The female (and male) on Sunday

After a promotional campaign claiming differences in how the genders read newspapers, 'Mail on Sunday' editor, Peter Wright, tells Ian Burrell why a 'his and hers' redesign of the paper can attract new readers

Earlier this summer stunned cinema audiences found themselves transported back to a scene reminiscent of a medieval battlefield where rival hordes, one of young women and the other of young men, aligned themselves in opposition before unleashing a fearful armoury of the weapons of modern life.

First the men punted their football and rugby balls in a mud-spattering attack on the fashionably-attired female ranks, who responded with a volley of handbags that would have troubled the Testudo shield formation of a Roman legion. To the sound of Frankie Goes to Hollywood's "Two Tribes", the boys sent forth their remote-controlled toy cars before the girls, in trendy sunglasses, deployed the ultimate cavalry charge a wave of dinky dogs that nipped at the ankles of the enemy. Then the two armies called a truce, sat down in the field together and snuggled up with the Mail on Sunday.

"Great advert. Shame about the paper," wrote one of the many respondents as the Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH) ad took off on YouTube. Another made a warning reference to the sympathy shown by Associated Newspapers to Oswald Mosley's Blackshirts in the Thirties. But such dissenters were heavily outnumbered by those who just loved the work. "Brilliant advert!" said one. "It looked so amazing in the cinema especially considering no-one had a clue it was a Mail on Sunday ad ha-ha!"

Challenging preconceptions is exactly what the MoS editor Peter Wright, who celebrates his tenth anniversary in the post this year, and the paper's managing director Stephen Miron are looking for. They are aware that there is a view among the under-40s that the Mail on Sunday is a little staid, a paper for their parents's generation, and they want to prompt those young people to think again. The suggestion in "The Battle" ad campaign that men and women have distinct newspaper-reading habits has been "very strategically thought out" and will be developed further when a redesigned Mail on Sunday hits the news-stands at the weekend. In the ad campaign, the point of difference was in the magazines You for women and the two-year-old Live (pronounced to rhyme with "give") as fodder for the blokes. Now the newspaper itself is getting some, erm, gender re-assignment, being split into two hefty sections, one with a male slant, the other more feminine.

In what can be described as, at the very least, a challenging era for the newspaper industry, the Mail on Sunday has been one of the outstanding performers. "I think it's fair to say we have been the best-performing Sunday newspaper in circulation terms over the last 10 years," says the confident Miron, who, as the phrase goes, never knowingly undersells. According to latest circulation figures, the paper is selling 2,324,581, which is down 2.7 per cent year-on-year. So although it is a big beast of the Sunday market, with a six-million readership that is rivalled only by the Sunday Times and the News of the World, it must continue to freshen up its offering to hold its own.

On the fourth floor of Northcliffe House, in Wright's spacious office, the editor sits down at a low-level table to discuss the thinking behind the re-launch. It is based on the belief that readers want more but have less time in which to consume it. Instead of the great array of supplements offered by the principle rival, the Sunday Times, this will be a package of two newspapers and two magazines, selling for 1.50 and printed in full-colour throughout on Flexographic presses. "It's very much the intention that the first section is a manageable newspaper, a maximum of 128 pages, that you read over breakfast. It's got everything you need in there," says Wright of the male-skewed front jacket, which will now incorporate not just news and sport but the previously separate section, Financial Mail, with the "personal finance" pages being re-branded as "wealth management", all in order to reflect the growing importance of money matters among a readership that has grown in affluence since the MoS launched 25 years ago last May. "In the second section, it is intended that you should read slightly at your leisure. Every copy is going to be stapled so it's going to be more durable than a straightforward newspaper."

The second newspaper, more features-heavy than the front, will draw on the colour coding idea pioneered by Roger Alton at The Observer. The mustard-branded Review pages will invariably kick off with a book serialisation, giving way to the blue of the travel pages, which have for the first time been removed from the front paper. Miron is excited by the commercial potential of the health pages ("It's about lifestyle health, it's a lot more upbeat. It's not about doom and gloom health"), believing they will attract a new group of advertisers who had previously been drawn to television. The once stand-alone Property section, which was only available within the M25, will now be incorporated into the second newspaper, ahead of the beefed-up puzzles pages.

The paper has been surprised by the eagerness of celebrities to throw-open their front doors to the Property pages in order to attract buyers, producing a string of Hello!-style exclusives.

This might raise an eyebrow or two in households where the MoS has been a less than welcome visitor on the doorstep, such as those of the former BP chief executive Lord Browne or the newsreader Jon Snow. Lord Browne wrecked his career, having to resign after lying to a court in a desperate attempt to gag the paper from publishing information provided to it by the businessman's former lover Jeff Chevalier. Snow at least had the satisfaction of seeing a grovelling apology published on page 2 of the MoS in June, retracting allegations that the Channel 4 News presenter had had an affair with a woman and smoked cannabis with her. But observers were surprised when Snow, with the paper apparently at his mercy, chose to walk away without seeking further recompense.

In the PR world of communications chiefs and publicists, the MoS is regarded with a mixture of admiration and fear and it is said to pursue stories with an aggression unrivalled even by its daily sister title. Unquestionably, the paper breaks big exclusives: the poisoning of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko, the murky donations to the Labour party of David Abrahams, and revelations of a phone-in rip off on Channel 4's Richard & Judy different stories that had major ramifications for facets of British life. The photograph that provided the scoop of then Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott playing croquet at his grace and favour mansion while he was supposed to be running the country, because Tony Blair was overseas, hangs on Wright's office wall. Though Wright devotes much of his energies each week to getting the right front page, the harsh reality is that the "splash" probably only sells the paper in a noticeable way two or three times a year. Subjects that once were Mail on Sunday bankers, such as the feverish interest in all things royal that existed at the end of the Nineties, no longer guarantee a sales lift.

Both Wright and Miron have had to take a broader view. Celebrities sell newspapers and stars that might work themselves into a tizz over the prospect of appearing in the MoS news pages are falling over themselves to be featured in You, apparently. Live, which was launched in 2005 to replace Night & Day, offering a lads mag package that astonished traditional MoS advertisers and readers, gives the paper the chance to further challenge some of the preconceptions of that younger demographic who were surprised to find the title being advertised in the cinema.

Wright sends out for copies of Live that demonstrate the kind of edgy stars the magazine can attract. When a colleague returns with a copy showing James Blunt on the cover, the editor tosses it on to his sofa in frustration. Nonetheless, recent cover stars such as Kate Nash or Seal with his wife Heidi Klum, are breaking new ground for the paper.

Inside of Live, the ubiquitous Piers Morgan has established himself as probably the MoS's most popular columnist. One would guess that the gregarious Morgan, who details his experiences on the London party circuit, rarely goes out on the town with the MoS editor, a doting 54-year-old father-of-four, who is known to accompany his friend Paul Dacre, editor-in-chief of both the Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday, for a modest half-pint of beer at the end of the day at a local Kensington hostelry.

Wright regards the Sunday paper as slightly younger and more liberal than the daily, with which it shares a crossover of only 55 per cent of its total readership, a fact that none of the senior MoS executives have been able to fully explain. Another MoS columnist, Suzanne Moore, is actively encouraged by Wright to follow a liberal agenda. "You can afford to have things that some people might not agree with but hopefully still find thought-provoking," says the editor. Then there is the scatty, urbanite Liz Jones: cat-obsessed, recently divorced from her marriage to a younger man, relocated to the wilds of Exmoor and in almost every sense as far away from stereotypical Middle England as you could imagine. Wright greatly admires Jones's writing and recognises her ability to provoke the readers with a success rarely seen since former Stalinist Julie Burchill had a column on the paper. In those days, Wright was working on the Daily Mail, having come from a local newspaper in Hemel Hempstead.

The MoS still has an appetite for old-fashioned newsgathering in an industry of shrinking editorial budgets and has concerns about the effects of the disintegration of the network of local news agencies on which nationals have traditionally depended. "If they find that they are not making enough money and pack up and go into PR instead then it doesn't help," one of the paper's executives comments. "It's important that the newspaper industry as a whole is big enough to give those people a living and support them."

But it's no longer just about news. Miron points out that the MoS is given promotion every week, most spectacularly on July 15, when the giveaway of Prince's album Planet Earth added 600,000 to the paper's sale. The circulation increase has not been maintained but the stunt attracted worldwide coverage and broke down more preconceptions about the paper. Since then Miron has overseen the first newspaper launch of a feature film, The Riddle, starring Vinnie Jones, who himself featured in an ad for the paper. "We are the most innovative of anyone out there," says Miron, emphasising the paper's "360 relationship" with stars who provide accompanying interviews to promotions.

Wright notes that papers do book serialisations and should not "be embarrassed" by CD giveaways. "When we began with CDs we had no idea how big they would become," says the editor. "But we are now working out a relationship with the music industry where for the next decade we are probably going to be a very important part of what they do. They will make their money out of touring, CDs will be promotional tools and we will distribute them."

So it's not just about news, it's also about the luxury of Sunday treats of his and hers magazines, free CDs and DVDs and not just of the golden oldies either. "People's interests are younger than their chronological age. They want to know what new things are happening," says Wright of his readers. "Though they still want their traditional beliefs reinforced at times as well."

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