Times policy shift clue to price hike

The Times is once again stepping up the pressure on The Telegraph, although this time its strategy will focus on content rather than price

The departure of Times Newspapers marketing director Toby Constantine for yet another e-venture comes as the newspaper gears up for the latest round in a so far three-year war to replace The Telegraph as the UK’s premier broadsheet.

The battle, which has been fought with price cuts, costly promotions and attractive subscription rates, has cost each paper tens of millions of pounds. It is to begin again as autumn closes in.

The Times’ Patrick Sheriff, promoted from deputy to acting marketing director after Constantine’s departure, will launch a campaign in two weeks’ time. The Telegraph’s marketing team is not far behind.

Paul Thomas, Universal McCann press director, sums up their relationship: “These two papers have been dramatically linked in recent years. The rises and falls of each paper have mirrored one another.”

In the run-up to renewed hostilities, it is the Times team and wider management at News International (NI) that are the more unsettled.

Constantine’s exit follows a number of NI departures. His new business partner Ellis Watson resigned as general manager of The Sun’s Internet service provider CurrantBun.com last month. NI general manager Doug Reed, meanwhile, left in July to join media group Aegis as chief executive. Camilla Rhodes was named managing director, as Reed’s replacement.

Ian Clark, media director at Booth Lockett Makin, voices a commonly held belief: “The NI team has been weakened in recent months, and Sheriff will have his work cut out if it is to be as effective as it was.”

However, Sheriff feels he has already taken steps to strengthen his team. He says: “We are looking for three new marketing people because we have big promotions planned for this autumn. We will move away from promoting the paper purely on price and towards concentrating on content. We will also aim to attract more women readers.”

Some see the move away from price promotion as a sign that The Times is softening up readers to push its price back to more realistic levels. The paper sells at 30p – 10p on Mondays – while The Telegraph, Guardian, and Independent sell for 45p.

Mike Gorman, media director at Bozell Worldwide, says: “The paper has been at 30p for some time now, and it is hard to believe there are any more readers to be had at this price. It recently added a Times Three Section in the middle of the week. This added value might be preparing the reader for a higher price. The paper might decide to raise its price and hang on to a core 600,000 or so readers, each paying full price.”

Observers estimate every 5p The Times adds to its price will cost it 25,000 to 40,000 readers.

In the past, observers argued The Times price cuts were jointly funded by News Corporation’s Sunday Times and pay-TV arm BSkyB. Both are leaders in their respective sectors. However, BSkyB is investing hundreds of millions of pounds in digital TV and some suggest this is why The Times might be forced to settle for the readers it already has, at least in the medium term.

Thomas says: “I’m simply not sure if The Times can make a profit at 30p.”

Sheriff counters: “We have sat down and worked out that we can make the paper work at 30p. Our long-term strategy is very clear: in two years we want The Times to be number one. We are aiming at 1 million copies a day, and I would be surprised if the paper moved above 30p in that time.”

Since it began price cutting in 1996, The Times has made great strides, rising from a circulation of about 380,000 to a high of 842,000 last year. It took readers from a variety of titles such as The Express, The Independent and The Telegraph, although The Times has now fallen back to 704,700.

The Telegraph responded by offering attractive subscription deals which effectively gave readers The Sunday Telegraph for free. The Telegraph’s circulation has remained above what many observers call the “emotionally” important 1 million mark. It stands at 1,036,641.

By contrast, The Guardian’s circulation has remained stable at 384,250. The Independent, after taking a hammering, has stabilised at 221,200.

There has been speculation that NI is considering appointing a marketing director across all four of its titles, which include The Sun and News of the World.

One observer says: “The promotions people often work across the various titles, and they are based in the same office. To have an overall marketing director who takes a comprehensive view about how to direct resources and strategy does not take a great leap of imagination.”

Sheriff thinks this is a mistake, arguing: “There has been no discussion among senior management along those lines. It would be totally unmanageable to have one person across four titles.”

Sheriff will not be drawn on whether he is after Constantine’s job full time, but friends say he wants little else. If NI continues with a separate marketing director for The Times, it will suggest it is keen to keep up the pressure on The Telegraph.

Furthermore, if Sheriff wants the job, NI general manager Rhodes will see how much ground he can close during the crucial autumn push.

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