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Media : Separate Is More Than Equal in London Press : * Sunday papers have a different look, different staffs and an avid readership.

August 27, 1991|WILLIAM TUOHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONDON — In the ongoing battle between tradition and modernity, chalk one up for tradition.

At least, that's the way it looks now in the case of two British media organizations that tried to buck the national custom of publishing Sunday newspapers with separate staffs and separate identities from their "sister" six-day-a-week editions.

The Sunday Telegraph and then the Independent on Sunday tried to follow the U.S. model and merge operations with their respective sister papers, becoming, in effect, simply larger versions of the Monday-through-Saturday editions. The moves were watched closely by other Fleet Street publishers who saw the potential for major cost savings from combining staffs. (The Sunday editions have historically had their own editors as well as reporting and advertising personnel.)

But so far, the American-style news operation has been a disappointment. The Sunday Telegraph has quietly shifted back to presenting itself as something special and separate from the daily paper.

Publishers of the Independent appear to have even worse troubles, many observers contend. Not only is the merged paper struggling in a highly competitive Sunday market, but the Monday-through-Saturday editions have been damaged as well, these analysts say.

"I think they tried to emulate the American style, but it hasn't worked," says historian and media critic Paul Johnson. "They were looking to effect savings by bringing the staffs together, but the Telegraph has tacitly gone back to keeping the Sunday paper separate. And the Independent is in deep trouble."

The fact that most British newspapers compete at the national level while the principal American ones usually reign supreme in a particular city or region is an important factor in the different way that Sundays are viewed in the two countries.

"Many U.S. Sunday papers are monopolies, and their contents can be an extension of the daily," said Andrew Neil, editor of the Sunday Times. "But we strongly compete for Sunday readers here."

Sunday papers were historically late in starting up in Britain because of the lack of political news on Saturday, notes Louis Heren, former deputy editor of the Times and its longtime Washington correspondent. But once established, they became an embedded institution in the country.

"Historically, Sunday papers have always been something special, and readers expect something different on Sunday," Heren says.

The tabloid Sundays run to tales of naughty vicars making moves on choir boys and sex scandals involving celebrities.

As one editor puts it: "Many readers buy the Sunday Times for heavyweight material and slip inside of it the (tabloid) News of the World for titillation."

There are 10 nationally circulated Sunday papers printed in London. Four so-called qualities--the Sunday Times, the Observer, the Sunday Telegraph and the Independent on Sunday--have a combined circulation of more than 2.6 million. Six "populars"--the News of the World, Sunday Mirror, Sunday People, Mail on Sunday, Sunday Express and Sunday Sport--have a combined circulation of 13.7 million.

One new Sunday paper, the Correspondent, entered the lists in September, 1989, but folded 14 months later in the face of intense competition. The Observer was for many years the leading quality Sunday newspaper--it has no daily sister paper--but it gave way in the 1960s and '70s to the then-upstart Sunday Times.

"The Sunday paper is an odd British cultural tradition," says Neil of the Sunday Times. Even the readership is different. "A Sunday paper encompasses a wider social section," he points out. "We have many more lower-middle class readers than the daily Times. So we have to be both popular and quality, or 'quality pop.' We can't exist in a rarefied atmosphere with (200,000) or 300,000 readers. That's why we added various additional sections."

The Sunday Times has a circulation of more than 1.1 million--head and shoulders above the rest of the "quality" Sunday papers.

Readers expect a Sunday paper to have "a distinctive voice," Neil says. "They want special columnists; they want a Sunday paper to break major stories. That's why you need a special Sunday staff," he adds.

Neil notes that when the Sunday Times began adding extra sections, critics said the paper was becoming too big.

"Our new competitors, the Correspondent and the Independent, announced they were aiming at our jugular," he recalls. "But we saw them off. The Correspondent is gone and the Independent is languishing. Other papers are now adding extra sections--as we did. With a circulation of 1.2 million on a good Sunday and 1.1 (million) on a bad Sunday, nobody in the quality field is exactly breathing down our neck."

Most observers believe that the Independent made a grievous error in coming out with a Sunday edition; Neil calls it "an enormous strategic mistake."

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