Can tabloids make Sundays special?

The Sunday tabloid market has been shrinking for some time. A rash of activity in the sector promises to shake things up a little.

The ferocious battle in the tabloid market is about to encroach on the slumbering Sabbath, now that Trinity Mirror has relaunched the Sunday People as The People and Express Newspapers prepares to unveil the Sunday Star.

The Sunday popular tabloid market has been in steep decline, with the Sunday People in particular in long-term free-fall. Observers say that any fresh product and investment in the Sunday market will be good for the sector as a whole, but whether the glory days – when people bought two newspapers on a Sunday – will return is doubtful. As WestLB Panmure head of media research Nicola Stewart says: “The key problem is that people no longer dual-purchase.”

The latest figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABCs) show that, for the six months to July 2002, total circulation in the Sunday popular tabloid market fell by 3.31 per cent year on year. By comparison, the daily popular market shrank by 0.89 per cent.

The Sunday People’s average net circulation for the period February to July plunged 5.43 per cent year on year to 1,328,034, although there was a month-on-month rise of 1.76 per cent in July, to 1,324,684. The sector leader, News International’s News Of The World (NoW), saw its average net circulation for the six-month period fall by 1.48 per cent year on year, to 3,921,805.

The relaunch of the Sunday People sees the Trinity Mirror title, which traditionally sells to an older, northern market, reverting to its former name of The People and introducing a new design and masthead. The revamped paper also has a new 48-page standalone sports supplement, called SP. The cover price will stay at 65p.

Express Newspapers’ plans for the Sunday Star remain under wraps, but insiders say the launch is scheduled for the third weekend in September. Expected to be priced at 35p, the new entrant arrives on the back of a massive resurgence for the once-moribund Daily Star, which saw its average net circulation for February to July 2002 increase by 13.86 per cent year on year, to 673,382.

Investment in the Sunday People was long overdue, say observers. For years, the title had almost been ignored as its owner focused on sister newspapers the Daily Mirror and the Sunday Mirror. The relaunch follows the news that “informal” talks of a sale of the title to Richard Desmond’s Express Newspapers have fallen through. Industry observers claim that as a consequence Trinity Mirror has little choice but to try to pump some life back into the paper. But one insider asks whether Trinity Mirror’s &£2m investment in marketing, editorial and extra pagination is a “short-term investment to fatten up the product for a predator”.

The challenge for Trinity Mirror, says MindShare managing partner Paul Thomas, is to avoid alienating the paper’s core older market while persuading new readers to try out the refreshed product. Trinity Mirror also has to ensure it is not spreading its marketing efforts too thinly, as it tries to establish the new “serious” Daily Mirror.

Mirror Group Newspapers marketing director Alisdair Luxmoore explains that The People brand is about “escapism”, offering a mix of true-life stories and celebrity coverage. He adds that there will be “clear water” between the paper and its sister, the Sunday Mirror.

Encouraging potential buyers to sample The People and the new Sunday Star will be vital to building circulation.

The People has already embarked on a five-week TV advertising campaign, with spots during sports programmes such as The Premiership. Express Newspapers remains tight-lipped about its promotional plans for the Sunday Star, but group marketing director Roland Agambar says that the marketing will reflect the brand values of its daily sister. He adds that the launch “will shake up the Sunday market, with a young brand increasing in popularity”.

The Sunday Star will doubtless follow the Daily Star’s editorial formula – news nuggets, busty women and celebrity gossip – which is proving attractive to 16to 34-year-olds. However, Zenith Media press director Kelly Harrold says that the Sunday title will have to be slightly more family-friendly if it is to be read at home.

Thomas says the Star team can take encouragement from the fact that the newspaper’s Saturday circulation is now bigger than that on any other day of the week, proving that the product is being accepted in the home and is not confined to the working environment.

Once the new-look titles have been established, both sales teams are hopeful that advertising will follow. However, Thomas says: “I don’t know if the advertising income is there. That sector is struggling more than any other.”

Industry analysts believe that Trinity Mirror and Express Newspapers are being rather too optimistic if they expect to draw large numbers of irregular newspaper buyers, and that growth will only come from stealing market share. Numis analyst Paul Richards says the only significant and sustained newspaper sector growth has been in the middle market, boosted by the Daily Mail.

Commentators believe that The People and the Sunday Star could chip away at the NoW’s readership, at the lower and upper age ranges. Any assault on NoW’s dominance is not expected to pass without retaliation, but whether that will be in the form of increased marketing, an overhaul of the UK’s best-selling newspaper’s offering or a price war – as seen in the weekday tabloid market – remains to be seen.

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