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How The Sunday Times is winning new audiences

2022-10-04. The UK publisher is reaching new reader groups thanks to an optimised online publishing schedule, more prominently displayed explainers that serve heavy news consumers, and new approach to content aimed at millennials.

by Teemu Henriksson teemu.henriksson@wan-ifra.org | October 4, 2022

When Emma Tucker started as the Editor of The Sunday Times, she had a specific profile in mind when she thought about the newspaper’s typical reader: a suburban dentist in his 60s.

“He is the fabled Sunday Times reader I inherited three years ago when I took over the job,” she said. 

“I have absolutely nothing against dentists, we all need to get our teeth done. But the challenge was that his wife and children were not reading The Sunday Times,” Tucker said to the participants of WAN-IFRA’s World News Media Congress 2022 in Zaragoza.

However, when trying to widen the newspaper’s appeal to new audiences, she understood that there were “no magic tricks” she said – so for example just joining Snapchat or TikTok wouldn’t be a solution, at least on its own. 

Instead, the team decided to take several incremental steps, and aimed to expand the newspaper’s reach by focusing on three specific audiences.

Publishing flagship stories at the best moment

First, to better engage the people Tucker called “the bored Saturday audience,” the newspaper revamped its website strategy. She explained that The Sunday Times takes over The Times website on Saturdays and publishes new content at set times of the day.

But little thought used to go into what was published when, as new content was mostly added based on what happened to be ready.

The newsroom implemented a more planned publishing schedule, and nowadays exclusive stories and investigations are published at 6 pm on Saturday evening – a key publishing moment, according to Tucker. 

“We did get some pushback about this,” she says: there were fears that the new schedule allowed competitors to “rip off” the stories and publish them before the print edition is out. But the publisher accepted that this might happen – and indeed it has, Tucker said.

But in terms of engaging the newspaper’s own audience, many readers now expect new stories to appear at that time of the week and look forward to them. “We get a spike in traffic and engagement then, and also the following [Sunday] morning,” she said.

Reaching heavy news consumers and young readers

Another group that the newspaper targeted was the “news literate audience,” Tucker said. In other words, they wanted to better serve the people who “already know what happened” in the news when they come to The Sunday Times website or app.

The biggest change in this respect concerned the newspaper’s News Review section, which features pieces that explain and bring context to the news. This section was far down on the website and app, and the data showed that traffic to these articles was low. However, the engagement level for these articles was high.

Tucker decided to lift stories from this section in the newsfeed, and soon many of them became the top performing articles on the site.

Finally, Tucker said The Sunday Times has been focusing on young readers, “the holy grail” for many news organisations. In her view it is quite clear what type of content has the best chance at engaging this audience segment.

“There’s lots of evidence that young people, millennials, want to read about themselves,” she said.

This has led the newspaper to produce case studies about millennials, written by journalists who are also of that age.

The UK press has usually approached news in a way that is a turn-off for young audiences, she said. “Younger people want to hear facts put in context and given some explanation,” she said, highlighting BBC’s Ros Atkins’s popular explainer videos. “There’s no spin, no politicisation. We can all learn from that.”

The Sunday Times also appointed a millennial as an Associate Editor, which helped send a clear message that it takes this audience group seriously. And as a result of these steps, Tucker said the youthful audience is now growing. 

“None of these initiatives on their own solve the problem for us,” she said. “But put together, they expand our reach beyond the suburban dentist.”

Update: In late 2022, an announcement about the change of the brand name to Times Media (which includes The Times and The Sunday Times), noted the titles now have a combined 468,000 digital-only subscribers, up from 380,000 at the same time in 2021.

Teemu Henriksson

Research Editor

teemu.henriksson@wan-ifra.org

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