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October 17, 2022

As Sunday Times turns 200, editor Emma Tucker says: ‘All our future growth is digital’

By Charlotte Tobitt

As The Sunday Times turns 200 this week, editor Emma Tucker is focused on broadening its audience beyond the affluent and aging middle class.

Tucker, who has edited the newspaper since January 2020, tells Press Gazette: “I used to be told the Sunday Times reader is a typical man in his 60s living in the suburbs, a dentist or something.

“We want to keep the suburban dentists, we definitely want to keep them, but we also want his daughter, his son, his wife, we want people who live on the other side of the country to him.

“I think obviously we’ve got an educated audience and a curious audience and an aspirational audience but all those three things come in very different shapes and sizes. So we’re sort of mindful of that.”

The longer lead time for the Sunday title means it can give more thought to how it can attract new readers each week, Tucker says.

“We’re looking for more women, we’re looking for younger readers. We’re looking for niche audiences around perhaps arts and culture, people who there may not be huge numbers of them but once they do engage with us, they’re very, very engaged.

“So we’re leveraging the resources of the seven days to go after different audiences in an appropriate way.”

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The Times and Sunday Times’ online subscription model means the titles focus on engagement metrics such as whether a subscriber reads an article to the end. “I sometimes feel if a subscriber comes to the Sunday Times and they read only one piece that they think is really excellent they’ll come away feeling that their subscription was worth it,” Tucker says.

[Read more: Scottish regional dailies celebrate return to growth with online subs breakthrough]

These internal metrics show what resonates well with young people: for example, according to Tucker, stories around personal finance, issues of injustice, climate change and working life have all proven successful.

In these areas the newspaper may balance more traditional writers such as personal account columnist Ian Cowie with new voices, such as senior money reporter Imogen Tew who is in her 20s. “Younger people like reading pieces written by younger people,” Tucker says.

This pursuit of new, younger audiences will prove key to helping The Sunday Times survive long into the next 200 years.

The newspaper initially launched as The New Observer in 1821, hoping to capitalise on the success of The Observer, before changing name first to The Independent Observer eight months later and then The Sunday Times in October 1822. It was not owned by the same company as The Times until 1966 when Roy Thomson purchased the daily. Both have now been owned by Rupert Murdoch since 1981.

[Read more: First UK newspaper colour supplement Sunday Times Magazine marks 60 years]

Tucker feels “all positive” for the future despite the imminent cost of living crisis hitting household finances that, it is feared, could see consumers cut back on their paid subscriptions.

She says her team is “acutely aware” of this challenge, as well as the vast amount of competition online, but that this “in some ways has made it easier for us to really focus on our core mission, which is to provide distinctive unmissable journalism… if we didn’t do that there would be no reason to subscribe, so the pressure’s on us”.

The Times, Sunday Times and Times Literary Supplement currently have 445,000 digital subscribers compared to 374,000 at the end of June last year. Digital subscriber and advertising growth  helped Times Newspapers find 5% revenue growth to £327.1m and triple pre-tax profits to £34m for the year to the end of June 2021.

The print circulation of The Times and Sunday Times is no longer made public by ABC. In March 2020, the last available figure, The Sunday Times was on 647,622 and its daily counterpart on 365,880. Twenty years earlier they respectively had a readership of 1.38 million and 720,756.

Nonetheless Tucker believes the print products will be around “for a while yet” – especially on a Sunday.

“But I think it’s going to diminish in importance,” she says. “All our future growth is in digital. There’s absolutely no question about it. And I think one of the issues around print could be distribution. Even if you print it are you really going to be able to distribute it to every corner of the country like used to happen before? Or will it just become something that you can only get in certain hubs? I don’t know.

“I mean, I think the outlook for print is one way – it’s just a question of how quickly it declines.”

As the print edition diminishes in reach, it needs to be “even better… more deluxe, more beautiful”, Tucker says.

“Possibly it should cost more as well so that buying it is more of an event. It was interesting how massive the uplift was around the Queen’s death but those sorts of events aren’t going to happen very often so there’s only so many things people want to put in their memory boxes.”

Times – Sunday Times collaboration

Although The Times and Sunday Times share a website, their approaches are slightly different: the daily team updates the site at several points during the day, whereas on a Sunday the “richer”, more distinctive content is given more time to shine.

The two titles do now share several non-news desks including travel, property and sport, while some other journalists also work across them. Earlier this year then-Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries released News UK from legal undertakings to keep The Times and The Sunday Times separate that were implemented when Murdoch bought the titles. However Tucker and then-Times editor John Witherow told staff their papers continued to have editorial independence and would not merge.

According to Tucker, the commercial reason for keeping the titles separate remains clear: “Commercially, not just in print, in fact very much more so these days in digital, it makes sense because unusually for a legacy title like ours Sunday is our biggest day.

“It’s the highest traffic, it has the highest level of conversions, the highest level of engagement and I think that’s an advantage that nobody internally has any desire to kibosh. So we do very different things.”

The value of the Sunday paper is its ability to spend time on exclusives, investigations, campaigns and scoops, Tucker says.

“The other thing that people want from a Sunday is they want more analytical news. They want to know why something happened, how it happened. They want to understand the news. Because I think by the time people get to us on Sunday, they’re news literate. They know already what the news is. So what we’re giving them is a deeper understanding of what’s going on in the world.”

Two weeks before this interview took place Times deputy editor, and former Sun and Telegraph editor, Tony Gallagher was appointed to replace Witherow who became Times Newspapers chairman. Tucker says the changing of the guard at the daily “doesn’t affect us at all really” – although she gets on “very well” with her new counterpart.

Rumours had linked Tucker to the Times editor role and, then, to a job at the Wall Street Journal, also owned by News Corp. But Tucker tells Press Gazette in response: “The Wall Street Journal has an editor and I have a job as Sunday Times editor and I’m very happy with it. It’s a great job and I love it.”

How to be a good Sunday Times editor

Tucker is trying to create a “very open” culture within The Sunday Times under her editorship so anyone can “feel like if they’ve got an idea that they can contribute, so really collaborative – and that’s not because I’m a nice person. It’s because collaboration is what works”.

She has had to grapple with what the role of editor looks like in today’s publishing ecosystem: in the past, an editor would read and sign off every word published. Now, although she reads as much as possible, it is more “difficult to be across all of it” when a brand is publishing across so many different platforms and formats.

“So I think the key for an editor is set a direction and culture, to appoint really good people that you trust around you and to then manage it,” she says. “I think it’s setting a tone and a direction and making sure everyone knows what your expectations are, what you want the journalism to be, and who you’re trying to address, who the audiences are, and what the goal is.”

Tucker adds that rather than just getting good stories in, they now have to ask “how are we going to tell it then and are we telling it in the right way? Are we telling it on the right platform? Are we telling it in the right format? Are we amplifying it to our social channels? Are we amplifying it through Times Radio?” The radio station has a weekly reach of 570,000, according to the latest RAJAR figures.

“There are so many options for us so I think the editor’s job is to make sure that the whole picture is working and functioning together.”

Earlier this year Mail Online publisher Martin Clarke joked that “being an editor does make you a monster. Or in my case more of a monster” in his leaving speech to staff.

Why editors don’t need to be ‘monsters’

Asked if editors have to be monsters to a certain extent, Tucker laughs: “I sometimes wish I was more of a monster. I think I’m a monster at home but not in the office.”

More seriously, she continues: “No, I think those days are over. Honestly I think those days are over. You can achieve things without being a monster… nobody wants a bully anymore and I’m not naming names or suggesting that anyone is a bully, but that kind of old-fashioned view of an editor shouting and screaming at people – that’s definitely dated. You’re not going to get results by doing that anymore.”

Tucker is part of a shift towards more female leadership in the UK national news industry. Currently 45% of the UK’s national newspaper editors-in-chief are women. And Tucker says most of her newsdesk is female – including head of news and home editor.

She believes the shift in newsroom culture may in part be down to this trend, but says it is also an “era thing”… I think people don’t respond well to bullying autocrats whether they’re male or female.”

Asked whether it is still a point of celebration to have women editors, Tucker says: “There are so many senior women in journalism now, it’s brilliant. It’s so different from what I started and that’s been an absolute sea change, and I think that’s great and I think it’s probably pretty permanent as well.”

Sunday Times scoop highlights since Emma Tucker became editor – as chosen by her

Picture: News UK

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