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January 22, 2013

A plan for The People? Take a look at the FT

By David Banks

Pssst! Wanna buy a second-hand Sunday newspaper? Digital? Are you JOKING? I’m talking the Real Thing here, matey. The People is a vintage model, gloriously faded but still a veritable Porsche among the brassy iPad paywalled downloadables in this showroom, squire . . .

I KNOW that no one in their right mind wants to buy one of THEM these days, but look at the plus points: Lots of turns around the block – you’d expect that in a model built in 1881 – but regularly serviced by mechanics and only ever gets an outing on a Sunday.

Drivers? Plenty, squire, including the legendary Hannen Swaffer and the greatest circulation getter of all time, Harry Ainsworth, whose 32 years at the helm (eat your hearts out, modern editors!) saw circulation rise from 250,000 to more than five million in the ‘50s.

Er, afraid not squire, no vicars; it was never THAT sort of paper. But it did boast a couple of – ahem! – rather carefree lady drivers in recent years. And, frankly, either Wendy Henry or Bridget Rowe would probably make the perfect chauffeuse if they could be lured back from dog-walking and running fashion shops and see eye-to-eye with the probable new owner.

Oh, didn’t I mention her? Sue Douglas has been kicking tyres and hunkering down with the money men to see if she can come up with a part-ex deal to partner Trinity Mirror who, frankly, haven’t won a race with The People since they inherited it from Odhams. Ms Douglas wouldn’t get on with Wen and Bridge, the Terrible Twins: she’s a power broker herself and would undoubtedly prefer some stubbly-chinned charmer with a magazine background to give her toy a spin every Sunday.

I’d offer to do it myself but I fear the modern editor’s chair – taxi trips instead of limos, receipts required for expenses, no hanky-panky with the PCC – is not a good fit for the likes of Banks, thanks. Especially if reports of her plans for The People are accurate. I’m told she sees it as the natural successor to the NoW, a sort of News of the People (NO!) to be achieved by adopting the old NoW racing paint job (while avoiding charges of ‘passing off’) and fuelling it with the same celebrity drivel that is losing readership at Sunday’s versions of The Sun, Star and Mirror month by month.

A better plan might be to take a leaf out of the Financial Times’ Survival Manual; no, bear with me, Banksy’s not gone completely bonkers . . .The only time I see it is at the weekend: fine paper, magazine, lots of general content and available currently over 48 hours. Nice idea: I see that wily piano player Rusbridger is trying to do the same by owning the weekend with his Guardian/Observer package.

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The People can’t compete on intellectual terms with the aforementioned, nor can it hide from the fact that it appeals not to a digitally switched-on younger generation but to that fast-increasing and increasingly long-lived age group the over-50s. ‘Free for a Month with Every New Bus Pass!’ is not a slogan to be sneered at. Oldies are habitual readers and have been weaned on to papers. Twenty-five years of blinkered management and a fashion for appointing adolescent editors has shaken them loose.

How to get them back?

For Her: human interest, good reads – fictional and historical – competitions, travel and fashion offers. Looking good is important: Spain and Portugal are the holiday haunts, Matalan and Primark the fashion labels, Marks and Spencer the makeover market.

For Him: sport right across the weekend. Start selling The People on Saturday morning against the weekday red-tops. Packed front- and back-of-book with news and sports previews, the central features core would ride unchanged across the weekend into the Sunday paper where front and back would be entirely updated with breaking news and match reports.

A million buyers at a quid a time is a mite ambitious for a paper whose last ABC sale was under half that.

Maybe doubling the selling time will double your dough?l

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