When 'Faturday' comes

As the new bumper 'Times' demonstrates, more is more in newspapers and Saturday is the new Sunday. Peter Cole reports on the rise and rise of multi-section titles and the public sport of weekend weightlifting
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The Independent Online

So were you stimulated yesterday? No doubt, as an Independent reader, you were, but that is not the issue here. Yesterday the Saturday edition of The Times was relaunched in a bid to increase the appeal, and the sale, of Rupert Murdoch's newspaper on what has become a crucial day of the week for the dailies. As promotional slogans go, "Be stimulated every Saturday" is not one of the great ones, but it is the success of the new product that will matter. The advertising encourages readers to taste, touch, see and think, and offers a new supplement to appeal to each of those senses.

So were you stimulated yesterday? No doubt, as an Independent reader, you were, but that is not the issue here. Yesterday the Saturday edition of The Times was relaunched in a bid to increase the appeal, and the sale, of Rupert Murdoch's newspaper on what has become a crucial day of the week for the dailies. As promotional slogans go, "Be stimulated every Saturday" is not one of the great ones, but it is the success of the new product that will matter. The advertising encourages readers to taste, touch, see and think, and offers a new supplement to appeal to each of those senses.

The advertising sensibly omitted a fifth entreaty - spend - because the new nine-section Saturday Times costs 15p, 20 per cent, more than it did. The era of Times price cutting is truly over. At 90p it costs the same as The Daily Telegraph on Saturday, but 20p less than its other Saturday broadsheet rivals, The Independent and The Guardian.

The newspaper year, like the academic one, tends to start in September, with editors and marketing departments working through the early summer to prepare and refine the facelifts to their newspapers before going away for the silly season. They return at the end of August refreshed and ready to send the new models into the market. Then it is a question of watching the critical response, the reader response, the sales figures and the bottom line. As with cars, the 2004 model is on sale from autumn 2003.

Over the past 15 years, Saturday has become an important publishing day for newspapers, particularly in the broadsheet sector. It used to be the feeblest day of the week. The papers sold fewer copies than Monday to Friday, and were thinner with much less content. News editors operated with small reporting staffs since there was less space to fill. Friday was a day when you spent much of your time thinking about Sunday for Monday (stories to be run on Monday that were left for the skeleton staff working on Sunday). Saturday papers previewed sport, provided a slim news service and did virtually nothing on what we apologetically call "lifestyle" these days. The weekends were dominated by the Sunday papers, which were left to their own very distinctive role by the dailies.

Then there was a rethink. New technology and the rout of the print unions ended limits to pagination. Social attitudes and patterns of work, not to mention the decline of newspapers as the primary source of news, made publishers reconsider their attitude to Saturdays. The Independent was the first to dedicate time and effort to bolstering the product on a Saturday, and The Daily Telegraph started the broadsheet trend to Saturday editions that had more in common with the fat Sunday papers. Magazines and supplements proliferated. The lifting of restrictions on advance publication of TV listings meant everybody started delivering a TV magazine. The conventional wisdom that Sunday papers had a monopoly on the service features - such as travel, personal finance, property, and book and performing arts reviews - fell by the wayside.

The public appetite for fat Saturday papers was quickly apparent as they moved from producing the lowest sales of the week to recording the highest. And, better still, the public demonstrated that they would pay more for them. Win win.

Everybody had to play, and in essence, all the broadsheets provided their own interpretation of the same formula. The Independent delivered a new kind of colour magazine, in that it was black and white and had more words than pictures; The Guardian produced a digest of the world's press; The Times tried a smaller-format magazine with more gloss; The Daily Telegraph produced supplements full of Agas, Barbours and nannies. And across all titles we saw the rise and rise of "me" columns, where journalists were given space to exploit the arrogant assumption that the minutiae of their domestic lives were of great general interest.

The great service the "Faturdays" have performed for their publishers has been to disguise the decline in weekday sales. Circulation figures, so important in generating advertising revenue, represent an average across the six publication days. Turning Saturday from the worst sales day of the week into the best, in some cases by hundreds of thousands of copies, has hidden dramatic sales falls on some days of the week.

The figures shown to the left contain one special factor: the decade takes in the long price war led by The Times, which drove up sales by selling for as little as 20p. Since Rupert Murdoch called off the war, there has been a steady fall in its circulation.

All four broadsheet papers (the Financial Times is left out of this piece as a more specialist title) have Sunday stable mates - in the case of The Guardian, The Observer. And there were concerns in the early days of the expanded Saturday products that they would affect the sale of their Sunday counterparts. The theory ran that buyers of fat Saturday papers would still be reading it on Sunday.

So will the revamp of the Saturday Times damage the sale of The Sunday Times? The Saturday editor, Michael Gove, says not, emphasising that the competition is the other Saturday broadsheets, not the Wapping neighbour. History suggests he is probably right. Weekday Times price cutting never extended to The Sunday Times, which has maintained its market domination for many years. The biggest package has the biggest sale in the sector, despite the biggest price.

Some suggest that this is because it is a mid-market product in broadsheet clothing, competing as much with The Mail on Sunday as with its broadsheet rivals. If that is the case, The Sunday Times is still doing well. Over the 10-year period described in the tables, it has expanded its sales at the same time as The Mail on Sunday has increased its own sales by some 400,000.

The conventional wisdom says the public is irritated by the volume and weight of Saturday and Sunday broadsheets. The Sunday Correspondent, which I edited, tried to persuade potential buyers that there was a market for a paper which was "concise, not Wapping". It failed. The market says bulk sellswell. Nobody seems to mind throwing away the unwanted sections unread.

In newspapers, more is more.

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield

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