Independence of Sunday titles at risk in seven-day trend

Mergers in news operations jeopardise some of the strongest media brands

 

On the seventh day, God created Sunday newspapers, so he would have something to read while he rested. Big interviews, trenchant think pieces, Mrs Mills. And as he was not immune to Schadenfreude, a spot of Liam Fay.

On that special day, people would almost certainly want a very different kind of publication, with features that gave them pause for thought – such as those anatomically unlikely bodies in Sunday Independent Life magazine for example.

The concept of a supplement- stuffed Sunday newspaper is based on the premise that people have more time to turn pages on a Sunday. Notwithstanding changes in work patterns, it’s a premise that largely holds true. Yet the circulation of Sunday titles in Ireland has fallen 30 per cent in the past five years, a (marginally) worse performance than that of the daily market.

Those cover prices add up. Readers who used to buy two or three titles now appear to be making do with one. The closure of the Sunday Tribune exacerbated this trend to the point that many purchasers at the so-called quality end of the market appear to have taken the old advertising slogan “The Sunday Times is The Sunday Papers” to heart.

Now one little phrase – “seven-day operation” – is threatening to undermine the tradition of keeping Sunday titles as a distinct brand from their daily stablemates.

As might have been expected, Rupert Murdoch was one of the first to see the merits. Long before the News of the World said “Thank You and Goodbye” there were rumours of a plan for a Sunday Sun , with a seven-day production roster, a single advertising sales team and all the cost efficiencies this entails.

The Sun on Sunday was still fresh on the newsstands when Trinity Mirror sacked the editors of the Daily Mirror and the Sunday Mirror , merged the titles and got the bloke from The People in to oversee them both. Reports abound of similar mergers for The Times and The Sunday Times , the Independent and the Independent on Sunday and the Daily Telegraph and the Sunday Telegraph .

“Seven-day operation” has at least crossed the lips of executives at Independent News and Media. Irish Independent editor Stephen Rae recently dangled the phrase at a conference, though it was words attributed to INM non-executive director Lucy Gaffney – about “thinking the unthinkable, which is merging newsrooms” – that were quoted back to INM management by worried National Union of Journalists representatives at a meeting last week.

The INM executives present, Michael Denieffe and Declan Carlyle, assured the NUJ that though the Sunday Independent would now be produced on the same floor as the Irish Independent and the Herald , the three titles would remain separate, with just some pooling of production resources between the two dailies.

The identity of each title would be protected, INM management assured, though given that the advertised editor-in- chief position will have the power to direct all three editors, the NUJ reps – perhaps conscious of the Anne Harris in the
room – naturally pointed out that this newly-created supervisor role could have serious consequences for the editorial independence of each title.

Sunday titles, not least the Harris-edited Sindo , made a virtue of “lean-back” entertainment in the days before the term “lean-back” was coined. In theory, this should make them less vulnerable to the competitive frenzy of the fast-twitch online news era than their daily counterparts.

That the Sindo is still the biggest seller in the market, with a circulation of 237,000 at the last count, attests to both the strength of its excitable, confrontational personality and the resilience of the Sunday reading model (although the sorrows of the Sunday Business Post tell a different story).

Sundays still lose out in the migration to digital for two reasons. Firstly, there is the fallacy of maintaining a Sunday web presence on a standalone basis. A Sunday Independent.ie URL would be ridiculous, as its stories would be left sitting there all week, so instead they are subsumed within Independent.ie. Guardian News and Media group clocked this five years ago, and “Observer” is now just one of 29 tabs on the site’s main navigation bar.

Secondly, daily titles are responding to online news competition by becoming more like Sunday titles, with great big dollops of analysis and “colour”. This inevitably dilutes the impact of the traditional Sunday offer.

It’s not quite the case that every day is like Sunday now, but Saturdays are making a stab at coming close.

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