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Sunday Times editor Ben Taylor given ‘crystal clear’ assurance no Times merger coming

The Scottish editions of the Times titles were merged into a seven-day operation last month.

By Bron Maher

New Sunday Times editor Ben Taylor has said it was made “crystal clear” to him there are no plans on the horizon to merge The Times and Sunday Times.

His comments came as The Times and Sunday Times in Scotland moved to a seven-day operation, which Taylor attributed to the “unsustainable” print-first model at those titles.

Taylor was part of a panel discussing topics including news avoidance and big tech at the Society of Editors’ Media Freedom Conference on Wednesday, one of his first public appearances since taking on the Sunday Times editorship this year.

Prompted by news of the changes to the Times operation in Scotland, Press Gazette asked Taylor whether he worried he would be the last editor of a standalone Sunday Times. “I very much hope not,” he responded.

“I wouldn’t have taken the job if I thought I was about to apply for my own redundancy.

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“That’s been made crystal clear to me, and Rupert Murdoch watched the 200th anniversary film which we made last year for The Sunday Times and said he was extremely proud to own The – Sunday – Times.”

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[Read more: News UK proposes merger of Scottish Times and Sunday Times into seven-day operation]

Taylor succeeded his predecessor Emma Tucker in January after she was announced as editor of fellow News Corp title The Wall Street Journal. He joined The Sunday Times as deputy in 2020 from the Daily Mail, where he had been executive editor.

Last year, then-culture secretary Nadine Dorries ended a legal restriction requiring The Times and Sunday Times to remain editorially separate. The London-based titles share certain non-news desks, including travel, property and sport.

Taylor said the reason the Scottish titles were combined was “really quite straightforward. We had a big office up there, we looked at the data and we realised that many stories were massively underperforming.

“So in other words, we were producing far too much content. Why? Because we were print-first. We were trying to fill both the print daily, which is obviously the Monday to Saturday Times, and The Sunday Times, and trying to cover everything.”

Taylor said that had been an “unsustainable economic model”.

“We are not going to put on print sales hugely in Scotland anytime soon, unless Scotland win the World Cup, bluntly, or you have a big event like the death of the Queen.”

As such, the business decided it needed to grow subscriptions, “and the way you grow subscriptions is through high-quality copy and high-quality content.

“So we made some really difficult decisions. I was up there, I went up there and I helped oversee the whole process with the team up there.” 

Magnus Llewellin now has responsibility across the seven-day Times operation, having previously been editor of the daily Scottish paper. His deputy David McCann has responsibility for The Sunday Times said Taylor.

Times parent company News UK has not disclosed how many jobs were lost with the merger. The Scottish Times’ politics and education correspondent Mark McLaughlin said on Twitter on Friday that he was leaving the paper “as The Sunday Times merger progresses”.

Similar restructures have been considered elsewhere, with Mail Newspapers editor-in-chief Ted Verity, who leads a seven-day operation, telling staff this month that the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday were to be brought “much closer together” as part of a bid to preserve the print titles while investing more in digital.

Despite their names, The Times and Sunday Times have historically been separate, having only come under common ownership in the 1960s. The potential of a merger between teams at the two newspapers has been a longstanding question: ten years ago, a nine-month standoff between Times Newspapers Independent Directors and News UK over the appointments of John Witherow and Martin Ivens as editors was only resolved after the company gave assurances the titles would not be merged.

Ben Taylor on news avoidance, Sunday stories and big tech

Earlier on the panel, when asked by moderator Julia Hartley-Brewer about audiences turning away from news Taylor said it was “in some ways the most important debate that you’ve initiated this afternoon”.

While he was concerned about reaching young audiences, Taylor argued: “I think we have to find a way of reaching people my age, who are increasing, as Alison [Phillips] alluded to, exhausted with the news cycle.”

Mirror editor Phillips had told the panel some older readers had been exhausted by the Brexit news cycle.

Taylor said audiences “have got incredible options on their phone, on the television, on their laptop to engage with all types of media, via Spotify via Netflix via Youtube

“And that’s who we’re competing with. I mean, when I arrived at The Sunday Times I thought my big rivals would be the Mail on Sunday, Sunday Telegraph and The Observer, right? They’re obviously great brands, great rivals – but in truth, my real rival is the internet and people’s time.”

[Read more: Could ‘solutions journalism’ be the antidote to news avoidance?]

Taylor explained how The Sunday Times has become better able to compete for people’s time by using insights to change what it does.

“In the old days… the Sunday papers were full of drops from cabinet ministers, opposition leaders, whatever, saying: ‘Here’s a little policy that you might be interested in.’

“Guess what? Nobody reads it. Literally, nobody reads it. They read the first sentence and then switch off.”

He said audiences don’t want “press releases” or “boring interviews of politicians which are full of sound bites”.

“What they’re reading – it’s really interesting – they’re reading the stories that go behind stories…

“What they want is insight. They want analysis and they want exclusives and that, frankly, for all of us, is the only way forward.”

Asked whether an editor’s “gut instinct” is still relevant in a data-driven age, Taylor gave an example: “The biggest-read story on our website this year came after that awful case of that poor woman in Surrey who was attacked by dogs. It was Saturday, and I said during news conference: ‘Why would a pack of dogs attack a human? I don’t understand. Why would they do it?’

“So we commissioned a piece from a dog psychiatrist who explained why they did, and it was 750 words. It has now been viewed by nearly a million people.

“And that was my gut instinct… It goes back to the old-fashioned instincts – probably came from my training at the Daily Mail, where you’re always told to ask the obvious question and explain it to the readers. And that’s why the Mail was so brilliant and remains brilliant. Because it always asks the obvious questions.”

Taylor also reflected on how big tech and how companies like Google and Meta affect publishers’ income and reach.

“We worry, rightly, about all sorts of implications of regulation, etcetera,” he said. “But in truth, in California and other parts of America, one individual can make a bigger decision than I can as an editor or, dare I say, than Rupert Murdoch can.”

Email pged@pressgazette.co.uk to point out mistakes, provide story tips or send in a letter for publication on our "Letters Page" blog

Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
  • Business owner/co-owner
  • CEO
  • COO
  • CFO
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  • Non-Exec Director
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  • Director or equivalent
  • Group or Senior Manager
  • Head of Department/Function
  • Manager
  • Non-manager
  • Retired
  • Other
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
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