Women readers: the never-ending search

Whatever shapes the 'quality' press adopts, the female-friendly influence of the 'Mail' is obvious
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The Independent Online

In this competitive season of relaunch, repackage, facelift and new signings, particularly in the once broadsheet, once quality sector of the market, appealing to women is much mentioned, and when that happens the Daily Mail is always in the next sentence. The Daily Mail is seen as the paper that has cracked women readers, thus holding not only its direct competitors but all sectors of the newspaper market in its thrall.

But why are women especially desirable? First, editors worry if their focus is concentrated on less than half the population, because it means turning their backs on potential readers. A large amount of advertising (homes, holidays, clothes, cosmetics and so much more) is targeted at women, and newspapers won't get it if the data shows they are low on such readers. Mothers tend to be women, and mothers are the route to children who will become young people who might become young readers.

The Daily Mail is the only national daily newspaper with more women readers than men, according to the independent National Readership Survey. It has also experienced a sustained period of circulation growth over many years, although recent evidence suggests this growth has come to an end. Is this part of the general pattern of newspaper sales decline, or is it a consequence of the blurring of the boundaries between market sectors? At the contracting tabloid end of the market some readers have traded up to the mid-market Mail. Are certain quality sector papers now trying to attract readers from the Mail - and succeeding? And are they going about this by stealing the Mail's (women's) clothes?

Take The Times, the largest-selling shrunken former broadsheet, which has just relaunched its second section, Times2 in an effort to be young, women-friendly and magaziney. A column starts, "Hurrah! The October issue of Vogue has hit the newsstands." A fashion item starts, "Less is more, so join the strip club." Things have moved on since "The top people's paper".

Following the murder last week of 22-year-old Clare Bernal, The Times stripped "Killer at Harvey Nichols" across the top of its front page, along with a picture of the victim. We were then cross-referred to the whole of page three of the main paper, plus the cover and two more pages of Times2. This seemed generous.

One of the things that distinguishes the Mail, and allegedly adds to its woman friendliness, is the narrative, featurey way in which it tells some of its news stories, although noticeably not the Harvey Nicks story on the day we are discussing. The Times news story intro read: "Claire Bernal's Italian holiday smile masks the emotional torment of being stalked remorselessly by her obsessive former boyfriend." Times2's cover story - "Death in the afternoon, business as usual by morning" began, "It couldn't have happened in Peter Jones." Honestly. In terms of insensitivity and crassness, this beats most.

Will this Mail approach secure The Times more readers, as is no doubt intended? Undoubtedly there are some more traditional readers who will say this is not what they think of as The Times, but they were around when it turned tabloid, and circulation has grown considerably since then.

What works for the Mail may not work for other papers. Women are not a homogenous group of readers, any more than men are. Independent and Guardian women readers would be unlikely to find the Mail menu appealing.

If the quality sector of the newspaper market is going to go further into this area of human interest, relationships and lifestyle, then it will need to realise that doing it well is just as hard as doing any other area of journalism. The Mail in recent days has given us features on parents splitting up, late motherhood, women's life expectancy changing as they live like men, the railway boss demoted for being pregnant and women's euphemisms for their physical deficiencies (sic). The Mail puts pictures of women on almost every page, taking the view that both men and women like it that way. The Mail commits, and it does what it does very well.

Those who seek to emulate it (whether or not they are right to do so in the quality sector of the market) will have to bring the same rigorous and consistent standards that the Mail brings to women's interests - or to its version of what interests women.

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield