Piers Morgan launches children's newspaper

Piers Morgan is back. This time as the 'overlord' of a children's tabloid that he hopes will attract new readers to rescue the newspaer industry

You have to admire the chutzpah of Piers Morgan. The dummy of his latest newspaper venture features a splash about men on Mars alongside a dubious-looking shot of a spaceman in an unidentified extraterrestrial environment. The story's even got Morgan's by-line on it.

The dummy is for First News, an adventurous project which, if it succeeds, could help to regenerate the press industry by introducing the humble newspaper to a new generation of readers. First News, aimed at children aged from nine to 12, is intended to be an authentic primer for grown-up papers, combining fun and games with concise explanations of issues such as global warming and terrorism.

Morgan, who bought a stake in the trade magazine Press Gazette after his dramatic departure from the editorship of the Daily Mirror two years ago as a result of the fake Iraqi prisoners picture scandal, is convinced that the venture cannot fail. "This has never been done before, and it's a really clever idea. It wasn't mine but I think it's a good idea," he says.

His confidence has been buoyed by the response of the great and the good, all of whom seem to want a piece of First News. The paper will be launched at a party at Gordon Brown's official address, 11 Downing Street, on Thursday. Children's charities supported by the Chancellor's wife Sarah will be among those benefiting from 5 per cent of the proceeds of sales of the new title.

Then there are the celebrity columnists. Jamie Oliver will write on food, suggesting easy recipes for children to try (meatballs with pasta is his first) and offering nutritional advice about pizzas and puddings. Sir Richard Branson has been lined up to encourage tomorrow's entrepreneurs. David Beckham will contribute to the sports pages (in return for a tie-in with his football academy) and his wife Victoria will provide fashion tips. As news of the project spreads, publicists and PRs are clamouring to get in touch. Madonna's "people", and representatives of the footballer Michael Owen, have been active in wanting to foster a relationship.

"Almost every single person we've spoken to has said yes," Morgan says. "Everyone says immediately, 'What a great idea.' It's obviously also a massively safe and appealing environment for celebrities, public figures and advertisers to appear in."

Morgan is convinced that the recent demise of the cartoon-led Funday Times section of The Sunday Times is "massively to our benefit", and claims the section had a readership of 370,000, which he hopes to pick up.

"It shows there's an appetite there," he says. "There are 193 magazines directly targeted at nine- to 12-year-olds in this country and there has never been a proper newspaper. We think it's an untapped market."

He notes that "in France, the biggest-selling paper is a kids' paper and it sells 200,000 a day. No one has tried to do it properly in this country."

This isn't quite true. The Paris-based Mon Quotidien (My Daily) has a print run of 65,000. It has been an undoubted success in informing its 10 to 14-year-old readership for the past 11 years.

Though Morgan is reluctant to set a circulation target, he says: "I'm pretty confident we will do pretty big numbers. We are much more voracious buyers of newspapers than the French, so there has to be a chance we can accelerate to 200,000 to 300,000 copies. We don't want to set targets we can't hit, but we think there's a completely open marketplace."

First News will be most dependent on sales revenue, and Morgan says he expects to be turning advertisers away, deeming their content unsuitable for young children. "We are going to get to the rather freakish situation where we get offered more advertising than we can actually put in the paper. I don't think you can have a Jamie Oliver column about nutrition for kids and have a big advert for Walkers crisps for example."

He is particularly pleased that Google has taken a full page ad in the first paper and says that First News will be accompanied by a highly interactive website.

"The biggest challenge facing newspapers is how you properly integrate print and online versions. We believe the two have to work hand-in-hand and promote each other. But the actual fun for kids will be to have their own newspaper."

Although he says he doesn't "want to sound like the Pied Piper", he thinks newspaper groups should welcome the venture for its potential to furnish them with a new generation of readers.

"This is a very good thing for the industry. If we can persuade people of nine, 10, 11, 12 to get into the habit of buying a newspaper that has to be good for the health of the industry when we all know there's a massive problem in getting young people to buy newspapers. It's got to be good for further sales of newspapers, it has to be."

Associated Newspapers has agreed to distribute First News, although it will have no editorial involvement.

First News is being funded by London-based Thomson Intermedia, which is run by Sarah-Jane Thomson and her husband Steve. Sarah-Jane's cousin, Nicky Cox, a veteran of some 50 children's magazine launches, will edit the weekly paper, which will come out on Fridays and sell for £1.

Morgan has known Cox since his days as Bizarre editor on The Sun and describes her as "probably the most experienced editor of children's publications in the country". Cox has wanted to produce a children's newspaper since she was a child herself, struggling to make sense of the Daily Telegraph. When Cox was 21 she launched a title called Early Times but it lacked the resources to survive.

The paper will be a 24-page tabloid, less shouty than a red top. "We hope it will be something that parents want to buy for their kids and that kids will feel is not being foisted on them by their parents. It's a delicate balance."

There will be regular Q&A pieces on major news issues.

"If there's a terror attack on London a lot of kids would be quite confused as to what it's all about. It would be quite responsible of us to include quite regular Q&As on the war on terror, on Iraq, on global warming and on obesity."

Morgan's Mirror coverage of the war in Iraq was considered brave by some and unduly partisan by others, including Government ministers. Ultimately, it proved to be his downfall. He says that First News will be careful not to be political in its journalism.

Morgan, who describes himself as the "editorial overlord and frontman" for the project, will write a weekly interview on a high-profile figure in the news who is of interest to children.

When he was marched out of the Mirror, two years ago this month, he couldn't have imagined that his next paper would be aimed at nine-year-olds but he is adamant that First News will uphold strong editorial values.

"One of the things I've been keen to stress to the editorial team is 'Look, we've got to make this look like a proper newspaper'. It's no good producing a glorified comic in a tabloid form."

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