Media: Where the FT meets Loaded
Jeff Randall's Sunday Business is proving a success, outflanking its rivals and confounding the sceptics. By Paul McCann
Tuesday 26 January 1999
They sat through what then had to be a sales pitch. Today Sunday Business is selling 50,000 copies a week and has gained a reputation for producing not only good stories but also, unlike some broadsheet rivals, stories that are true. Scoops have included the failure of Bernie Ecclestone's Formula 1 bond, and Candover's bid for Mirror Group last week. After just a year, the paper is well on its way to the projected three-year break- even point of 80,000 sales a week.
But when Randall was recruiting in Andrew's, Sunday Business was not an alluring prospect for any but the most desperate journalist. It was started in April 1996 by Tom Rubython, the maverick publisher-journalist, and lurched from one financial catastrophe to another, losing staff and backers while attracting only libel writs. It closed in July 1997, and was relaunched under the Barclay brothers' ownership in February 1998.
"When a newspaper collapses, anyone in a secure job is likely to ask, `why should I risk my career?'," says Randall, 45, tucking into poached egg on toast and a giant mug of tea. "Senior journalists who knew me understood what I had planned, and believed I could build the trust the paper would need. It was the more junior ones who were wary."
Over multiple fry-ups in Andrew's, Randall built a staff largely from The Sunday Times, The Daily and Sunday Telegraph, the Evening Standard and the International Herald Tribune.
Some say now that Randall was the only man who could have made Sunday Business rise from the ashes. A former, and almost legendary, editor of The Sunday Times's business section, unusually in journalism, Randall is both popular and successful. "A lot of people are here just because of him," says one Sunday Business journalist. "There is a real consensus in the office that you want to work your guts out for Jeff. Which is just as well, because there is a hell of a lot of space to fill."
Alan Ruddock, editor of Sunday Business's sister paper The Scotsman, and a former colleague from The Sunday Times, respects what Randall did just in getting together a staff: "At the same time he was recruiting, I was briefly embroiled in the Mirror Group's plans for Sporting Life. It seemed to me that persuading 50 journalists to leave secure jobs for a start-up title was going to take a very, very long time. But Jeff managed it extremely quickly. It was down to his reputation and powers of persuasion."
Randall built his reputation during the soaraway days of the Eighties economic boom. Where other Sunday Times business editors had courted the patrician rulers of City finance, Randall cultivated those who epitomised the brash end of the deregulated Eighties business culture: Sir Tim Bell, George Walker, Gerald Ronson, Frank Warren, even poor Gerald Ratner. He used them to produce a string of City scoops, many of them dominating the front pages of other newspapers, let alone their business pages.
His favourites include Robert Maxwell's attempt to buy Tottenham Hotspur, followed up with Alan Sugar's appearance as Tottenham's saviour, and, oddly, since it was not a business story, the planned closure of London Zoo. Rightly, Randall is renowned as a news junkie: "I know for a fact he was physically depressed for a fortnight because The Sunday Telegraph scooped him on Murdoch buying Manchester United," says a friend.
He started in journalism on a postgraduate course at the University of Florida where he was advised to specialise to get on, and, with a degree in economics, decided to stick to business journalism.
His first job was on a magazine covering the arcane world of airline financing. After a stint on the Financial Weekly he made it to The Sunday Telegraph as a City correspondent. In 1988 he became assistant city editor of The Sunday Times. He worked his way to managing editor of business news, which came with a seat at the News International monthly board meeting: "Where I got to watch the maestro, Rupert Murdoch," he says..
Having promised himself he would give up journalism at the age of 40, Randall left The Sunday Times for City PR firm, Financial Dynamics. Despite a pounds 200,000-plus package he was bored, and six months later took a pay cut to return to The Sunday Times. as assistant editor, and later sports editor, before the Barclay brothers and their editor-in-chief, Andrew Neil, offered him the editorship of Sunday Business.
"It was important to me that the Barclay brothers seemed to understand what was needed. History is littered with newspaper start-ups which were under-capitalised. They all accepted the most optimistic predictions of their distribution, future sales and revenues. There was never any money for rainy days - and rivals such as Murdoch can make sure that rain happens. The Barclay brothers had an understanding of what was needed - and they've got deep pockets."
Randall was unconcerned that there was no research showing enthusiasm for the paper. "There is no point researching a new market, because consumers say they are more conservative than they really are. Pre-launch research would have told Murdoch that people weren't willing to pay to watch sport and movies on television."
Now Randall has figures to prove his hunch that there are at least 80,000 business junkies in the country, and he uses them like the salesman he is: "The FT sells 160,000 in the UK, and we have a third of its market after 45 weeks - and the FT's been going 100 years. The Wall Street Journal has been operating in the UK for 15 years, and has just 13,000 UK readers. So I think we have proved there is a market. I am certainly more confident now than I was a year ago when I was recruiting people."
Randall's growing confidence should see some changes made to the paper. Staff report that at the beginning he was so desperate to dispel the paper's reputation for running poorly sourced stories that everything had to be "triple copper-bottomed with belt and braces". The paper was at first, he admits, deliberately boring, so that it could re-establish its credibility. The paper was given authority in part by its classy redesign at the hands of the Scotsman Group's in-house design team. Ally Palmer, design editor of The Scotsman, and John Belknap produced a clean and modern-looking title. Now Randall is promising rather more "attitude" and intends to deliver a paper where "the FT meets Loaded".
A year ago, such was Sunday Business's reputation that Tesco refused to stock it - until Randall phoned Terry Leahy, Tesco's chief executive, and got it on the shelves. On 27 December last year, when the financial markets and much of the country had been closed for four days, 45,000 people still went out and bought Sunday Business.
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