Digital doom or a brave newspaper world?

Peter Wilby, in the British Journalism Review, looks to the future of newspapers
If you want to get a flavour of the thinking behind the Telegraph revolution – which has been described as “the most significant media revolution since Wapping” – the Telegraph’s own blogs are probably a good place to start.

There, on October 30 2006, Shane Richmond, news editor of, responded to a claim by a City analyst that in 30 years’ time online advertising would account for more than half of all newspaper revenues. “You think,” blogged Richmond rhetorically, “we’ll still be printing newspapers in 2036?”

Many Telegraph old hands would observe, the way things are going, that the company will struggle to print newspapers even in 2007. Since the Barclay brothers, Sirs David and Frederick, took control in June 2004 – with the company still making money and still publishing a daily title which, despite an ageing readership and a declining circulation, comfortably outsells its rivals in the quality market – events have moved at dizzying speed.

The incumbent editors of the Daily and Sunday Telegraph have gone. So have their successors (one of them never more than a mere “acting editor”). Every senior management figure has been replaced. The entire marketing department left, along with the top 16 people in advertising. On the daily, the deputy editor, an assistant editor, the comment editor, the foreign editor, the managing editor, the City editor (and his deputy), the picture editor, the features editor and even the editor’s long-serving secretary have all departed, after resignations or sackings.

The staff leader-writing team has been disbanded. The Washington bureau chief, the Washington correspondent, the New York correspondent and the Paris correspondent have been axed. In all, 149 journalists have been made redundant, and, in two stages, 433 people (including many editorial support staff ) across the whole company.

In November, the National Union of Journalists’ chapel – which has more than half the two papers’ journalists in membership – voted overwhelmingly for a three-day strike, although such action was subsequently postponed when the management backed away from a demand that all production staff should work Saturday shifts.

Journalists are habitual whingers, but they don’t take easily to worker solidarity and collective action. It has been quite an achievement for the Telegraph management to drive them to the barricades.

Almost nobody who works or has worked for the company would deny the need for change. The Telegraph Group, after all, is famed not just for the Conservatism of its politics, but for the conservatism of its working habits. When Max Hastings took over as editor of the Daily Telegraph in 1986, he found the average age of the arts critics was 72. Book-keeping was still done on paper, in longhand. The Telegraph, Hastings later recalled, “possessed no design team or presentational skills of any kind” and the only graphic artists were “a couple of spare hands on the picture desk capable of drawing quaint little maps of the world’s trouble spots, of a kind familiar to 19th-century newspaper readers”. Departments suited themselves about typefaces and headings, and pictures were used only grudgingly.

But the Hastings approach – perhaps surprisingly for a man of such formidable physical presence – was gentle and evolutionary, both in easing the paper’s politics towards the centre and in changing its editorial presentation and work practices.

“It seems essential both to staff morale and reader confidence,” he wrote to Andrew Knight, then chief executive, “that in the early stages of the new regime, there are no dramatic wrenches.”

Perhaps it was because change seemed to slow down after Hastings’s departure and the arrival of Charles Moore as daily editor in 1995 that the Barclays decided on a far more radical break with the past. Some aspects of the news operation had not changed in decades. But equally important to the Barclays was that they paid £665 million for the papers and Spectator magazine – about twice their value according to some estimates – and found them chronically under-financed and under-capitalised.

The printing quality was poor, the computer system partially outdated, the website (though it had been Fleet Street’s first) lagging behind the Telegraph’s rivals in the quality newspaper market. The Telegraph, it seemed, was always playing catch-up, a state of affairs that was exacerbated by the long period it took for the Conrad Black empire to unravel and by the protracted search for a new owner. “The Telegraph is the market leader,” said one recently departed senior editor, “but somehow it has never behaved as though it were.”

The papers, at a cost that pushed the group into a £12 million loss in the last financial year, moved to new offices in Victoria. There, the Daily Telegraph newsroom is organised around “a central hub”, a circular table accommodating the editor and 11 section heads, such as home news, sport and business.

Each section then fans out from the centre, producing not just conventional newspaper pages but also website copy, podcasts, videos, interactive “click and carry” pages, and the like. Sub-editors are abolished; instead, there are “production journalists” on “platforms”.

Traditional deadlines are out, too. Telegraph journalists will work to “touchpoints”, the stages through the day at which, research purported to show, readers are likely to access different types of media and different types of content. The distinction between old and new media will disappear. It will all be a seamless whole and presumably, when the Telegraph does eventually stop printing on paper, the staff will scarcely notice. A far cry, indeed, from bookkeeping in longhand.

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