London • The challenge for Rupert Murdoch’s new Sunday tabloid: Keep the scoops, drop the sleaze.
News Corp.’s The Sun on Sunday launches this weekend, even as its proprietor fights to limit the damage caused by the long-running phone hacking scandal.
Can Murdoch win while keeping it clean? Tabloid veterans say yes.
“There’s a dangerous misconception that the News of the World or tabloids generally can’t break major stories without resorting to illegal or unethical practices,” former News of the World executive-turned PR professional Paul Connew said in a telephone interview. “The rivals are going to be sweating.”
The News of the World closed in July after an advertising boycott led Murdoch to pull the 168-year-old paper. Britons were disgusted by revelations that the paper had routinely hacked into the phones of those in the public eye — including, most notoriously, a missing schoolgirl whose murder had shocked the country.
It was long rumored that Murdoch would try to reclaim the gap in the lucrative Sunday market. And the Australian media tycoon appears to be throwing his weight and enthusiasm behind the launch, buying up broadcast advertising and putting up posters to promote his latest venture into the newspaper business.
There’s already been the inevitable controversy. News vendors are upset over the low, 50 pence (roughly 75 U.S. cent) cover price, a Labour parliamentarian has reportedly pulled out of a planned column under pressure from his colleagues, and media-watchers have been whispering about the possibility that new arrests of journalists could eclipse the paper’s launch.
Assuming no hiccups, the paper will have a huge initial run — perhaps as many as 3 million copies. It’ll be under the direction of Sun editor Dominic Mohan. His deputy, Victoria Newton, a veteran of the News of the World, is also expected to play a key role.
There have been all kinds of rumors as to the paper’s content, although the traditional staples of tabloid reporting — campaigns, stings, and undercover investigations — will doubtless stay in place.
And it seems reasonable to assume that the Sun on Sunday would keep paying tipsters for stories — a practice generally shunned by U.S. journalists. Still, Britain’s new anti-bribery law — and sensitivities surrounding the ongoing investigation into the corruption of public officials — means that reporters will be far more careful about paying contacts.
Jules Stenson, former assistant editor of the News of the World, said that would free up money for big feature stories.
“I think they’ll have lots to spend,” he said.
He predicted the paper’s culture would be a Sun culture, which he described as “softer, not as hard an investigative edge, not as in-your-face” as the News of the World. He said it was “subtler, more newsy, more fun ... saucier.”
Some former News of the World journalists had worried that the paper needed its own journalistic identity to fight its way through the fiercely competitive Sunday market. But Stenson, who also now works in public relations, said that launching a new paper under The Sun brand would do it a world of good.
“It was one of the biggest challenges at the News of the World: Converting more Sun readers into News of the World readers,” he noted.
Stenson predicted that The Sun on Sunday’s circulation would settle at around 1.8 million. That would be far less than what the News of the World was selling when it was shut — about 2.7 million copies a week — but it would be roughly comparable to its rivals, the Sunday Mirror and the Mail on Sunday.
Newspaper circulation is far higher in tabloid-hungry Britain than in the United States, where even Murdoch’s top-selling Wall Street Journal falls well short of The Sun’s daily reach.
Media research firm Enders Analysis put Stenson’s prediction for the Sun on Sunday at the high end of the scale.
“We estimate that even a triumphant launch would likely generate half to two-thirds of the income of the closed title,” the group said in a research note released earlier this week.
Advertising doesn’t seem to be a problem. Murdoch said in an upbeat message posted to Twitter on Wednesday that the paper was “completely sold out.”
Major advertisers seem favorable. Supermarket retailer Tesco said it was reviewing the situation, while rival Morrisons said it expected to advertise in The Sun on Sunday. Even brands whose boycott of the News of the World helped force its closure were open to the idea of supporting its successor.
Major gas and electricity supplier Npower — which pulled its ads from the old tabloid — suggested it was still on the fence about promoting its brand in the new title.
“It was only after careful consideration we decided to cancel advertising in the News of the World,” the company said in a statement. “We will give careful consideration on whether to advertise in any subsequent replacement.”