It's not for nothing that we now and then affectionately refer to it as the News of Screws. Most of us believe that the News of the World basically invented a cheeky brand of salacious content now known as tabloid journalism, a style of reportage that's somehow as British as saucy seaside postcards. It's a Whitehall farce world of actresses, bishops and politicians with their pants down.
And even those of us who say we disapprove still secretly love it. It still sells around four million copies each Sunday and is still read by more than ten million of us. It's still the country's biggest-selling Sunday newspaper. But 'still' is the operative word here and it can be used with increasingly less confidence because, like most Sunday newspapers, the News of the World is threatened by long-term circulation decline.
After all, the world of saucy seaside postcards feels like an increasingly distant 20th century thing - and let's not forget that the saucy seaside postcard company (Bamforth's of Holmfirth in Yorkshire, since you asked) is facing bankruptcy.
It is reassuring, then, that the News of the World has been making signals that it is ready to embrace change. A new editor, Rebekah Wade, was appointed back in May, and in her wake followed not just the expected wave of hirings and firings but hints of a completely new editorial policy. It would be entirely wrong to suggest that the News of the World was previously a news-free zone - Wade's predecessor had a reputation for scoops with political ramifications - but these days we're seeing evidence of 'serious' campaigning journalism. Note, for example, the campaign to reveal the names of convicted paedophiles run by the newspaper after the murder of Sarah Payne.
Now comes news of a complete revamp and redesign of the product early in the New Year. There are rumours that it will seek to make itself more enticing to female readers - for instance, by introducing a celebrity-orientated supplement. But will it work? How far should the News of the World go in its desire to reinvent itself? Do advertisers and agencies like what they've seen so far? And where would they want the paper to be this time next year?
Laura James, the press director of New PHD, thinks it's questionable whether the new campaigning stance can win new readers. She states: 'The axing of the showbiz editor would hint that they are considering revamping this area, potentially offering a celebrity-style magazine as part of the package - this is a growing genre among female readers but to do it properly and to provide real added value is an expensive option.'
There are, she adds, two choices: 'Within a declining sector, the challenge is either to identify a new potential target group or to come up with an innovative vehicle to provide added value. The readership profile in the News of the World's market is ageing - penetration among 18- to 24-year-olds has declined significantly, but this age group has a low propensity to read newspapers.'
Steve Goodman, the press buying director of MediaCom TMB, can see signs that the paper is seeking a move toward mid-market respectability. But he urges caution: 'The News of the World has done an excellent job at the mass end of the market, so I would like to see more of a focus on what that mass market likes. Sometimes it seems to me as if every newspaper wants to move into Daily Mail territory, the quality broadsheets are at it too. It's a risk if they do it while ignoring the demands of the existing audiences. They may think that the Daily Mail is the Holy Grail but it will do no-one any good if that part of the market becomes saturated.
'It would be particularly risky for the News of the World because a large part of its sales come from dual purchases by people whose first newspaper is a mid or quality paper. If it moves too far, there's a possibility that those people might find little reason in continuing to buy it.'
You can see why the Daily Mail might possibly be a cause for thought at Wapping. It is arguably the only newspaper success story of recent years and though its sales figures have propelled it towards mass-market status, it has a pretty upmarket profile. It defies classification because it's also the house journal of the 'classless Britain' invented by John Major and pandered to by Tony Blair. It speaks in the tone of the BBC1 main evening news.
Is the News of the World losing its relevance to New Britain? There's certainly evidence that some advertisers are asking just that. Many press buyers confirm that clients are increasingly likely to question the appearance of the News of the World on a press plan. According to one buyer, they're very much aware that you can target a mass market without going downmarket.
But are advertisers also suspicious of change? The marketing director of the Time Group, Mike Phillipson, certainly isn't. He believes that a new attitude to change is long overdue for the newspaper industry as a whole. He comments: 'With the decreasing consumer interest in newspapers, any radical changes should be welcomed by advertisers as long as they are robustly tested. In the long run, it has to be in advertisers' interests.'
So, classier supplements and review sections, aimed at a female readership? And no more naughty vicars?
Greg Grimmer, a managing partner of Optimedia, has his doubts. Change, he reckons, will be far more subtle than that. He explains: 'There has been a move towards respectability at the Mirror titles and I think it has gone down well out there. I suspect that at Wapping, they've been watching the tide turn for a while now and wondering what to do about it.'
Grimmer adds: 'I think they have realised that where their celebrity coverage is concerned, showing them pissed-up after a function isn't the only way to do it. You don't have to rip them apart. It's taken them a while but I think they're starting to realise that in a world where Hello!
and OK! are doing so well, that is counterproductive. The thing you always have to remember, though, is that the News of the World is like a supertanker.
Whatever they say they're going to do, the end result is still only a five-degree shift in course. And they know that White Van Man is still the target audience. They may talk about no dirty vicars and no sleaze but you know that at the first opportunity, it will still be there on the front page because when it comes down to it, that's their bread and butter and they know it.'