How in-vogue Sunday Times Style is breaking out of its niche and into the headlines

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

The explosive sexual harassment claims made about Boris Johnson by Charlotte Edwardes have put the journalist at the heart of the news agenda and introduced her to a wider public.

In terms of delivering profile for Sunday Times Style, where she used her debut column to allege Johnson squeezed her thigh at a 1999 lunch at The Spectator, the piece could hardly have gone better. It was the best-read article on the Times website last Sunday.

The column led to the prime minister’s spokesman claiming “this allegation is untrue” (despite Johnson’s history of philandering and telling mistruths) and also sparked claims that Edwardes and her new paper have a Remain-based agenda in making the allegations now (despite the Sunday Times supporting Leave in 2016).

Nonetheless, Edwardes is now known to a whole new constituency beyond those previously familiar with her work, which ranges from ferocious and award-winning interviews for the London Evening Standard to pieces for Vogue and dispatches from hotspots in the Middle East.

Her new employers at Rupert Murdoch’s News UK stable hope her name will become a big subscriptions driver for Sunday Times Style, which is being actively developed as a brand within a brand and is the fastest-growing source of digital growth for Britain’s biggest-selling quality paper.

For Lorraine Candy, who joined Sunday Times Style as editor-in-chief three years ago, Edwardes is a key plank in a strategy of using women’s lifestyle content to take on not only rivals in the newspaper market but Vogue and the glossy magazine sector.

“Charlotte’s a kind of insider politically – she goes to everything and she’s known at everything,” says Candy, speaking immediately ahead of publication of that first column.

“What I felt we were missing was a weekly column on all the things that women were talking about on their WhatsApp groups and at work. Charlotte to me seems perfectly placed – she was a war reporter in Iraq, she has got a really great voice and I think women will identify with her. She’s funny as well – we need smart wit in Style and I quite like to have a bit of playfulness – or poking the bear as I call it. I think Charlotte brings that to us.”

The prime minister can consider himself poked.

Style was part of The Sunday Times’s 1990s expansion into a multiple section print product that barely fit through the letterbox. Debuting in 1990 as ‘Travel and Style’, it went standalone in 1994. Its core subject is women’s clothes, but Candy is building a brand that stands for more than that. “It should reach every part of a woman’s life. You can’t just be fashion and beauty because our reach is enormous – 1.58 million people every month.”

She wants Style to be associated with literature and has given a platform to authors Gloria Steinem, Lisa Taddeo and Margaret Atwood, who Candy interviewed herself for a cover story last month to coincide with publication of The Testaments, sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. Atwood was pictured by Tim Walker and Candy claims that only Vogue and American Vogue can compete with Style’s photography roster, which is overseen by a full-time booker.

The Sunday Times, cover price £2.90, has a print circulation of 655,103 (down 9% year-on- year and including 50,990 bulk sales) and sits behind a digital paywall. Candy’s strategy is based on bringing in women as new digital subscribers by reaching out to them on Instagram and other social channels, including YouTube, where Style has a newly launched channel. “When I joined, we didn’t even have an Instagram account – that’s ridiculous!” she says. Style now has 243,000 followers on that platform.

Edwardes, it is hoped, will emulate Dolly Alderton, who was at one point outperforming The Sunday Times news section in attracting new subscribers, thanks to writing aimed at young women and promoted heavily on Instagram. “We are using Charlotte to drive content to women who are interested in reading about different things from what Dolly writes about,” says Candy.

A former editor of Cosmopolitan and Elle, Candy used her time at the latter to experiment in finding audiences online. “We had a huge website and a massive social following,” she says.

What she learned was that women on social media like to be “engaged in a conversation”, rather than simply signposted towards content. When she arrived at News UK in 2016 with a mandate from Sunday Times editor Martin Ivens to “innovate”, the “very news-focused organisation” was bunkered behind its paywall and not thinking about women’s lifestyle content as a route to new subscribers.

Candy talks constantly about “warming up” new readers on social media to persuade them to pay. “You have to come out of a place like I came out of [Elle] to know what women want to read from a social media point of view,” she says.

The Times and Sunday Times have a combined subscriber base of 539,000 (with 300,000 being £26-a-month digital-only subs, a contingent that has grown 19% year-on-year). In an average month, 20% of subscribers read Style content. In the year to the end of July 2019, subscriptions to the site coming directly from digital interactions with Style increased by 462% on the year before. “Style is the fastest growing driver of digital subscriptions,” says Candy.

Change hasn’t happened immediately. When Candy arrived at News UK she brought with her Tom Miller, former head of audience at Elle publisher Hearst and the first digital director of The Sunday Times. They realised they needed to put the paper on a seven-day digital footing. “It’s an edition-based site behind a paywall so we had to come up with an idea for how we reached our audience every day of the week and be part of what she talked about on her WhatsApp and Snapchat.”

She launched Style Play in 2017 as a route into video, placing the content in front of the paywall. It has been a big source of branded content revenue from 26 commercial partners, including Calvin Klein. A Style podcast, ‘Secrets of the Side Hustle’ is sponsored by cosmetics brand Bobbi Brown. The new YouTube channel has a Wardrobe Mistress format that offers style advice to women and is sponsored by fashion retailer The Outnet. “We have a massive studio in this building – we can go downstairs and make brilliant videos and audio ourselves.”

Caroline Tredget, sales director of The Times and Sunday Times, says this “360-package” of platforms makes Style especially attractive to luxury and fashion advertisers. “It’s the breadth and depth of all the elements of Style,” she says. “We can podcast, we have invested heavily in the video team, we have the capability to do a lot of things here.”

Style’s Instagram strategy is heavily informed by the social platform itself, which visits the editorial team every few weeks to offer insights in achieving greater traction. As a result, Style presents Instagram Stories in a way that is less slick and less like its print product. “What the Instagram consumer wants is a little more interactive conversation and a little rawer,” says Candy. She says that traffic on the platform has increased 76% as a result of the change and that Style has a more engaged Instagram audience (but many fewer followers) than British Vogue.

Condé Nast’s so-called ‘fashion bible’ is in Style’s sights. “We offer exactly the same content but on a weekly basis to triple the audience – I feel they would be our direct competitor,” says Candy, whose other job title is luxury content director at The Sunday Times.

Due to her background at the glossies she can “pick up the phone to all the CEOs of the luxury brands”. These brands appreciate the data which The Sunday Times is able to share and the opportunity to advertise with a quality news brand around lifestyle content, she says. “Luxury is not necessarily keen to be near daily news content but does really like to be near its audience with good looking, lovely content.”

According to Candy, the barrier to editorial coverage is greater in Style than in women’s glossies. “Because we are a newspaper we have to be really mindful that you can’t just pay to be in Style. We have to believe in something as journalists; it has to have been rigorously tested and we have to think that it fits under our brand message.”

Is that not the same in the glossies? “I think it’s a more cloudy relationship. But I think the consumer is open to that – I think it would be very patronising to think that women don’t understand that.”

The latest edition of Style carries a hefty Clarks shoes advertising insert followed, 10 pages later, by an editorial feature referencing the famous Clarks desert boots (although the paper’s Business splash is a negative story about the footwear brand). Tredget says the editorial feature was independently commissioned and not linked to the ad insert. "As you would expect, editorial decisions are made on their own merit and then we look for appropriate commercial opportunities that add value to the reading experience.”

Candy’s role goes across the paper. A mother of four (who enjoys open water swimming for leisure and is in training for a crossing of Lake Windermere), she writes on family in The Sunday Times Magazine and champions women’s lifestyle content on the news pages, including coverage of the Sportswomen of the Year awards, a Sunday Times franchise for nearly 40 years.

On top of that, she finds time to scan her social feeds for what’s trending. “If you are on social media as constantly as I and the team are here we can see patterns and algorithms and what women are talking about.” Right now, a lot are talking about Charlotte Edwardes.

But despite Candy’s fixation with social media, she is not a champion of open-access journalism. “The paywall is a really good thing,” she argues. “We spend hours crafting and curating our content. I don’t want to put a massive exclusive like Margaret Atwood out there for free.”

Luxury advertisers know that readers behind a paywall “will pay for quality”, she adds.

Chasing such clients might not sound easy when your news pages are reporting the economic impact of a no-deal Brexit. But Candy talks to the chief execs. “To think that no one is buying from these massive businesses is daft,” she says. The consumer is out there, and we reach her.”

Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell

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