For sale, one lively red-top - a star buy

As proprietors form a queue to buy the Daily Express, what will be the fate of its downmarket stablemate, the Daily Star?

Somebody once said that doing a good job in journalism was like wetting yourself in a dark suit: you got a warm feeling but nobody noticed. If you think that's funny, spare a thought for Peter Hill, editor of the
Daily Star. Hill has presided over a circulation increase of more than 5 per cent since his appointment a couple of years ago, a rise achieved in spite of his policy of reducing the paper's infamous nipple-count to just two a day.

Somebody once said that doing a good job in journalism was like wetting yourself in a dark suit: you got a warm feeling but nobody noticed. If you think that's funny, spare a thought for Peter Hill, editor of the Daily Star. Hill has presided over a circulation increase of more than 5 per cent since his appointment a couple of years ago, a rise achieved in spite of his policy of reducing the paper's infamous nipple-count to just two a day.

The Star is brighter and less sleazy, the second most successful (after the Financial Times) over the past 12 months, but Hill is feeling downcast and unloved. The reason is simple; while the bidding war for Express Newspapers continues, with the Daily Mail & General Trust the latest to enter the fray, attention seems to be focused almost entirely on the Express and the Sunday Express. The future of the Star is, to say the least, uncertain.

Of the bidders rumoured to be interested in Express Newspapers, none has declared what it would do with the country's smallest red-top. Already, the Mail, the wealthy Indian Hinduja brothers, a consortium led by former Mirror chief executive David Montgomery and Conrad Black, owner of the Telegraph group, are believed to be jostling for position, with £100m cited as a ballpark buying price. There has been talk of investment in the Express Titles, but what of the Star?

Last week, Hill was said by staff to be distraught at claims that David Sullivan, publisher of the Sport and other sex titles, had written to potential bidders offering to buy the Star if they didn't want it.

Sullivan's last attempt at running the paper - in 1987, at the misguided invitation of Lord Stevens - was short-lived, distasteful and saw the paper's circulation plummet from 1.4 million to around just 700,000 in a matter of months.

"Peter was very upset indeed at the Sullivan news," said an Express Newspapers executive yesterday. "He's doing such a good job, but he's hurt that the only people who really want to buy the Star seem to be porn merchants.

"The Hinduja's don't want it; they'd sell. The Telegraph would probably sell. Montgomery would probably keep it and, if they were serious about their bid, the Mail would keep it. But no one's saying. Hovering in the background are Sullivan and Richard Desmond, another soft-porn publisher."

Industry insiders are divided over whether the Star will survive. Montgomery, with experience from his days at the News of the World, Today and The Mirror, would be most likely to want it snapping at the heels of The Sun and The Mirror. The Mail might want it for the same purpose but a different motive - if it kept the red-tops busy at the lower end of the market, they would be less likely to make inroads into the middle market.

Others think the paper is too far behind its rivals to make a viable challenge. "As number three - and a distant number three - the Star won't appear very attractive to most bidders," said Simon Lapthorne, media analyst at Old Mutual Securities. "The market it is in is the most expensive and cut-throat in the business. To make any inroads, the buyer would have to take on the resources of News International. That would take very deep pockets. You have to ask, if the Star didn't exist, would there be a need for anyone to invent it now? I'm afraid the answer would have to be no."

If that is true, however, no one has told increasing numbers of readers. September's ABC figures put the Star's sales at 651,514 (including the Republic of Ireland), up 5.64 per cent on last year.

"Peter has been with the paper since it launched in 1978, so he has a clear vision of how it should look," said the Express executive. "He's got the balance right now and that's being reflected in sales. He's consistent and that's where he has an edge on [David] Yelland [editor of The Sun] and [Piers] Morgan [editor of The Mirror]. Every now and then, they'll get involved in some serious issue or a rant about the euro, and that's when their readers get bored and come to us for some fun.

"The Star is big on celebrities, goals and tits - although not as much as in the past. It's a cheeky-chappy paper for lads who go to Blackpool. Ask yourself this: If Freddie Star ate someone's hamster today, who'd be most likely to splash on the story? It would be the Star."

The paper may survive by default simply because its finances are so intertwined with the Express titles. When Lord Matthews dreamt up the idea for a new red-top tabloid - famously, while taking a bath - part of its function was to soak up excess printing capacity. That relationship may yet save it.

United News & Media, which owns the titles, does not publish figures for individual papers, but staff say the Star contributes more to printing costs and other overheads than the Express titles, making them appear more viable.

"It's something that constantly riles us, that we are treated like the poor relation but without us they'd be in trouble," said one senior Star journalist. "All we've experienced in recent years, particularly under Lord Hollick, is cuts and asset-stripping. We don't even own our own building any more; we rent from one of Hollick's companies."

Whoever inherits the Star will find a shrunken team desperate for investment and demoralised from years of watching The Sun and The Mirror racing farther ahead. "We used to have more than 20 general reporters," said the insider. "Now there are six on the daytime rota and one at night. The Star and Express and the Saturday and Sunday magazines used to cover more or less all of the nine floors of the Blackfriars building; now we're all squeezed into two so the rest can be rented out to other companies. The Star used to have a whole floor to itself; now we have to share with personnel, circulation, marketing, promotions and both the Saturday and Sunday Express magazines."

In spite of everything, there is an indomitable spirit about the place; it still rings true that the Star reporter on any job is often the most cheerful. And there is a belief among staff that, given a little investment (for example, they have no political editor), they could take on The Mirror and The Sun again.

"During round after round of redundancies, we've seen some great talent go into fantastic positions on other papers," said the Star journalist. "If they were still here, or if we could get them back, we could challenge anyone. We still have some very talented people here. The trouble with this market is that you have to get exclusives and - whether buying pictures or celebrity stories - that costs money. We're already getting readers back. Imagine what we could do if we have a bit more help from the top."

In the final analysis, the bean counters will determine the fate of the paper that brought us bingo and colour Starbirds. It would be sad, however, if were sold off as a vehicle for phone-sex advertisements and cross-promotion of porn mags at a time when, against all the odds, it seems to be turning a corner.

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