Last week’s announcement that the Barclay brothers had bought Sunday Business was greeted with howls of derision by the advertising industry. The fabulously wealthy brothers had bought a paper whose farcical financing and sales figures had become a standing joke.
Their company European Press Holdings (EPH) bought the defunct title out of receivership for a “nominal sum” last week. EPH chief executive Bert Hardy is at pains to stress that only the title has been bought and none of the assets, bar a few desks and chairs.
But will the brothers have the last laugh on the national newspaper community from which they have so long been excluded and which, by all accounts, they have been so desperate to join?
EPH says it will put Andrew Neil at the helm and then will look for an editor and a team of journalists – none of the present editorial team will be kept. It will be a niche product aimed at ABs. Hardy says: “It will all centre on the quality of the writing.”
It all sounds very similar to EPH’s plans for The European. Neil was appointed editor-in-chief there in May and it was in long-term decline. Average circulation had fallen to about 153,000 compared with the early Nineties, when it was pushing 168,500.
Under Neil the title is arguably sharper and more readable with its new tabloid format.
But it seems that the problems at former Sunday Business were not just with management – or, as Manning Gottlieb Media partner Colin Gottlieb puts it: “Founder Tom Rubython could not walk the talk.” There is still the question of whether there is a market for a business-only title on a Sunday. If there were, then the Financial Times could have moved into the gap long ago.
Panmure Gordon media analyst Lorna Tilbian says: “Some of the best selling global newspapers are business-based. The US edition of the Wall Street Journal is the best selling paper in the world. The Economist is also a top-seller and that is a business rather than a consumer title. Against this background there is obviously room for it.”
Hardy admits in a typically bullish manner: “There is no gap in the market per se – we have to elbow our way in. In any case I don’t believe in gaps in the market.”
Hardy claims the title will not compete with other Sunday publications for readers: “The Sunday Times is also aiming at ABs, but is not a niche publication,” he says.
Optimedia head of press Simon Timlett points out that circulation for daily and Sunday newspapers is in long-term decline, whereas Saturday circulations have seen a boom. This is also a result of papers following the lead of The Independent and launching Saturday review sections. The way consumers spend their weekends has changed radically over the past five years, with the boom in Sunday shopping skewing leisure – and hence reading time.
He says that eventually newspapers will fragment in the same way that television has done, and that niche products will be the way forward – but not yet.
“At some point I think there will be room for smaller newspapers with slightly more restricted editorial menus, like sport or business. But this will be way in the future,” he says.
Zenith Media press buying director Damian Blackden says: “I would not invest in it. There are easier markets to crack. Pitching yourself against The Sunday Times and the weekend FT is like trying to launch a mid-market Sunday against The Mail on Sunday. It will be very, very hard.”
Gottlieb says if the title were to work, then the journalism would have to be of such a quality that no businessman could afford not to read it. This, he thinks will be impossible to do because it will be extremely difficult to attract the right journalists.
“In theory, if I had the money I could recruit a football team that would win the Premier League next year. But in reality, however much I paid them, they would be unlikely to play for my team which knocks about in the park,” he says.
As Hardy says, EPH has no intention of appointing a marketing director and he has a message for those in the advertising community who still think that Sunday Business is a joke: “I don’t care what media buyers think. All I care about is what the readers think.”
EPN may not think it needs the support of the advertising industry to make the title succeed, but to win readers’ minds, the Barclays will need to bank on more than their famous deep pockets. Even with the best editorial in the world, it may still find that it needs to re-build the paper’s image among business community readers and advertisers.