Feature

Australian seeks USP for the most 'U' of British papers

The Times' editor wants to see objectivity at the heart of its news, writes Ian Darby.

John Walter, a Lloyd's underwriter, had bet the farm on Jamaica. A rather nasty hurricane hit the island, ruining Walter and forcing him to gamble on publishing. In 1785, he launched an advertising vehicle called The Daily Universal Register. It was soon renamed The Times.

Captain Cook reached Australia in 1770. The first convict ship departed in 1787. A year ago The Times, the newspaper of the British establishment, appointed an Australian, Robert Thomson, as its first editor to come from overseas. Walter, a rascal who spent two years in Newgate Prison after printing a scurrilous story about the Prince of Wales, would be turning in his grave.

The wheel has moved full circle for good reason. The Times needed a shake-up and Thomson, one of the most experienced and well-travelled journalists in the world, had picked up as much on his travels from Australia, via China and New York, to London as Cook ever did.

Thomson, 42, is presiding over a two-year strategy to re-energise The Times by creating new sections for the paper and bringing in readers at the younger end. Halfway through and major changes, first to the Saturday edition and then to the weekday paper, are planned for later in the year.

He is wary of alienating loyal readers. There have been minor changes to the main paper (clearer division between the national and international news) and new sections. The latest is Public Agenda, launched earlier this month to cover the public sector.

Thomson is a polite and considered man who has built a reputation in his first year at The Times for increasing its investment in journalism. He has made several key hirings from his old Financial Times days and, unlike many of his rivals, has resisted making significant numbers of journalists redundant. He is obsessive about the journalist's craft, describing himself as coming through the business as a "hard-nosed reporter".

He says of the challenge he faced on inheriting the title from Peter Stothard: "A great paper with a long tradition like The Times is haunted by the ghosts of the past -- readers are used to a certain kind of newspaper, so a lot of experiment in design is outside the main paper. The sections are taking readers to different types of places and bringing in a lot more younger people."

National Readership Survey figures show The Times has 924,000 readers under 45, far more than The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian. Thomson says research has shown that this audience has warmed to sections including The Match (its football supplement) and the Bricks and Mortar section.

However, The Times, like its broadsheet rivals The Daily Telegraph and Financial Times, has seen its actively purchased circulation decline in recent months.

Figures for March show a year-on-year fall of 5.25% to 622,592. Throughout the late 90s, it had built an artificially high circulation through promotions and cover price cuts.

But how concerned is Thomson about the circulation decline? "When I took over, it was clear that circulation was of variable quality, we took the initiative to weed out the lower-yielding circulation. We're still going through that. If you look at full-price sales, they're actually up and, if you look at readership, we have experienced the greatest amount of growth among the large papers over the past year."

The strategy to bring in new readers will continue in September with a relaunched Saturday edition. Thomson admits that The Times' Saturday sales need boosting and the hope is that if it can bring in new readers, they will be converted to weekday sales.

Thomson's key aim was to make news coverage objective and more accessible to a range of readers.

It is no longer the "newspaper of the establishment" but some observers feel that it has failed to create an identifiable character and USP. Thomson argues that its news objectivity provides this: "Our reporters report as they see it and I don't think that's true of other newspapers. I don't think it's true of The Telegraph, The Guardian or The Independent, which allow politics to enter news coverage. In the long term, this will benefit us."

While saying that he's not impressed with The Daily Telegraph's recent relaunch ("It's difficult to see where the money went"), Thomson is not shy of setting himself some tough goals. Summing up his ultimate aim for The Times, he says: "The intention is to make it by far the best paper in the world -- accessible, informative and not just for the elite. It's about finding cleverer ways of tackling big issues with accessible copy."

An ambition worthy of a man backed by the vast resources of his fellow countryman Rupert Murdoch. It's a far cry from The Times' early days as a scandal sheet published by a bankrupt felon.

The Thomson file

1979 The Herald (Melbourne), reporter

1985 Financial Times, Beijing then Tokyo correspondent

1996 Financial Times, assistant editor

1998 Financial Times, editor, US edition

2002 The Times, editor

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