New tabloid eyes highbrow market

In her first major interview since news broke of plans to launch an upmarket newspaper, Vicky Unwin talks to Sarah Robertson about 'establishing a new paradigm'.

The celebrity-swamped Brit Awards and the multi-coloured glitterati of London Fashion Week, recently splashed across the nationals, will not enjoy the same coverage in a new upmarket tabloid being planned by a founder of The Independent.

Celebrity culture has crept too far into our living rooms, according to Stephen Glover, a former Independent on Sunday editor, who believes significant numbers of the British public want a fresh highbrow paper, despite a catalogue of failed attempts by others and scepticism from the industry.

Glover can take heart from the success of compact versions of The Independent and The Times. A gap in the market has been created by the dumbing down of the broadsheets, according to the planned paper's managing director, Vicky Unwin, a former managing director of PR Newswire. The new highbrow compact would be positioned above both The Telegraph and Times.

Unspun journalism

With a 100,000 circulation target, the new paper, as yet untitled, would set out to provide unspun journalism with political comment from both left and right. Far from poaching other papers' readers, Unwin says, the text-heavy product would pull readers who have shunned the newspaper world back into the fold.

Unwin says: 'It is aimed at ABC readers who have been disenfranchised by the dumbing down of the broadsheet press. It will use reporting in an un-biased way, unlike the other papers. The paper will be a debating forum, with input from the whole of the political spectrum. It will recapture the spirit of the time, like the Telegraph did 30 years ago.'

Unwin wants the tabloid to eschew the celebrity, gossip and consumer stories that she says are appearing far too regularly in the broadsheet press, and concentrate instead on cultural and international affairs.

Key players in the team include Francis Wheen, a Private Eye contributor and author, and Frank Johnson, a former editor of The Spectator. Adam Broadband has been recruited as chairman, but will maintain his duties as chairman of publisher Emap. With planning at an early stage, a launch date has not been agreed. Whenever it is, the new title will outsource its PR.

Unwin is currently seeking the £15m she needs from City investors to launch the paper, but the project has attracted fierce criticism.

Resonate director Graham Drew, who helped spearhead the launch of men's magazine Nuts, says: 'It is a massive gamble. The form of new national launches is not encouraging and readership is going down across the board.'

Drew believes the broadsheets have had to move towards the mainstream to satisfy their advertisers and stay afloat. 'There is no room at the top,' he argues. 'If there was, these people would not be making concessions to the mass market. The more elitist approach to journalism is not viable.'

Chime Communications chairman Lord Bell warns: 'This (low circulation highbrow paper) is what The Business tried to do. It failed.'

With six failed national newspapers launched and folded in the past 25 years, and broadsheet circulations falling, the cynics could have a point.

The latest Audit Bureau of Circulations' figures, for January 2004, showed combined circulations of the broadsheets, including The Scotsman, fell by just under two per cent from January 2003, to 2.7 million. The Daily Telegraph was down by 3.4 per cent, the Financial Times by 2.2 per cent, The Times by 1.6 per cent and The Guardian by 6.5 per cent on the previous January.

Only The Independent, the first to attempt the broadsheet/tabloid dual strategy, bucked the trend, climbing 12.1 per cent on the previous January. And the six months from August 2003 saw it climb 6.2 per cent compared with the same period the previous year. All the other broadsheets recorded falls.

Perhaps because of the apparent success of The Independent's tabloid version in maintaining sales, Unwin will not be swayed by her critics.

'We have done our research and identified a gap in the market,' she insists.

'Other journalists will defend their own patches and say there is no market, but people in PR might give a very different answer.'

Unwin says the broadsheets are increasingly dressing up political comment as balanced stories. 'Our paper will print articles about what is really going on in the world; it will not propagate its own views, which is what most papers do,' she argues.

'Some people scoff because they say it cannot be done for £15m,' Unwin adds. 'That is because they are part of a tradition of bloated, overstaffed newspapers - a tradition that has not changed in the last century. We are starting from scratch, so we can establish a new paradigm.'

She adds: 'Stelios did it with airlines. I'm not saying we are dealing with a cut-price product, but he has shown that this type of business can be profitable.'

TOUGH TIMES FOR NEWSPAPERS

- 1978: The Times and The Sunday Times cease publication for 11 months

because of union dispute

- 1980: London Evening News folds

- 1987: Robert Maxwell's London Daily News, t he first attempt at a

24-hour newspaper, folds after four months; his News on Sunday folds

within a year

- 1989: Sunday Correspondent launches; folds after 14 months

- 1990: The European launches - folds in 1998 with circulation of

100,000

- 1995: Today shuts down after nine years

- 2003: Decline of broadsheet circulations continues

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