem to be the case when Neil was in charge.

Witherow is very different. More contained, less flamboyant, less outrageous, more "English". Those who like to criticise The Sunday Times - almost all journalists who do not work for a Murdoch title - like to describe him as Fleet Street's least known editor. But is that really fair, or more importantly, so what?

We have moved out of the era of the celebrity editor. Ask the person in the street to name the editors of any national newspaper, and there would be very few identified.

When Rupert Murdoch tired of celebrity editors - Andrew Neil and Kelvin MacKenzie at The Sun - he turned to editors he thought would simply do a good job for him. He preferred them to make money rather than waves. But this is true not only of Murdoch's newspapers.

Editors become celebrities if they appear on radio and television regularly; if they front the repercussions of major stories - cash for questions, for example; if their paper transgresses - carrying photographs of Princess Diana in a gym; or if they themselves are the centre of a salacious story - Neil, Donald Trelford, Pamella Bordes. They are seldom celebrities if they get on with editing.

Neil reports in his autobiography that Murdoch worried that Witherow was "not driven enough", and "too much of a knee-jerk Tory". Both concerns were clearly overcome, and Witherow was appointed. In Murdoch's terms he has delivered.

News International newspapers are not crusades, their journalists not driven by a mission. They refer to the Wapping headquarters not as the office but the plant.

Papers like The Sunday Times are triumphs of production, marketing and distribution. They are immensely efficient. Editing such a multi-headed hydra demands as many qualities of organisation and management as flair and creativity.

The Sunday Times, like other Murdoch titles, is more popular in the market place than the media village. Its journalists often feel unloved, and its work regime is often one of authoritarianism and sometimes fear.

Witherow has the plant's respect, and the main reason for that is that he runs a successful product. Carping from the chattering journalistic classes is unlikely to bother him.

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Central Lancashire