First News’ First Lady

Children’s paper First News is recruiting mothers to spread the word and who better to lead the initiative than Sarah Jane Thomson, who set up the newspaper and juggles four jobs and three children.

What better way is there of getting a newspaper for children to the right audience than getting mothers to sell subscriptions to their fellow mums? It’s a simple idea, but the simple ideas are often the least easy to spot. But Sarah Jane Thomson, is joint chief executive officer of the company behind First News is an expert in marketing. First News is a national tabloid newspaper for children aged between 7 and 12. It explains the news, but not in too gruesome a way and it also has a lot of competitions, animal stories and children can contribute their own stories. The National Literacy Trust works with First News and Piers Morgan, former editor of the Mirror, is editorial director. Morgan has helped to open doors to Government and it was launched in 2006 in Downing Street and has had every birthday party since there.
The genius of the paper is that it not only gets children into the news at an early age – something that newspaper editors up and down the country are keen to encourage, given falling numbers of newspapers as children turn to the internet for information – but it also gets them, particularly boys, to read by offering them the kind of stories that they want to know more about. In addition it runs national and international campaigns – currently about literacy and child soldiers – and raises awareness about international issues. One in four schools now subscribe to the newspaper which is sold in many major supermarkets and has 763,000 readers a week.

First mums
But to make its reach even wider, Sarah-Jane and her team decided that they needed to take it directly to their market. So they have set up a team of “First Mums”, mums who have a few hours a week they would like to use to earn extra income around their children. They will sell the newspaper to their network of contacts. The plan is to target every school in the country.

Sarah Jane says: “It’s quite early days but it’s very exciting. There are a huge number of mums who want to do something that fits in with the time they have around looking after children. They are often passionate about the paper because they want to help their children to learn. First Mums helps to spread the word.”
She says that having a newspaper for children goes against what press experts would expect. “Many in newspapers have concluded that children do not read newspapers, but we have found that they love it. They are used to doing everything online and this is something a bit different for them and they get to read a newspaper like their mum and dad do. It has all the regulars of a newspaper, including sport on the back page.”
Sarah Jane came to set up First News by accident. She had been a director at market research group Mintel, when she got pregnant with her first son [she has three sons aged 11, 10 and 7]. She wanted to work part-time to have more time with her son so came up with the idea of starting up a business with her husband Steve, an IT specialist. While on maternity leave she had the opportunity to test out her plans. The two set up Thomson Intermedia, a company specialising in providing information to help gauge the effectiveness of adverts. It was an instant success, pulling in £40,000 in the first month. Instead of working part-time as she had intended, Sarah Jane ended up working round the clock. Three years in, the company was floated on the Alternative Investment Market, raising £8 million with Sarah Jane and her husband giving up 45% of the firm. But it was only last year that she was able to step back a bit. However, in stepping back from Thomson Intermedia, which she goes into one day a week, she has taken on other businesses. She splits her time now between Thomson Intermedia, First News [one day a week] and two new businesses, Babylicious frozen baby food and an IT business called Priority One IT which develops new IT technologies for business.
“Rather than being full time in one business, I have four,” she says, “and I love it. There’s a lot of cross fertilisation. Every business needs IT, marketing and branding advice,” she says, adding that there is a crucial role for a company which can show how to target adverts successfully in the current economic climate.
Work/life balance
Sarah Jane says she is trying to work more from home and has a personal assistant who works from an office in her home as well as a “terrific nanny” who has been with the family for the past 10 years.
Sarah Jane is now able to pick up her children from school two to three days a week, which is much more relaxed than in the past in the early days of setting up Thomson Intermedia. When she was pregnant with her second son, for instance, she worked until 6.30pm the day before she was due to be induced as the company was just about to be floated. She had to be at the hospital at 8.30am the next day. Within four days of giving birth she was back at work with the baby “like an executive toy on the desk”. “When I look back now it was a lot of stress. I was whizzing in and out of meetings and breastfeeding,” she says. With her third son, she had planned to take three months off, but the company was going through a bad patch and her IT director called her while she was making a Christmas cake and begged her to come back. Ever since he has sent her a Fortnum and Masons Christmas cake.
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