The Media Column: Will The People continue to be Cinderella to its ugly Sunday sister?

Assuming there is a bar in newspaper heaven - surely no god would be so perverse as to deny departed old-time Fleet Street journalists the ambience in which they spent much of their working lives? - you can bet there is a corner reserved for former editors to vent their spleen about the abysmal current state of their once-great papers.

There will be Sir John Junor, the sage of Auchtermuchty, bemoaning how a succession of careless proprietors and inadequate editors - half-a-dozen since Sir John packed his column into his trunk and moved to the Mail on Sunday in 1986 - have humbled his beloved Sunday Express. What for much of Junor's 32 years in charge was a multi-million seller with great political clout now languishes well below one million - 952,171 is its latest audited average sale - and the chances of it ever regaining a seven-figure circulation must be as slight as those of the current owner, Richard Desmond, keeping a pet dachshund.

Nodding sympathetically at Junor's bellicose rant is another venerable ex-editor, Sir Colin Coote, of The Daily Telegraph, which in almost 150 years has had only 13 editorial bosses. Sir Colin ruminates on how during his 14 years in charge, from 1950, he raised circulation from 971,000 to 1,319,000. The paper's current problems, and present circulation of 923,042, bring a tear to his eye.

Now joining this group is an old stager from the popular end of the market. The newspaper Harry Ainsworth edited was founded in 1881 and his extraordinary 33 years in the chair saw it climb from a circulation of 400,000 to a hugely profitable five million and more. Ainsworth struck a deal with the then proprietor, Julius Elias (later Viscount Southwood) whereby his salary was linked with sales. For much of his time there he was the highest paid of all national editors.

Ainsworth's paper was The People, which, after a few barren early years captured a large popular audience on the back of a magnificent scoop - upon hearing of a murder in Whitechapel at 2am one Sunday morning, editor-proprietor WT Madge hailed a cab to report exclusively the first of the Jack the Ripper serial killings. His story was a sensation and that word became The People's stock in trade over the decades to come.

The paper thrived in the heady days after the Second World War and was still in good shape when it fell into the hands of IPC, the umbrella title for the giant Mirror Group, in 1961. Only then began the years of neglect that have reduced The People to an also-ran in the Sunday marketplace. Its circulation is now in grave danger of slipping below a million; hence Ainsworth's appearance in the celestial tavern's gripe corner, doubtless considering the penury he would be facing with his sales-linked deal today.

Mirror Group could not much be bothered with a title it considered likely to damage the Sunday Mirror. Subsequent managements starved the paper of the kind of editorial resources that have enabled editors of the News of the World to slow the wicked decline the popular Sunday market has suffered.

Nine editors guided The People through its first century. Since 1982 there have been a dozen editorships - a merry-go-round that often made little sense. I took my seat on it in the early 1990s when, in a moment of perspicacity (and conveniently forgetting he was partly responsible), Robert Maxwell informed me that recent People editors had not been given enough time to turn around a paper that was still Cinderella to the Ugly Sunday Sister along the corridor. "You shall have five years to make it work," he said, a little under two years before inconsiderately departing off the back of the Lady Ghislaine and inadvertently restarting the merry-go-round.

The current editor, Mark Thomas, is doing the best he can, and better than several of his predecessors, in circumstances that seemed to have changed little. A number of powerful splash stories have reaped only temporary circulation reward. Alongside the News of the World, The People resembles a distant relation down on its luck. Rupert Murdoch possesses chutzpah and deep pockets that Trinity Mirror do not - and ultimately that combination may do to The People what Jack the Ripper did to his victims.

Where is The People to go, other than through the door marked "Exit"? Who will buy a paper struggling to hold a sale of 1,015,595 (a previous Trinity management team apparently turned down a Desmond bid it considered too low). No matter what journalistic expertise Thomas and his team bring to its pages, The People looks like a paper with few tomorrows. I wish it well, but somehow doubt this Cinderella will ever again go to the ball.

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