Has 'The Times' been 'dazzled' by the 'Mail'?

Latest figures show 'The Thunderer' recording the biggest year-on-year circulation rise of any daily. So where might it be drawing inspiration?

Partly it's about profits. The Daily Mail and The Mail on Sunday make them in abundance. Partly it's about circulation. Over the past two decades the Mail titles have provided consistent growth when all around them have mostly suffered decline. Partly it's about certainty and conviction. The Mail titles are not into pussyfooting. Partly it's about Dacre.

Partly it's about profits. The Daily Mail and The Mail on Sunday make them in abundance. Partly it's about circulation. Over the past two decades the Mail titles have provided consistent growth when all around them have mostly suffered decline. Partly it's about certainty and conviction. The Mail titles are not into pussyfooting. Partly it's about Dacre.

Actually it's mainly about Paul Dacre, because all the other things lead from the near-mystical aura surrounding the Mail editor. Few have heard him (he hardly ever does interviews, although he did turn up on Desert Island Discs a few months ago); few have seen him outside the office (he does not do TV or the celebrity circuit); everyone knows he is paid more than £1m a year, which is more than other editors.

But the other editors don't mind. Because even these ultra-competitive autocrats, to a man and woman, are just a bit in awe of Dacre's success, his job-security, his salary and, more than anything, his iconic status. And the February circulation figures show that the Daily Mail is the only daily paper outside the quality sector - to which we will come later - to increase sale, year-on-year, as did The Mail on Sunday.

Kelvin Mackenzie, the former editor of The Sun, writing in the current British Journalism Review, describes Dacre as "the finest and most successful newspaper editor in this country". Never a mincer of words, Mackenzie says he admires Dacre's determination to "crush the life out of his rivals", and goes on to suggest that the Mail editor should be paid "considerably more".

You would not expect such hyperbole from the editor of The Guardian. But Alan Rusbridger, delivering the Hugo Young Lecture at Sheffield University last week, said there was usually a newspaper that exerted a peculiar gravitational pull on others. "Today it is Paul Dacre's Daily Mail that has others dazzled in its headlights."

Of the two new compacts, it is clearly The Times which is following a more middle-market agenda. Its front pages on occasion have a Mail feel to them, both in appearance and in their pursuit of a consumerist agenda. It makes frequent use of photographs of celebrity models, and these themes are maintained on inside pages. The approach seems to be working. At 3.6 per cent, The Times again this month records a significant rise in circulation. The Independent (2.8 per cent) also continues its circulation progress - pursuing a very different course through its front pages with attitude.

Rusbridger asked: "What are newspapers for?" and, inevitably, he turned to the compact revolution in the quality sector. The Guardian (down 0.8 per cent compared with February last year) has been a victim of the success over the past year of The Times and The Independent, and will launch its own larger-than-tabloid compact - the same size as Le Monde - late this year or early next.

His thesis was that the smaller format for quality papers has had a distinct impact on content. Editors have looked at the success, in terms of both profits and circulation, of the Mail titles and tried some of its techniques. Rusbridger cited as an example a Times front-page headline - "Countdown to the Culling" - that embraced stories about threatened jobs in the civil service and a threat to badgers.

On the same day Rusbridger was talking in Sheffield, the founding editor of The Independent, Andreas Whittam Smith, writing in London's Evening Standard, was making similar observations. He compared the prominence given to the political rows over the Terrorism Bill in the Telegraph and Guardian - dominating the front page - with that given in the two compacts. He cited The Times's use of a story about credit card fraud and The Independent's front-page essay about George W Bush. "The Indy and The Times," wrote Whittam Smith, "are thus setting aside one of the fundamental rules of serious journalism as it has been conducted in the past 150 years. This states that the weight the editor gives to a story by its position, length and headlines, precisely indicates the newspaper's assessment of its importance to readers. By this criterion, I can't see, for instance, that an item on credit card fraud can ever overtake a government plan to remove the right of habeas corpus."

Whittam Smith pays tribute to the creativity of the new-look Independent - this debate is very civilised - saying he had often "rejoiced" at the paper's use of the front page. The Independent was using the most important page to provoke readers, to make them think.

It is a fascinating debate, whether form drives content, whether the Daily Mail influences compact quality papers, whether attitude should drive the big news of the day off the front page. The Guardian has yet to show its hand. Rusbridger might have been defending a decision to remain broadsheet. But a broadsheet is not what The Guardian is going to remain.

So far, the effect of these different approaches to quality journalism is that the quality sector of the daily newspaper market has grown year on year by 3.2 per cent, while the red-top end has shrunk by 5.6 per cent. That's 376,000 copies, more than either The Independent or The Guardian sells.

For Sundays the tabloid tale is the same, only worse. The News of the World, Sunday Mirror, and Daily Star Sunday are all down more than seven per cent year on year. Throw in The People (down three per cent) and the market sector is down more than half a million copies in a year. Compare that with the quality sector, which has increased by a few thousand copies - in part thanks to this newspaper recording a year-on-year rise for the seventh consecutive month.

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield

DIARY

Bad sports day

The jolly atmosphere at last week's Sports Journalism Awards was soured somewhat when the awarding of Sports Story of the Year to The Observer's Duncan Mackay was called into question. Did the judges not realise that the "exclusive" that won it for Mackay - about a pre-Olympic doping scandal - was not an exclusive at all? Meanwhile, the awarding of Sports Diarist of the Year to our own Alan Hubbard had rival Charlie Sale of the Daily Mail publicly remonstrating with one

of the judges. And one organiser came away from the occasion so stressed that he is refusing to have any more to do with it. Time the dinner was equipped with a sin-bin, perhaps?

Ross the unrivalled

Friends of Ross Benson, the legendary Daily Mail foreign correspondent and diarist who died suddenly last week aged only 56, fondly recall his insistence on impeccable turnout, even on the battlefield. Rushed to the Middle East in the late 1990s when a war with Iraq seemed imminent (only to find that he was a few years too early), he soon found a way of passing the time. He paid a visit to Kuwait's finest military tailors and told them to measure him up for a pair of trousers in their best khaki drill. Shall we see Ross's like again?

Tussle over Tom

Consternation at the The Daily Telegraph when highly valued columnist Tom Utley put in for redundancy. Sorry, Tom, no can do. The keen interest shown in him by Paul Dacre over at the Mail is thought to be entirely coincidental.

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