Why the colossus of the Sundays wants to be lighter on its feet

Not even the mighty 'Sunday Times' is immune to the temptation to go compact. Simon O'Hagan reports
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The Independent Online

If there is a newspaper in the land that falls into the category of "ain't broke, don't fix it", it is surely the colossus that bestrides the great middle-class Sunday, The Sunday Times.

If there is a newspaper in the land that falls into the category of "ain't broke, don't fix it", it is surely the colossus that bestrides the great middle-class Sunday, The Sunday Times.

The paper's editorial philosophy - give the readers a bit of everything, and they won't want anything else - is tried and trusted. It is a hugely profitable advertising vehicle. And at an unchanging 1.3 million its circulation is seemingly rock solid - as high as the combined figure for its broadsheet rivals The Sunday Telegraph, The Observer and The Independent on Sunday.

So the news last week that The Sunday Times was considering going at least partially compact came as a shock to an industry in which the title's pre-eminence within its sector is taken as a given. Everyone knows what the compact revolution has done for The Independent and The Times, but it is a measure of its impact that The Sunday Times should even contemplate such a move.

There's no doubt that the new-found success of its daily sister has got people thinking at The Sunday Times, not least because it has meant a shift in the balance of power between the two titles. The loss-making Times, propped up by a Sunday title that sells twice as many copies, has always known its place. But that is changing, and now The Sunday Times wants to get in on the act.

The prospect of its main section going compact can be all but ruled out, at least in the foreseeable future. But in the sprawling acreage of newsprint that is the innards of the paper, comprising 12 or more sections, tabloidisation appears to be the way forward for News Review, Business, Money, and Travel. In recent years the paper has had as much in common editorially with the Mail on Sunday as it has with the other Sunday broadsheets (just as The Times has moved into Daily Mail territory), and a switch to compact would mean opening itself up to even more of that market.

The Sunday Times was unforthcoming about its plans last week. The managing editor, Richard Caseby, would only say that "the paper is always considering new ideas". But other sources at the paper confirmed that compact plans had been around for some months, and that, as far as the News Review was concerned, "it was only a matter of when, not if". Others said it was the Travel section that would be the first to switch.

While the "convenience" argument that has driven daily broadsheets to go compact doesn't apply on Sundays, there is more to the revolution than practicality. Style has counted for a lot too - a commodity that some on the title feel this most Middle England of newspapers lacks. "People do worry," says one insider. "The paper actually does relatively badly in London and among young people compared with The Observer and The Independent on Sunday. And the paper doesn't really know what to do about it."

The Sunday Times has a record of innovation, going right back to 1962 and its launch of the first ever colour magazine supplement. In the 1970s, under the campaigning Harry Evans, it virtually redefined what a newspaper could be, and in writers such as Jilly Cooper presaged the rise of the chattering classes. Then, in the post-Wapping, Andrew Neil era, spanning the late Eighties and early Nineties, it pioneered the multi-section, one-stop supermarket approach, which has remained the template under Neil's successor, John Witherow. A long-running ad campaign has been built around it: "'The Sunday Times' is the Sunday papers".

For those who think such hubris should not go unpunished, there is some consolation in the latest developments. They confirm a feeling that the paper now follows rather than leads. "If the paper can't be innovative, then it will certainly be reactive," says one former senior executive. He recalled the moment when The Independent on Sunday came along in 1990 with its Sunday Review format, something never before seen in British newspapers and instantly acclaimed. "We took one look at it and thought, this is brilliant, and within a few weeks we'd done the same thing ourselves." He says he feels the situation The Sunday Times is in now is comparable. "It's a little bit behind the crowd at the moment."

Andrew Neil thinks the compact idea is a big mistake. "It should remain broadsheet because I think the content should be broadsheet. The broadsheet sections are the envelope into which the supplements fit."

As The Sunday Times seeks a new direction, there is certainly a sense in which it is not part of the media village, and many would say that was a good thing. "It's this vast factory that seems to have been towed out to the middle of the Atlantic," says another former senior executive. "Nobody really knows how it comes out.

"It's the opposite of most papers in that it doesn't really try to build circulation, it just tries to preserve it. If there's a blip they'll bung in a CD or a Rich List and they'll spend a fortune on advertising and promotion, and the thing just keeps going."

The 53-year-old Witherow, now one of Rupert Murdoch's longest-serving editors, seems to embody this slightly anonymous, production line spirit. Prodigiously hard-working, he rarely gives interviews and, according to one insider, "has stamped his personality on the paper only in as much as it doesn't make waves any more. I suppose he's slightly right-of-centre but I don't think I've ever heard him utter a political statement." Another describes him as "unspectacular", but points out that he "hasn't made mistakes like Neil did".

Given the commercially sound footing on which The Sunday Times continues to operate, that is more than enough for Murdoch. For all that Neil's brash conservatism chimed with both his proprietor's interests and the political mood of the day, Murdoch grew to resent the high public profile he enjoyed, accusing him, according to one of Neil's colleagues, of "the cardinal sin of thinking he was bigger than the paper".

Witherow's Sunday Times is much less of a political beast than his predecessors'. He doesn't seek to rock the royals' boat as Neil did with his Princess Diana revelations, or generally engage in class warfare. But Murdoch clearly values Witherow's indifference to recognition outside the paper, and, what's more, his editor delivers the goods week in week out. The question now is, what shape will those goods be coming in?