‘Nosier, newsier, feistier’

How Neil Fowler's 'classy' Sun redesign will shake up a 'bland' industry

Overlooking the downtown core of Canada’s largest city, Neil Fowler, the Toronto Sun’s publisher and CEO since June 2002, cups his white tea mug in one hand while comparing Newcastle’s dailies to Toronto’s. ‘The industry here is pretty bland, I’m afraid. There is not enough competition. We’re putting the umph back into the Sun with a classy redesign.’

To do that, Fowler’s relying on the knowledge he gained from repositioning The Derby Evening Telegraph, where he was editor in the late ’80s, and the Western Mail, which he edited from 1994 to 2002. On April 5, he revved up Toronto’s brash tabloid daily with a redesign that promises readers ‘value for their time and a nosier, newsier, feistier paper.’

Strategy MEDIA caught up with the bold Brit to chat about the paper’s makeover, why he has upped its editorial content by 50%, and why stories get into the Sun on an ‘earned-space basis.’

What are the biggest challenges facing the newspaper industry today?

We have to give readers value for their time. It is a big demand to ask for 20 to 30 minutes each day, and I am convinced that readers feel guilty when they do not get through the bulk papers. Recently, I saw Cold Mountain and Minghella robbed me of 30 minutes. Bigger is not always better.

The Sun offers opinion and context, which the free transit daily, Metro, cannot. And it is compact enough for readers to get through, unlike the Toronto Star and Globe and Mail.

Generally, the city’s newspapers are pretty bland. I come from an industry that is much more competitive than the Canadian one, where we could not afford to be second best. Newspapers here have suffered because there is little competition and reporters are lazy.

How will the redesign put the ‘umph’ back in the Sun?

Editorial content lies at the heart of the newspaper. If stories are interesting and good, people will buy the paper. And then it makes sense to advertise in the paper too. So, we have increased the story count by 50%.

For too long, columnists have been guaranteed their column. And this is an ill that has done the Canadian newspaper industry a great deal of harm. Now stories get into the Sun on an earned-space basis. If a story is good, it gets in. If a story is not good, it does not get in. This applies to established columnists and to junior reporters.

What other changes have you made?

Whereas in the past the sports section moved around, I want readers to find the sports section without looking for it, so it is now at the back of the paper. We have also cut the stocks and shares section, because our readers, for the most part, are not Bay Street people. We have a blue-collar and white-collar readership. NADbank 2003 shows that the average personal income of our reader is $43,680 – only $1,100 less than the average income of the Star’s readers. And we have a large closet readership. The classier redesign makes headlines bolder and accessible. The addition of softer news stories and human-interest stories will help to dispel the pejorative view of the paper.

How has your readership changed?

Our readers are still small-c conservatives concerned about health, education, transport, and safety. They are normal people, the majority of folks, who want to get to work, get the kids to school, and want them to be safe when they go out at night. They are aspirational and they want to enjoy life. They are not interested in the Sun’s policy on Palestine. We continue to have a traditional, blue-collar readership that is very important. However, we also have an increasingly non-traditional, white-collar readership.

How have research findings impacted the choices you made for the redesign?

It is easy to fill the Sun with crime, making Toronto seem like the most violent city in the world, when it is one of the safest. Crime will be reported on as before, but we are looking for good softer news stories. People stories. We are looking for the normal mix of news I’m used to in the U.K.

The Sun is perceived as a strongly skewed male publication, hence we are adding more human-interest stories to attract women, and finding a better balance between crime and softer stories. And if we do this in the right way, we won’t put men off at all. Everyone wants to read good, interesting stories about people.

Our sports and entertainment bias is also an important factor. People tend to think of these features as attractive only to men, but focus groups revealed that they are important to many women as well.

What advertisers do you want that you do not have right now?

We have room to develop the real estate and the automotive ad sections even further than we have.

How are you promoting the redesign?

We have a series of television spots that remind readers of the old values of the Sun, including the fun, the feisty, the girls, the glamour, the newsier, the nosier, the paper that stands up with its head above the parapet. We are telling readers who have been drawn by the flood of free newspapers and paid-for bulk papers to try us again.

Unlike Ford, which cannot offer potential customers free cars to test, we are a cheap product. It does not cost us that much to slide a free copy through every door in Richmond Hill. The quality of our product then determines whether readers will purchase a second copy.

Do you have a favourite Sunshine Girl?

Yes. My 11-year old daughter, Helen.