Media: Hollick's express route to profit

The two years since Lord Hollick merged the Express titles have been bloody: it has 150 fewer journalists, a declining readership and has changed both editor and political allegiance to stem the rot. Does Hollick care? Or is he only interested in the bottom line? By Darius Sanai
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Two years ago Clive Hollick, New Labour peer and nouveau media baron, embarked on a radical project, merging his recently acquired daily and Sunday Express titles, sacking dozens of journalists and executives, creating Britain's first seven-day tabloid newspaper operation. He brought on his company the contempt of the media world, which protested that the experiment, tried (unsuccessfully) before by two broadsheets, would never work.

Now, after 24 turbulent months punctuated by mass dismissals, veers in political and editorial direction and numerous revamps, all accompanied by a haemorrhage of readers which was stemmed only last month, it is time the jury was called back in on Lord Hollick's brave new venture.

The merger of the two titles was a painful process: Richard Addis, the editor of the new title, outlined a broad vision of a liberal, arty, centrist newspaper even as his executives culled staff and found their remaining budgets frozen by management - waking up to the reality of what Lord Hollick's rhetoric about "modern media companies" really meant when they found management consultants inspecting every editorial cranny.

"Every company (Lord Hollick) goes into, he strips out savagely," says a former senior executive.

"He did that very effectively. But as soon as he took over The Express, it wasn't a case of, `okay, here's your money, it's not much but it will have to do. Go and make a great paper' . It was always, `how do we make the cheapest, most cost-effective product?' It seems we could be making newspapers or widgets."

During the merger some 80 editorial staff from both titles were fired, and 70 more have followed, in drips, over the past two years. With overall staff reduced from 450 to 300, the seven-day paper has fewer resources than most dailies.

The consultants, initially brought in to advise on the merger, stayed for 18 months.

"They had absolutely no idea how newspapers worked," says another former senior executive, a former business journalist, who fumes at the recollection.

"The consultants would say, `Why do you need to send two reporters to this football match or demonstration or whatever'," he says."They decided we could rewrite Press Association reports in the office. And reporters would then be sacked."

The quality of the journalism, inevitably, suffered, as did circulation: the "new media paradigm", as Lord Hollick called it, was being shaken vigorously while still an infant. Though the latest figures are on the up, The Express and its Sunday paper sell fewer copies now than they did two years ago, and a quarter the number they did 30 years ago.

Mr Addis, an amiable, intelligent but far from forceful figure, spent most of his time in meetings with management, leaving the editing to his deputies - a risky process in any newspaper, potentially lethal in one that is relaunching, changing its politics (from old Tory to New Labour) and its editorial content.

The result was a plan for an up-market, quirky centrist tabloid - which quickly degenerated into a bitty product, with different sections echoing the sentiments of the different section editors. News shadowed that of the Daily Mail (while the lack of resources meant it could never match its rival), the lifestyle section wooed readers of The Telegraph, features and sport were aimed at the readers of the red-top tabloids, and the paper's overall direction, like its circulation, wobbled downwards under the stewardship of Tessa Hilton, Addis' deputy, whose mantra was "celebs, celebs, celebs".

Ms Boycott, appointed in May (after she resigned as editor of this newspaper), has added coherence to the paper, at least in the political spectrum: unlike Mr Addis, she is a firm New Labourite and friend of Phillip Gould, Lord Hollick's adviser, who works out of the same building. The fear is that the paper has become slavishly Blair-ite, something Ms Boycott vigorously denies. Mr Addis says that Lord Hollick "disagreed, but didn't try and interfere" when he decided to support the Conservatives in last year's election.

Ms Boycott has run long features, combined with fund-raising activities on the Sudanese drought and homeless children; from the start she declared she wanted to create a campaigning, left-of-centre tabloid newspaper aimed at - well, that is the problem: most of the paper's remaining readers are remnants of the right wing era of The Express. Who will replace them?

"I want the newspaper to encompass the voices of new Britain, of the different communities, cultures and locations," Ms Boycott says, in a tone that suggests someone from the all-powerful United News and Media marketing department has taken over her body and vocal chords.

More realistically, she continues: "I want to get away from that whole Mail thing, all the hypocrisy and posturing. This is a country where people are thrown immensely on their own resources, where they work for themselves and care for each other. Marriages don't last forever; there's no point in pretending they do." Her aim, she says, is not to catch up with the Mail - she admits she hasn't the resources to do so - but to establish her own niche.

Ms Boycott's readership certainly exists, and there are enough of them out there to boost The Express' circulation. But the problem is that the people she outlines are more a political constituency than a slice of newspaper readership. Why should they read The Express rather than The Mirror or The Times or The Guardian or The Independent or the Daily Mail?

"What I want is a good newspaper with crisp, sharp and intelligent writing. I see The Express reader as being optimistic, humorous, belonging to Britain without being small-minded." All very reasonable, but most newspaper editors would probably say the same things.

Time, and circulation figures, will give the verdict on the quality of Ms Boycott's revitalised Express - which, with ten people dedicated to the Sunday, including its editor Amanda Platell is not really a seven- day operation anymore.

But it is clear that quality was not what Lord Hollick's re-organisation was all about. "Clive Hollick saw The Express as a cash cow which could make money, not by increasing circulation but by cutting costs," says a source close to the peer. The Express, now unrecognisably lean, is indeed making a profit for the shareholders, Lord Hollick's main priority.

But is it his only priority? "He sees the newspaper as part of a virtuous circle whereby the papers generate publicity for the group, and give him a bigger voice in the city as well as impressing his friends," says someone else who knows the life peer well. "He wants to be able to say he made The Express successful, and his definition of success is financial," says the source.

In the end, if a paper is to be judged on its bottom line like a widget factory, the seven-day Express can be arguably be judged a "success". But its circulation is unstable, with recent rises possibly due as much to promotional gimmicks as Ms Boycott's changes. "I wonder what the circulation would be if they stopped all the marketing gizmos," says the former executive.

Partly, it is a case of journalists, used for too long to the good life whereby a munificent proprietor allowed all the resources they required to produce a paper, whinging.

Lord Hollick undoubtedly did the paper a service by dragging it out of the four-hour expense-claimed lunch at The Ivy into the real world. "But he would make much more money if he had a feel for papers and long-term vision" says the former executive. "Murdoch and Rothmere have a vision; they invest heavily and they are richly rewarded. Hollick is a ruthless businessman but an amateur newspaper man."

"The seven-day Express is clearly a pared-down product whose attempted New-Labour hipness will inevitably go out of fashion," says an insider. "With Hollick's stern control, only if Rosie proves a visionary in the mould of the great Fleet Street editors can The Express ever succeed editorially."