Mike Anderson - In the court of 'The Sun' king

Mike Anderson is a big man with big ideas. He believes the battle with 'The Mirror' is already won, so he's looking to new horizons to expand the reach of 'The Sun'. In print, online, and mobile, he tells Ian Burrell, it is now talking to nearly 22 million
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The Independent Online

For the past three decades and more it has been The Sun versus the Daily Mirror. No quarter has been given as the two mighty forces of British popular journalism have slugged it out, their circulation departments competing at the nation's news-stands and their reporters racing each other on the trail to landing exclusive stories.

But like a boxer moving up a weight, The Sun is scornfully turning its back on its smaller rival and looking for a bigger challenge. That's a more polite metaphor than the one offered by Mike Anderson, who as managing director of Rupert Murdoch's News Group Newspapers is in charge of The Sun and its sister paper, the News of the World.

"If I obsessed purely about our performance versus the Mirror ...," he muses, pausing to choose his words. "It's a bit like beating up a cripple. I mean, what's the bloody point? What's the point? It's not something that gets you motivated. There are bigger things to play."

The Mirror is "not important" to its old foe anymore, says Anderson. "We shouldn't focus our energies on the Mirror as we historically had to when they were bigger than us. What we should do is take the energy we've got and focus it on the new competitors, reframe the competitors. The Mirror has half the sale and half the resources we do."

Size matters at The Sun . Outside the building, Britain's biggest man Neil Fingleton (7ft7in) isposing for pictures in front of the paper's battle-bus as it stages an attempt to break the world record for the number of passengers on a lower deck. Anderson himself is no featherweight, his broad frame matching his reputation in the newspaper business as a shrewd strategist.

Last Friday, The Sun released monthly circulation figures showing year-on-year growth of editor Rebekah Wade's paper for the first time in five years. But Anderson doesn't want to dwell on this 3,126,866 figure because he wants the world to recognise that his true constituency is far, far bigger. The Sun , he says, talks to almost 22 million.

At a time when the newspaper industry is trying to throw off the idea that it is in irreversible decline, Anderson has produced a histogram that demonstrates an altogether healthier picture. "I think we are the only newspaper that overtly markets itself as paper, online and mobile. It's the combination of those three things which is the really important result. We do not look in isolation around newspaper circulation; that's just one element."

So The Sun is claiming an online audience of 5,399,000 unique monthly users, a mobile audience of 800,000 and 15,270,000 readers picking up the paper a month. Anderson has another chart, which he projects on to the whiteboard in his sixth-floor office at Wapping, to illustrate his assertion that The Sun is operating in a bigger league.

It shows his two newspapers, ( The Sun with an eight million daily readership, the NOTW with even more), ranked behind only Coronation Street in terms of audience. "If you look at where you can go right now and buy big chunks of audience in an ever more fragmenting world, there are fewer and fewer places," he says, pointing to his chart. "Look at how big these are, Coronation Street , News of the World , The Sun . Look how Google doesn't even feature up there. "

But let's bring Anderson back to those circulation figures, which have been boosted in considerable part by a heavily marketed slashing of the cover price to 20p in the Greater London region. "Murdoch" and " price-cut" in the same sentence has a certain familiarity to it. " We've got a history of price-cutting, OK," says Anderson. "But one of the key things that often doesn't get talked about when you do this sort of activity is that it's particularly good at bringing in young people and increasing frequency of purchase."

The strategy, which has included deployment of street vendors hawking The Sun in central London, the method used by distributors of free papers, is tied in with the growth of the brand's presence in the online and mobile arenas. "You are growing the franchise and also bringing in younger and arguably wealthier readers or users. Any media franchise that is able to claim growth, more youth and more wealth is going to be in a pretty good place. We have to think fresher and cleaner; that's why we did the street-vending. One of the big challenges is that we've got to think about where we sell newspapers. We've had trials in Greggs bakeries."

Anderson learned a lot about the power of the free newspaper medium as an executive at Associated Newspapers, where he was managing director of the London Evening Standard and oversaw the launch of Standard Lite , the forerunner of evening free London Lite. But he says the Sun price-cut has not been an attempt to shield it from the impact of the giveaways.

"The motivation for 20p isn't about [Associated's morning free] Metro . I had a huge involvement with Metro so I find it difficult emotionally to say anything negative about them. They are very serious competition, they have got a good offer and we've all had to up our game to compete with that. Arguably, they are more of a threat to us than some of our more traditional competitors. But I still believe people churn in and out of brands and even the most avid Metro reader after a while will want more. They've done nothing but good for the business, they've brought in younger people to the habit of reading newspapers."

The Sun is also slashed to 20p (and was temporarily 10p) in Anderson's native Scotland (he speaks with a hybrid Scots-London accent) and has opened a substantial sales lead over the Daily Record , sister paper of the Mirror . "The gap some days is up around 60,000 copies," he says. "I think it has been our most successful price promotion ever; it has put on 20 per cent on the sale and it has brought in a youthful audience."

The News Group MD is not worried about the effect of a recent onslaught on the Scottish national character by Sun columnist and former editor Kelvin MacKenzie. "I would find it extraordinary as a Scot if I agreed with Kelvin MacKenzie's view of Scottish people."

Returning to Trinity Mirror, he says: "In Scotland we took the price down. They responded by not taking it down so far in price and making it more complicated to redeem the offer. With our investments in new technology, we are always going to win the logistics game in Scotland. Fullcolour presses, faster, better equipment, resourced editorial teams, the whole bit. The issue is hearts and minds now, and that's about hearts and minds," he says pointing to a poster on his office wall.

The poster is of another red bus, this one badged with the logo of the Scottish Sun and bedecked with Saltires in the Champs Elysées, surrounded by the Tartan Army hordes on their way to watching Scotland beat France at football. "There were thousands singing, 'You can stick the Daily Record up your arse'," says Anderson, dryly praising the cheerleading of his marketing team.

He is more respectful of a rival that threatens from the middle market, the Daily Mail . "I wouldn't say of the Mail , what I've said of the Mirror , quite the opposite. Professional publisher, very successful brands, strong management and great editorial," he says, reeling off the qualities. "We are more male-biased. They are Middle England and very female-biased. They have got a good opportunity online for a female, housewife audience."

Looking at the News Group MD, you'd probably rather have him on your side than against you. But he thinks the wider newspaper industry can be less afraid of its digital future, indeed it already is. "What you are seeing is the more traditional media brands starting to grow in this [new media] environment. It wasn't happening a couple of years ago; I think newspapers or television channels or radio stations were losing audience as it fragmented. Now because of the new technologies you've got an ability to go and talk to an audience on other platforms."

Although he accepts there are real difficulties in quantifying the online and mobile audiences of The Sun , he believes it is only a matter of time before an accepted "currency" is found.

Among the eight million readership of The Sun, some three million still do not have an internet connection. White Van Man does not sit at a desk with access to broadband. So the mobile phone platform is especially important to Anderson, who has already negotiated deals with Vodafone and O2, making Su * news content available to up to 19 million subscribers. The other three key mobile companies all take "24-7", a football offering from Sky and The Sun , based on video footage of Premier League goals. Anderson has had tentative talks with a Russian mobile company for Sun mobile services, which also include downloads of Page 3 girls, alerts on showbiz and horoscopes from Mystic Meg.

After our interview, he is to have a preliminary meeting over an out-of-house proposal to develop the Sun brand on radio. Anderson thinks there is potential. "You couldn't replicate Sun radio and offer everything the newspaper can do but there might be an opportunity in a narrower channel, taking a slice of what The Sun does and producing that on radio."

The slogan he has developed for News Group is, "The newspaper is 'best of', the internet is 'more of' and the mobile phone is 'instant'". He illustrates this by saying The Sun produces 100 pages of sports coverage a week, Sun.co.uk offers 300 web pages of analysis and the mobile offering provides the instant hit of goal action. "I think there's less fear about the damage the internet or mobile does to newspapers. I still think that intrinsically the best experience is reading a newspaper."

But then some specialist areas of Sun coverage are growing exponentially online. Entertainment is an area where the Sun has discovered a new raft of web-based rivals. "When you go to the world of online there's a whole load of new competitors, which you've got to reframe yourself on. TMZ, Digital Spy, plus the BBC, Channel 4, they all come into your zone as a competitor. Six months ago, Digital Spy was bigger than [ Sun entertainment brand] Bizarre. It's no longer the case because we've come into that space."

And there is money in it too. Anderson is counting the cash from the fantasy football game Dream Team ("We have 750,000 teams signed up and they all play £5 to play that game and the beauty is that they're locked in for 40 weeks"). But what seems to excite him most is online Sun Bingo. Staffed by "about three people" and costing 10p a card, it generated £3.8m in the last financial year.

He momentarily delays a meeting with Les Hinton, the chairman of News International, to play a couple of Sun Bingo cards for the benefit of The Independent . "Put it this way, Sun Bingo makes twice the profits of something like ...," he pauses again, thinking back on his previous employ. "Well, the Evening Standard doesn't make any money. I've made more money out of running Sun Bingo online than I ever made out of running the Evening Standard , okay?"

By the time you read this, The Sun's Anderson will be soaring away to Las Vegas, for an online gambling conference as part of a mission to find yet more lolly for the cyber Currant Bun. Don't bet against him.

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