Shifting Sands: Sarah's new life at 'Reader's Digest'

Having been ousted as editor of the 'Sunday Telegraph', Sarah Sands has found a spiritual home at 'Reader's Digest', the world's biggest magazine, where life is more cosy – and more real – than in the 'scary' world of Fleet Street, she tells Ian Burrell
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The Independent Online

'Newspapers slightly scare me now because they're so frenetic and angry," says Sarah Sands, the former editor of the Sunday Telegraph, erstwhile consultant editor at the Daily Mail, deputy editor of the Daily Telegraph, diary editor of the London Evening Standard and cub reporter on the Sevenoaks Courier. "People are not obsessed by the news agenda – they will go on a long walk or they will help someone. In the press, it's a very partial view of how people live and their fears. On the whole the things that make people happy are a long walk and ... well, a long walk."

It is now two and a half years since Sands, 47, was forced to undertake an uncomfortably long walk of her own, out the door of her Sunday Telegraph office and off down the road, no turning back. Far from the morning constitutional across the fields with the Red Setter that she presumably has in mind here, it was a pitiless eviction by Telegraph management that invoked wincing across Fleet Street, where Sands has many friends.

She has resurfaced as editor of Reader's Digest, a magazine with a British circulation of 650,000, outselling Glamour, Good Housekeeping, FHM, and just about any title you could mention. Globally, Reader's Digest shifts 29 million copies a month, the biggest magazine in the world. Never mind that many readers of this article will not know a soul that subscribes to it.

Sands's task is to revitalise the British edition and, in spite of her newly-discovered fear of the press, she has drawn on her rich contacts book to assemble an impressive array of journalistic and literary talent to write for her; Julie Burchill, AN Wilson, Richard Addis, Stephen Fry, Ben Schott, Alexander McCall Smith, Nigel Farndale, Bill Nighy, Mihir Bose.

When she describes her vision for Reader's Digest she evokes comforting domestic images – "I'd like it to be seen on the kitchen table, something you can curl up and read. A family magazine that you can pass around" – and contrasts its dependability and trustworthiness with her previous places of employ.

"The Mail and Telegraph have the immediate clout of newspapers but people are a bit frightened of newspapers, of how it's going to turn out. Newspapers can scare people a bit, whereas Reader's Digest doesn't scare people. We wouldn't do people we didn't approve of, so there's not that uncertainty. It's not going to be polemical, we are not going to slam in a whole lot of opinion and we'll always be fair," she says.

As a philosophy this is a long way from that espoused by Sands when she joined the Daily Telegraph in the mid-Nineties and sent a memo to the editor, Charles Moore, urging him to "play on people's fears" and "sell stories hard, but just stop short of distortion". The memo spelt out that "the middle classes want to read about unemployment and negative equity and juvenile delinquency. We should be basically friendly and fair minded but then take people aback with ferocious militia-style attacks ... the Mail gets the best out of people through fear."

It would be wrong to suggest she has undergone an immediate transformation. After a widely-admired spell as editor of the Saturday edition of the Telegraph she was asked to re-launch the Sunday Telegraph in 2005, its first female editor, and make it more attractive to a younger readership. After she had been forced out by management, Andrew Neil, a senior henchman of the paper's owners, the Barclay brothers, derided Sands's fondness for "hug-a-tree" features, which he said damaged the title's brand.

"What Andrew Neil described as hug-a-tree features were pieces by people like Zadie Smith and Robert Harris and Sebastian Faulks. What he meant was an examination of the human condition. Either one is interested in other people and lives ... or one isn't," complains Sands, bursting into laughter. "I think Andrew Neil does stand for a muscular kind of journalism which is not what the Reader's Digest is about."

So what can we expect of the new look Reader's Digest, which will be launched this evening with a spectacular party, including a performance by a gospel choir, at London's Wallace Collection?

"I'd like it to be the Richard Curtis of the publishing market, in that it's optimistic and it's about people doing their best and having interesting lives. While it's not banal it's sunny in its outlook," is the editor's summation.

Looking at a pre-Sands copy of Reader's Digest, it's hardly distinguishable from the multitudinous female-skewed health magazines that live large on the modern news-stand. "It's below the radar even though it is very successful, high-circulation magazine," she admits. "That's the paradox of it really. Editorially I think it has slightly drifted, lost confidence in its famous unique character."

But there is a tremendous amount of residual goodwill towards the title from those now in middle-age, she claims. When Sands approached Burchill, a regular church goer, to write a piece about hanging out with the Salvation Army, the former Queen of the Groucho apparently squealed with delight. Elizabeth Hurley voiced a similar affection for the title. "I do think there are a lot of people who remember it under the sheets at school and so on ... that sounds rather smutty doesn't it?" giggles Sands, who attended a Methodist boarding school.

The editor hopes to raise the profile of the subscription-driven magazine by making it available for impulse purchases in suitable outlets such as "Marks & Spencer and Waitrose", though she appears uncertain of its cover price (£2.95). She would also like to see it on sale in airports, partly because of the international outlook of the core audience ("we have quite a lot of immigrant readers"). Among them is the BBC sports editor, Mihir Bose, who writes in the re-launch edition of how his father advised him to do two things when he arrived in Britain: "Eat porridge, and read Reader's Digest."

Sands is keen to develop a digital edition of the magazine and to give the website a makeover. She seems surprised by the current content of the site, which includes recommendations for the works of such artists as Elaine Page, Status Quo and Barbara Taylor Bradford. "Is that what's on there? Barbara Taylor Bradford is a great woman and I've nothing against those great old names but we will certainly be introducing a new swathe of writers and characters to Reader's Digest."

When it is put to her that The Week appears to occupy the space in the market that Reader's Digest once had, Sands suggests that Felix Dennis's publication "stole" the model from her title, but points out that hers will make its name from original journalism. Founded in 1922 in Pleasantville outside New York, Reader's Digest may seem dated but it was, in so many ways, ahead of its time. A magazine packed with nourishing life-enhancing articles, produced in a dinky size that will fit in a pocket (or handbag), delivered straight to a loyal readership locked into subscription deals. There's a model for other publishers to ponder.

For the cover of her re-launch edition, Sands has deliberately ignored celebrity cover stars and featured the headline "Doing it for Mum", alongside a young man with a motorbike. This, it turns out, is Finn Vergos, whose mother, Juliet Peck, died at the age of 45 and who had previously lost his father, the French photojournalist Dominique Vergos, shot in Afghanistan. Finn's stepfather, Rory Peck, another journalist, was also killed filming in Russia in 1993. Juliet, a charity worker, devoted herself to campaigning for the rights of freelance correspondents before she developed cancer in her eye. Her son is retracing some of her movements as an aid worker. "It's very important that he's not a celebrity," says Sands. "These are real stories about real people."

The journalists she has hired are thrilled by the opportunity to get their "safari suits" on, she says.

Other articles are on more familiar subjects. She commissioned Bill Deedes's biographer Stephen Robinson to spend seven weeks digging away in Africa on the background to Simon Mann, who plotted a coup in Equatorial Guinea. "What you get from Stephen at 5,500 words is a really good psychological portrait. You start to understand him, a man who missed the Falklands War and felt cheated that there weren't enough opportunities for glory."

The story, she feels, is a reflection of Britain's colonial past. Sands herself spent part of her childhood in Malawi, at a time when it was known as Nyasaland. She is delighted to have secured the services of the Zimbabwe-born McCall Smith, author of The No1 Ladies' Detective Agency and other African-based tales and now author of a Reader's Digest column called "The Road Through Life".

"My father was a district commissioner, with the funny hat and knobbly knees," says Sands, quickly adding that "he was a tremendous liberal ... heartbroken about what happened to Malawi because he was very keen on independence". Not that she is shy about her conservative instincts, both in her politics and her values. She is a great admirer of Baroness Thatcher and described her Sunday Telegraph as an "absolute core Conservative paper".

Though she is the kind of hard-working mother who often draws criticism from Daily Mail leader-writers, she wasn't always determined on being a career woman. Her first husband was the actor Julian Sands (who played Sunday Times correspondent Jon Swain in David Puttnam's Oscar-winning film The Killing Fields) and as a young mum she had no obvious interest in becoming a powerful journalist. "I was 23 when I had my son and certainly there was no Paulinus sense of what I should achieve. I would have been perfectly happy and I was married to an actor, so you have quite an interesting bohemian life, stuff on location and travelling. It was quite fun and I certainly wasn't very career-minded, no."

An art history graduate she had an interest in publishing but went into newspapers as a way of earning a crust following her divorce, rising quickly through the industry and remarrying to Kim Fletcher, currently chairman of the National Council for the Training of Journalists. She writes a column for the Independent on Sunday.

Though she says she is rather scared by newspapers these days, she acknowledges that "they have to be fairly sensational because you are catching people's attention – if a horror bug is sweeping through hospitals, that's what you'd expect to see in newspaper."

But just as the tabloid warning that Armageddon could result from last week's experiments in Switzerland proved false, newspapers can be unnecessarily alarmist. "If you read newspapers you'd think it was the end of the world most of the time and yet we all muddle along somehow," says Sands, who now finds herself in a safer place, somewhere between the worlds of press and literature. It is, she says, where she really always wanted to be when she was a young mother. "It's quite nice being here, it's slightly full circle in that way, having time to read books and talk to publishers. I'm very happy doing all that."

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