MEDIA HEADLINER: The People's quiet man looks to youth for more circulation

The People's new editor is a little reluctant to reveal his plans, Jeremy Lee says.

Mark Thomas, nine weeks into his editorship at The People, is unwilling to discuss the changes that he plans to make to his new charge, preferring to be judged on the results. "I want the paper to do the talking," he says.

Fair enough, but aside from a few adjustments to the editorial staff, including the hiring of two former News of the World journalists, and a new-look masthead, the main talking point thus far among the press buying world has been about The People's declining circulation.

After a period of apparent freefall, aided by the launch of the Daily Star Sunday, there is concern that the decline looks terminal. But after dramatic declines that saw the year-on-year January circulation fall by 12 per cent, Thomas is confident that the circulation has been stabilised at around 1.1 million and can see no reason why it can't start rising again.

The People occupies an odd position in the Sunday tabloid market - it has a circulation that Richard Desmond would sell his granny for but, among the media buying community at least, it lacks the marketing support and market awareness of its rivals. It's variously described as being northern and old, both of which claims are not entirely accurate.

"Mirror Group seems embarrassed to push The People properly, hence the image that it is old. This is not necessarily the case. If they were to invest some money in it, then some of this confidence will rub off," Steve Goodman, the press director at MediaCom, says. The People did undergo a £2 million relaunch last summer under the previous regime but this proved to be ineffective at fending off Desmond's Star.

Thomas, 36, started his national newspaper career at The People and is clearly very affectionate about it. He goes as far to claim that being the editor of The People is his dream job. "Who wouldn't want it?" he asks. Well, opinion on that matter is split.

"You can't polish a turd, can you?" one press buyer asks. "What is its market position? What does the brand stand for? I can't tell you that, which means they are going to have trouble persuading new readers to sample it." Thomas disagrees. "It's a great brand with a great heritage," he says.

Getting Thomas to pin down the brand values and market positioning is another story. "I don't want to go down that route," he says. However, he maintains that there remains a niche in the crowded Sunday market for another tabloid that combines celebrity news, investigations and sports coverage. "We want to be a less aggressive version of the News of the World," Thomas says.

The People's previous editor, Neil Wallis, attempted to reinvigorate the paper with a revamp and the launch of SP - a standalone 48-page sports section. This did little to stem the decline in readers, although Thomas thinks that this comprehensive sports coverage is one of The People's strengths.

But some question whether going down the traditional tabloid route was the right direction for the paper. After all, with so many tabloids attempting to attract a diminishing number of young readers and, given The People's existing older readership, perhaps it would be better off directing its efforts towards Britain's older generation.

"Instead of its obsession with youth, perhaps its efforts would be better spent becoming a champion for the old - a sort of more modern version of Saga with a news twist?" one press buyer suggests.

But Thomas sees The People as a paper that has appeal across the spectrum and he wants to continue with its existing news mix. Under Wallis, The People found itself breaking revelations about, among others, Paul McCartney's romance with Heather Mills, Keith Chegwin trying to bribe the police and an alleged Carol Vorderman illness.

Among some of his bigger stories of his own career, Thomas was responsible for breaking the various affairs of Michael Hutchence and the liaison between Amanda Holden and Neil Morrissey. Given this background, celebrity scandal stories look set to continue.

Goodman thinks that those people who dismiss the paper are being unfair.

"The People has always been considered an underdog but if you look at the numbers it's actually quite powerful," he argues.

Consensus is that the ad department at Mirror Group must also shoulder some of the blame for the market perception of The People. "It's sold as a bolt-on to the Mirror and is therefore seen as its poor sister. It should be sold in its own right and on its own virtues," the press buyer comments.

With Ellis Watson's arrival as the general manager of Mirror Group Newspapers, The People is expected to enjoy the support that it seems to have lacked for so long and that the media buying community believe it is crying out for. "It should be a great paper in its own right. But if it's left on its own it will wither away," Goodman says.

"The People needs effort and enthusiasm to turn it around. This particular product is actually quite good," he concludes.

THE THOMAS FILE

1988: The People, news reporter

1994: News of the World, news reporter/chief reporter

1997: Daily Mirror, features editor/assistant editor

2001: Sunday Mirror, deputy editor

2003: The People, editor

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