The middleweight contender

"For some reason, it's almost sacrilegious to say this, but nobody loves the Mail. Its soul, if you like, is really ugly, an off-putting thing, mean and bullying"
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The Independent Online
This week has been dynamite for those who relish the bloody internal battles of the newspaper market. For it was the week that the Daily Express produced the most fundamental of its many recent relaunches and went into head-to-head conflict with the Daily Mail.

This is a race for the middle market, with the added spice that some of the major players of the new-look Express were, until recently, major players for the opposition. Richard Addis, the editor-in-chief, was until November an associate editor of the Daily Mail. Stephen Grabiner, the managing director, was poached from the Telegraph group in May. Meanwhile, Ian Birrell, deputy editor of the Sunday Express, has gone the other way, to the Daily Mail.

In recent times the Daily Mail, with its abundant resources and fiendishly clever management, has seemed impregnable. But Addis, one of the paper's former stars, really believes he can beat it. "I think the Mail has all sorts of disadvantages," he says.

"For some reason it's almost sacrilegious to say this, but nobody loves the Mail. Its soul, if you like, is really ugly, an off-putting thing, mean and bullying. I remember the Polly Toynbee thing [when the private life of The Independent's left-leaning associate editor was investigated by the Daily Mail]. It was like tearing wings off a fly. The quality of the paper itself is not that brilliant. The news is boring and I think the features have got worse.

"What is so great about the Mail? Nothing. Also, its internal structure is a real problem for them; they've got layers and layers of executives, all of whom hate each other and are deeply ambitious, who have put their lives into the Mail, and for whom there is no prospect of promotion because the editor [Paul Dacre] is going to stay there for ever. It's not the happiest of offices."

Although Addis's relaunch follows others in recent years, it is the most crucial, and holds the greatest prospect of success - not least because of his knowledge of how the enemy thinks. The February merger between the Labour peer Lord Hollick's MAI and Lord Stevens's United News and Media released funds to promote and invest in the papers - which have seen circulation decline for many years - and triggered the pounds 10m move to make the Express papers a seven-day operation.

It also prompted the radical staff restructuring that saw the exit last month of the editor of the Sunday Express, Sue Douglas, and the redundancies of 85 staff, half of them voluntary. Ms Douglas had been hired by Lord Stevens before the merger and had presided over her own relaunch, but her nine months with the group were not easy. She was accused of carrying out a "cull of middle-aged males" and was at the centre of an industrial dispute about staff she had herself sacked.

While Ms Douglas negotiates her pay-off, Addis has been putting together his new team, and is unruffled by pessimists who cite unsuccessful attempts at seven-day operations by The Daily Telegraph and The Independent as evidence that it cannot be done. He believes that one editor across both papers can lead to a sharing of resources. All staff, bar two, will be expected to work across all titles, many in a three-week shift cycle.

"Sunday papers are always losing stories to their daily rivals. When one works on a Sunday paper it is really annoying that one's best stories appear on Friday morning in another paper. When that happens now, we can tip each other off," says Addis.

The first day of the rest of The Express's life was on Saturday, when it went public with a new masthead. Stripping the "Daily" from its title and renaming the Sunday Express as The Express on Sunday was just one of several innovations designed to win over what Addis calls "the middle of the middle market".

Others include the clever move of offering the first daily sports paper, a pull-out with its own front page within the main paper, offering interviews, features, columns, a TV and radio guide to sport and even a cartoon.

To balance this male-dominated product, female readers have been given a new glossy features and listings magazine on Saturdays. The first issue featured a cover spread on the Gladiators presenter Ulrika Jonsson, a special section on the home, and features on gardening, fashion, food and health, as well as television, satellite and radio listings.

This product is the answer to the Daily Mail's own new listings magazine, overseen by Simon Kelner, who left The Independent to edit Night & Day. The idea is that readers will keep it beside the television set - its small size and glossy cover were designed with that in mind - and graze on its features all week.

A new Sunday magazine, Boulevard, replaces Douglas's short-lived Expresso supplement. Addis describes Expresso as "a brilliant magazine written for readers of Time Out, the Evening Standard and The Guardian, who really liked it, but not for people who read The Express". It was, he continues, "like going to Marks and Sparks and finding trendy gear in the middle- aged women's section".

He adds: "The readers have been confused in the past, in the last five years, and have been told over and over again that this is the latest new idea. What we've got to do now is to be consistent and produce this kind of quality week by week."

It is clear from both the staff appointments by Addis and his changes to the product that he is particularly wooing readers in their twenties and thirties. The trick will be keeping the paper's older readers - a finesse The Daily Telegraph managed superbly under Max Hastings. These readers must come from the Daily Mail, and Addis has no doubt they will.

"The Mail is set somewhere in the late-Fifties, with its belief in Empire, nationhood, families of 2.4 children, and so on," he says. "It will be very hard, it's true, but we've got a much younger staff, really the kind of people we're writing for. Without being cliquey about it, they're young- middle-aged men and women who are much more easy-going about things. They've travelled more, they're more cosmopolitan. They are liberal. They are middle of the middle of the middle class."

How, then, can he avoid alienating The Express's lifelong readers? Addis looks amused. "Old people are more youthful and optimistic than you think. All our grannies love things to be cheerful and intelligent and challenging. In fact, old people are often more radical than us. They're more liberated."

It remains to be seen whether Addis can, as he intends, halt the decline in circulation, and then turn it upward. It will take time: the newspaper founded by Lord Beaverbrook boasted at its height daily sales of more than four million. The present circulation of the daily paper is 1.2 million, compared with two million for the Daily Mail. Of course, his is not a new battle: the Daily Express was founded in opposition to the Mail and the two titles have been locked in conflict ever since.

The good news for Addis is that his changes are impressive, and the juggernaut which is the Mail may have reached the point where it slows down. The bad news is that it has 20 years of ruthless professionalism and investment behind it, while The Express has been starved of cash; the battle is winnable, but no one is saying it will be easyn