What do fashion guru Gok Wan, rugby giant Martin Castrogiovanni, and ITN newsreader Julie Etchingham have in common?
The answer is that they have all featured as the star interviews in the Leicester Mercury’s new weekend magazine More.
We are now in the sixth week of producing More and it has already established itself as a bright, entertaining read with a simple but elegant design.
Its features and columns strike many different notes, some breezy, light and informative, others which involve moving human stories, and even a few which venture into satire.
More is the backbone of our new weekend edition, a major enterprise for the Mercury as it involved raising the cover price to 60p from 40p during the week.
National newspapers have long differentiated between their Saturday and week day editions, both in weight of content (literally in some cases) and in price.
However, it is a new thing for the Mercury and it was a step into the unknown in terms of market reaction.
Regional newspapers have not traditionally been great risk takers.
Our approach as an industry has tended to be marked by caution over even slight increases to cover price and content. So, putting up the cost of the Mercury represented a fairly dramatic move.
However, we live in extraordinary times.
A sharp and sustained decline in advertising revenue and circulation has sent our industry into free fall.
The cover price of newspapers does not remotely match the costs involved in producing and printing them, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to fill the gap and generate long-term sustainable profits from advertising.
Our new weekend edition is our first step in a strategy to try to address these issues.
The aim is three-fold: to give our readers an excellent new product; increase sales revenue; and provide a new advertising platform.
The most important of these is the first because, without establishing value to the reader as the driving force, nothing else works.
We have done this primarily through the development of More.
From the outset we decided that it should be bright, breezy and easy to read; a light, colourful magazine suited to a leisurely weekend. It also had to be distinct from the many national newspaper lifestyle magazines already on the market, which meant that it had to be packed with Leicestershire content.
And it had to have a touch of celebrity glamour, instantly recognisable faces which would catch the eye of readers. Not any old celebs though. More, being a local newspaper magazine, has to have famous faces with Leicestershire links.
This last requirement is actually quite hard to pull off every week.
There are, you will not be surprised to learn, a finite supply of Leicestershire celebs, and we are simply not going to be able to put a famous face on the front of the magazine 52 weeks a year. (For anybody wondering, all those mentioned at the start of this article do have Leicestershire links).
Our hope is that the celebrity incentive will become less important as time goes on and readers get to know the magazine.
Our design editor, Kevin Hughes, then set about turning the aspiration for a bright, breezy magazine into reality. The resulting pages look fresh, clean and uncluttered, with a lightness of touch which perfectly suits that brief.
At the same time our features team worked on the content.
Some of this is exactly what you would expect from a weekend magazine; food, fashion, shopping and travel. They also developed a string of more unusual and quirky regulars however. These include the ever-excellent ‘Tales from the Mercury small ads’– which is a fascinating feature-ette giving the back story to an item for sale (this week a tandem); Merc the Week, a satirical look at the week’s news; and Fred Leicester, a satisfyingly curmudgeonly and irreverent view of the world.
The other requirement, of course, was that the execution of this content was of the highest standard and consistently so edition after edition on the production line that a weekly magazine quickly becomes.
To achieve this we diverted resources so that our talented team of feature writers had the time to use their skills to their full potential. The result has been an outstanding series of well-crafted pieces which have helped to mark out the magazine as a high-quality product.
It has also given our photographers a different forum than straight news and sports pictures, and they have flourished in this environment, producing striking and evocative images, including some beautifully composed front cover photos.
As well as developing More, we have also sought to add value to the weekend edition elsewhere in the newspaper.
This has included a series of additional news features and, in particular, a much larger sports section with between eight and ten pages each Saturday dedicated to local grassroots football.
These new pages include reports from local games, league tables and plenty of action pictures. They are in addition to the normal sports content and the total sports package is generally around 17 pages.
The final ingredient has been a change to the front page of the Mercury on weekends with a greater emphasis on promotional panels to highlight some of the new elements inside the paper, in particular, of course, the magazine. This has helped to make the weekend Mercury look immediately different on the news display stands than the week day paper.
Results from the first few weeks have been encouraging. The new weekend edition is part of a strategy which has seen an increase in newspaper sales over that period. The magazine has also been well-received by advertisers, with revenue targets being hit each week.
There is still a long way to go in ensuring the weekend edition’s long-term success. However, it has already started to become an accepted part of the weekend in Leicestershire and something for which it is worth paying a little bit more.