'The Daily Sport is just like The Indy...but with tits'

Once it ran stories of warplanes on the moon. Now the notorious title is taking on 'The Sun', says Tim Walker of his vision for turning the paper's fortunes around

The first edition of a revamped Daily Sport ran a political story on the front page. John Prescott's struggle with bulimia had hit the news over the weekend, so the paper splashed on it, next to a busty, auburn-haired beauty, with the sensitive headline, "Spew Jags!" Inside, the paper asked, "Who ate all the pies?" "Me!", Prescott responded with a bulbous speech bubble, "Now where's the bog?"

Barry McIlheney, the Sport's new editor, leans back in his chair and laughs. He's buoyed by the first day's feedback; anecdotal evidence suggests that the relaunched paper has made healthy sales. With an editorial staff of less than 60, housed on the top floor of the Daily Express Building in Manchester, he has redesigned a national newspaper on a budget small enough to make most of Fleet Street's finest weep.

"Most papers decide they have to cover everything that happens," says McIlheney. "But it simplifies life to say, 'We don't: we just want loads of pretty girls, tons of sport, and to make people laugh.'"

The paper's priorities are heralded, a day later, by the Chelsea-Liverpool score below the masthead, sandwiched between a scantily clad girl and a rallying cry urging readers to "Parp for Victory". And that's McIlheney's mission statement – games, girls and gags.

The men behind the relaunch have a history in lads' magazines. McIlheney and editorial consultant James Brown launched Zoo and Loaded, respectively. They've also parachuted in the Telegraph's Julian Bovis as chief designer and Rebecca Jane as head of glamour.

"We're looking to pick up a younger breed of bloke who's used to reading FHM, Loaded, Zoo and Nuts, but who doesn't seem to have a tabloid," McIlheney explains. "We want to give them a paper that says, 'You don't have to wade through the horoscopes and Celebrity Big Brother to get to the bloke stuff.'

"We'll only cover Big Brother if there's a particularly fit girl in it wearing a wet T-shirt. That extends to sport. Most blokes don't care who David Beckham shags. They just want to know if he can still take a free kick."

The Sport's illustrious reputation took a tumble in recent years, with the paper's content edging towards sleaze rather than good old traditional sex. Advertisers deserted the paper in droves – unless they were publicising sex chatlines or other, even seedier services. As the paper gradually lowered its tone, its readership descended, too. The most recent figures suggested that circulation had dropped to around 97,000.

"It was so far off the radar that we were able to redesign it on a low budget and have quite a bit of fun with it," says Brown. "Our aim is to produce something that's funny, throwaway and taps a little into the heritage of the original Sunday Sport, which was a great alternative take on life. Everyone takes things too seriously. The papers have a joke on April Fool's Day and a couple of columnists, and that's about it. So the idea of a daily paper that takes the piss a bit seemed like a great opportunity."

McIlheney is confident that he can reverse the decline. The paper's structure has been streamlined, and the adult ads corralled in a separate supplement, making the rest of the paper clean enough for respectable advertising. The Saturday and Sunday editions will soon follow the Daily's lead and, finally, the digital platform will get an extreme facelift, too.

Afternoon conference is swift and efficient. Stories are simply cut if they don't fit the new editorial agenda. A piece about Gordon Brown talking to Shakira began as a news story, with a fictional transcription of the pair's phonecall to accompany it.

"In the end," says Bovis, "I thought the only funny thing was the pisstake conversation, so we kept that and got rid of the story."

The following day is St George's Day, and there's debate over a feature suggesting other Georges who deserve a national holiday (Clooney, Best, Harrison and so on). While "The Madness of King George Day" caters to the more sophisticated sector of the Sport readership, "Barry George Day" may just be offensive. There's a quick discussion. Eventually, it's replaced in favour of "George Galloway Day".

Mark Smith, the sports pages editor, is one of the veterans of the Sport's newsroom. "Not Mark E Smith of The Fall," McIlheney clarifies. "Although we're trying to get him to guest edit an edition." This might be another joke.

Smith's pages remain relatively dry, explains McIlheney, because otherwise people find it difficult to trust the sports coverage. However, they do allow themselves a humorous piece at the expense of Carlos Tevez, who is apparently planning to record a song in praise of Man Utd ("My Fer-gie Amor", the headline will run). Meanwhile, Smith wants to herald the invention of the "exhaust-burger", a grill attachment for your car exhaust, which will cook your half-time burger on the way to the match. The story is deemed so funny that it gets upgraded to the news pages.

The paper contains the odd highbrow cultural joke; for instance, the daily "Kraftwerk Konundrum" and even a literary gag, of sorts: "Personally, I do find Proust a little bit jejune," says a girl squeezing her naked breasts together. "Fancy coming on my face?"

There's also an unexpected twist to the latest edition: a piece reflecting on 15 years of violent crime since the murder of Stephen Lawrence. It doesn't exactly conform to McIleheny's stated criteria.

"The Stephen Lawrence story doesn't fit in to the strict prism of, 'It's gotta be sport, it's gotta be girls, or it's gotta be funny.' But I want to try other stuff to see how it looks, see what the reaction is. We want to do a story no one else would do, or a story everyone does, but in a unique way."

In that respect (and others), McIlheney argues, the new Sport is not unlike The Independent. The pull-out section where all the sauciest stuff lives is called X-tra!; The Independent's features supplement is called Extra. "The big, graphic covers we're doing are like The Independent," says McIlheney. "We're trying not to be driven by a traditional news agenda. Our idea is a 'newszine': a newspaper with a magazine sensibility."

Bovis, his chief designer, agrees. "On the news stand, this looks completely different to The Sun and the Mirror, the same way The Independent does next to The Telegraph. The Sport is like The Independent, with tits."

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