Media: Where the Sunday Express went wrong

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The Independent Culture
Last week the Sunday Express's sales fell below the 1 million a week mark for the first time. The paper seems to be in terminal decline, but before placing the blame at the feet of the current regime it is worth arguing that this state of affairs is nothing new.

Ten short years ago I was deputy editor, and faced a different crisis every week. Now I am a proprietor of the Miller Howe Hotel in the Lake District, and things for The Express don't seem to have changed.

I am now a customer of the ad department of the paper I used to work for, and it is often a depressing experience.

When I hear the sales pitch from the ad department at The Express, I feel they don't know what the paper is any more. They recite the statistics but seem to have little stomach for the fight. If they don't know where The Express is going, how will advertisers? How will rank and file journalists? More important - how will readers?

Ten years ago the Sunday Express was still selling 2 million copies each Sunday, but management were obsessed that each week would be the one that The Mail on Sunday would finally overtake it.

Yet would they release funds for the paper to fight on equal terms? Would they hell. I had joined the paper in 1987 to replace Brian Hitchen as Robin Esser's deputy. Esser had already done much to halt the decline the paper had suffered in the later years of Sir John Junor's marathon tenure, but he would return from management meetings looking grey.

He kept losing battles with management to get increased investment for advertising, or was confounded by limitations of the presses. The other problem was the ad ratio. The paper could physically print only a 32-page broadsheet; the ad ratio was being pushed around the 55 per cent to benefit shareholders and board of United.

The Sunday Express was a major contributor to profits but few directors seemed to understand or care that in the Rothermere camp Sir David English had his proprietor's backing to outspend The Express two to one in all areas - recruitment, buy-ups, promotion - and had far greater flexibility in the products produced.

Esser and I had kept up a campaign to have more pages and, working with the then production director Murdoch Maclennan, worked out a way for the beaten-up old presses to print a back-set, pre-printed eight-page section.

The chairman, Lord Stevens, agreed we could have it only if we could ensure the advertising to sustain it. The only way that could work was to use it as a City section - not really what we wanted editorially, but a least it gave us extra pagination to improve the content of the main book and give a little more to sport. Already part-works such as the Best of Britain had been introduced by Esser, and for the first time circulation lifted.

The Sunday Express magazine was vitally involved because You magazine had been so instrumental in the rise of The MoS and we were well aware that better pagination, better colour and inserts were the way ahead.

Is it only ironic that the then editor of the Sunday Express magazine, Dee Nolan, and her deputy, Sue Peart, are now the double act in charge of the continuing success story of You and Esser is on the management team of the Mail?

Three weeks before we managed to put our extra section into place, a decision was made to increase the cover price of the paper without telling editorial.

I simply could not believe that so-called professional newspaper experts could stay quiet about it. If you are going to increase the content of a can of beans by 20 per cent and want to increase the price by 10 per cent, you do it simultaneously, don't you?

It would have been laughable if it weren't so tragic. The week after the price rise I had to attend a board meeting in the absence of Esser and the chairman asked why it was that the paper had lost more than 100,000 copies that weekend. There was an uncomfortable silence as I ventured that it was surprising also to editorial - surprising that we had not lost more, considering the contempt we had just shown to our readers by asking them to part with even more money for an ad-stuffed, flimsy 32- page paper.

Esser was replaced by Robin Morgan, who had applied for the job of editing the Yorkshire Post. He let John Junor's column go to The Mail on Sunday - along with another 100,000 readers.

The Sunday Express's fortunes did not fare well under Morgan, and other brave attempts to stop the rot have left Rosie Boycott with a newspaper now selling under a million.

You will perhaps now understand why I think that, before the knives come out for Boycott, there are a lot of people who have worked at The Express who should take a close look at themselves in the mirror.

The writer was deputy editor of the `Sunday Express' from 1988 to 1989 and editor of `The European' from 1992 to 1997

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