How the seven-day Sun could change Sundays forever

If the new venture succeeds, it may become more inviting for others to consider combining daily and

Here it comes, then. In a surprise to absolutely nobody, the Sun is reaching over to reclaim the lost ground for News International and Rupert Murdoch lost by the demise of the toxic, tainted News of the World, and going seven days a week. Hooray for the Sun on Sunday.

I suppose we should be grateful, in the big scheme of things, that print is still alive at all, and there's a demand for the Sun.

Who could not feel sympathy for those people who work at the Sun, who are going to be asked to put out more content, to reach over seven days rather than six. Perhaps they're all going to get massive pay rises and huge bonuses as a result of this new endeavour, but it's tempting to have a hunch that they might not. Those of us with even the faintest experience of "managing change" in the declining industry of newspapers might imagine a mantra of more for less, challenging times, and all that: the bottom line is always that staff get cut and the product suffers, so fewer people buy it, so profits go down, so staff get cut, and so on, and so on, until it falls off a cliff. I can't wish that on anyone, not even the Sun, although as I said recently, I do reserve the right not to be miserably disappointed if the product disappears.

It may be a crisis that accelerated changes that could have happened anyway, or it may be the case that there were no plans to combine Sun and News of the World operations before the Screws became tainted by phone-hacking revelations. Wherever the truth lies, it has become an opportunity to make existing staff more fearful for their jobs than ever, when they've seen so many of their former colleagues sent down the job centre at such short notice. If you didn't have a compliant workforce before, a move like that, whatever the reasons behind it, is going to make them sit up and take notice.

What does it mean for the Sunday newspaper marketplace? It could have implications for other titles, who will no doubt be interested in seeing how the Sun manages a seven-day schedule. It may become more and more inviting for others to consider combining daily and weekly elements, even more than has happened already. Perhaps it might signal the beginning of the end of the Sunday newspaper as an entirely separate entity: if the Sun can do it, why shouldn't everyone else?

What are Sunday newspapers for nowadays, apart from the flogging of hugely expensive stuff that no-one can afford and lifestyles that no-one cares about, in the case of the "quality" press; or tedious revelations about reality television, in the case of the tabloids? Forgive me, if you possibly can, for taking the tediously obtuse tone of the kind of person who snippily leaves a comment under a blogpost to say that I read no further than the first three words before I decided that the author had got everything disastrously wrong, but I don't really get on with Sunday papers anyway. I see them as long reads for people who don't particularly like reading, or childishly cartoonish attempts at kiss-and-tell tedium, but then that might just be me. For many others, the Sunday paper is part of a weekend ritual, and long may it continue for them, I suppose.

Will the Sun change any of this? Will it be brash? Will it just be the same thing as every other day of the week, but without a page 3 (in a similar vein to the Saturday Sun)? We'll have to wait and see. Actually, I won't wait, and I probably won't see, but I do still feel that pang of sympathy for the poor souls in Wapping working harder and harder to keep churning it out. If it succeeds, it could open the floodgates to more mergers, more of the same. And that could change Sundays forever.

 

 

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit