The first lady of Wapping – may the force be with her?

News International’s commercial chief Katie Vanneck has a plan to revolutionise the business model of newspapers, she tells Ian Burrell

These are changing times at Wapping. James Murdoch, chairman and chief executive of News Corp Europe and Asia, has just commissioned architect Amanda Levete to transform the once dark foreboding "Fortress" into an airy working environment that includes restaurants, shops and a museum, alongside the newsrooms of its famous newspaper titles.

The public, once confronted by razor-wire, will be allowed access to parts of the site, if the plan is approved.

In this spirit of openness, James has called for internal walls to be pulled down and his own sixth-floor office looks out to an atrium ringed by hanging plants and small palms, a reflection of his famously green credentials. Twenty feet below, Sunday Times journalists sit typing at their terminals.

Murdoch fils is away in America, holding budget meetings and talking with investors. But peering through his large glass doors, I can see that, yes, it's true, he really does work standing up, burning off extra calories in the process. A giant black desk has recently been installed and it must come up well past his waist. He has a screen that enables him to video-conference with executives from around the world. And occupying a position in the middle of the desk is a plastic Stormtrooper, a symbol of unswerving loyalty to the Empire.

James Murdoch is a great fan of Star Wars. The white Stormtrooper is a dinky model but immediately outside the door is a figure as dark and foreboding as the Wapping of old: it's a seven-foot high, jet black statue of Darth Vader himself, leaning forward as if to monitor every word or action taking place at News International. It is, I'm sure, James's little joke.

Sat in the line of Darth's stare, on a stylish chair crafted from cardboard (another gesture in eco-friendliness), Katie Vanneck is posing easily for photographs and cracking jokes. Despite her apparent good humour she has been tasked by Murdoch in solving a conundrum deemed impossible by certain sages of the media industry; namely to make a commercial success of the newspaper business.

Vanneck is managing director, Customer Direct, at News International, which means she is responsible for the management of all four of its national newspaper brands, across all the platforms on which they operate.

At 35, her insight is in such demand that she has already been the subject of a tug of love between the Murdoch empire and the Telegraph Media Group, where she was hired as marketing director at 31.

"If I thought this industry was on the way out I wouldn't be working in newspapers. I believe in what we do and I'd quite like to work in this industry for another 30 years," she says, waving her hands furiously, like a bookie on Derby day. "Let's all stop being defeatist. Seriously, we all work on amazing brands."

Vanneck's vision involves rejecting some of the perceived truths that have emerged elsewhere in the industry. She dismisses the idea that advertising is the only revenue stream that will matter, and she is sceptical of the value of those mass audiences which come in their tens of millions each month to the websites of many British newspapers. Instead of regarding the web as a threat to circulation revenue, she talks of a "seamless experience" where a brand performs diverse functions on different platforms and thinks the word "digital" is divisive and should be considered "defunct".

"We've all gone slightly mad when we talk about what success looks like," she says. "Why would publications that have only ever sold 1m copies suddenly be able to have an engaged loyal audience of 23m? Realistically, in terms of paying for products and services, people pay for the things that matter in their lives."

Fundamental to Vanneck's philosophy is addressing not "readers" but "customers", people who have a transactional relationship with a newspaper brand. There is all the difference in the world, she points out, between someone who is a casual visitor to a webpage of Times Online, or picks up a friend's copy of The Sun, and someone who signs up for delivery of a newspaper and chooses to take their holidays in the company of fellow "customers" of that title.

"In newspapers we've all been guilty of not giving enough justice to circulation as a direct customer revenue stream – we've very much thought of ourselves as driven by our advertising businesses," says Vanneck. "If you keep thinking about your consumers as readers you create the ongoing belief in volume versus value and you don't mind whether they've purchased you. It's quite a big change for us because actually a customer is someone you have a transactional relationship with, someone you deal with differently, it leads you to think about their customer experience and customer service."

So, how to build that customer experience? Not, says Vanneck, by offering a discount deal on a new set of field glasses. "We won't be doing binoculars – that ad is the bane of my life. That's not a sustainable business, I don't know how many pairs of binoculars you can sell one customer in their life time. We won't be putting The Sun brand on teddy bears or Page Three jewellery. There have been lots of things that we have done in the past that have been around creating a new revenue stream, not a new business model," she says.

She has slashed the number of commercial partners News International works with from 350 to five, to ensure all of them are on brand. For The Times and The Sunday Times that means travel, wine, culture and fitness. Those titles now have 140,000 "contract customers" who take the papers on subscription.

Some 80,000 of these have activated their membership to the Culture+ programme, which offers discounts on products and services from the Royal Academy of Arts and the National Theatre as well as Murdoch businesses such as Sky Arts and Harper Collins. "80,000 doesn't make us the biggest arts organisation but we are not far off," says Vanneck. The Sunday Times Wine Club, set up 30 years ago, has a database of 300,000 customers who have purchased 80m worth of wine in the past year, making it "one of the largest direct wine businesses in Europe". The Times Health Club has 100,000 members who share tips on how to lose weight. When Vanneck studied her database of "most valuable customers", she came across one man who had entered a Sunday Times travel competition 90 times. She wrote to suggest he bought one of the paper's escorted holiday tours. "He immediately bought one," she says.

The Sun and News of the World brands are based more on entertainment and value. The daily title's Dream Team fantasy football is "the UK's biggest paid for fantasy game", and its online bingo proposition is the "fourth biggest" in the country and, not being the core business, can offer Sun customers bigger prizes than its rivals.

All these ventures, she says, must be driven by the editorial of their respective titles because the customer's engagement with the newspaper is central to the relationship. The News International database of names, says Vanneck, has surpassed the population of Belgium and now equates with that of Greece (just shy of 11m). Many customers engage with both its quality and popular brands ("a huge eye-opener"). Vanneck reveals that NI total audience across all platforms is 71% of the UK population, not a figure she would wave in front of the regulators but a sign of the strength of the business. "Don't tell me that this industry is on its knees, don't tell me that we are not relevant." But it's not all about scale for Vanneck. She doesn't want more readers, just more custom.

News
The surrealist comedian at the Q Awards in 2010
people
News
Russell Brand arriving for the book launch in East London
peopleRussell Brand cancels his book launch debate due to concerns about the make-up of the panel
Sport
Christiano Ronaldo enjoys his opening goal
champions leagueLiverpool 0 Real Madrid 3: Ronaldo and Benzema run Reds ragged to avenge thrashing from their last visit to Anfield
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
Six of the 76 Goats' cheese samples contained a significant amount of sheep's cheese
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Extras
indybest
News
Wilko Johnson is currently on his farewell tour
people
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
News
Call me Superman: one of many unusual names chosen by Chinese students
newsChinese state TV offers advice for citizens picking a Western moniker
Voices
New look: Zellweger at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
voicesRenée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity, says Amanda Hess
News
Let’s pretend: KidZania in Tokyo
educationKidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day
Life and Style
CHARGE BOOSTER: Aeroplane mode doesn't sound very exciting, but it can be a (phone) hacker's friend. Turning on the option while charging your mobile will increase the speed at which your phone battery charges
techNew book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone
Arts and Entertainment
Julianne Moore and Ellen Page are starring together in civil rights drama Freeheld
film
Voices
'Irritatingly Disneyfied': fashion vlogger Zoella
voicesVicky Chandler: Zoella shows us that feminism can come in all forms
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Head of Finance - Media

£80000 - £90000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: Working for an International Mul...

Business Development Manager

£25000 - £27000 per annum + Bonus: Sauce Recruitment: Within your role as Busi...

IT Graduate

£15 - 20k: Guru Careers: We are looking for an eager IT Graduate / Technology ...

Ad Director / Sales Director

£55 - 65k + 25% Y1 OTE + Fantastic Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking an e...

Day In a Page

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?