A lesson learnt at the 'TES'. Go to the top of the class

Now that it is finally free of its News International shackles, the Times Educational Supplement is making a fresh, chief executive Bernard Gray tells Raymond Snoddy
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The Independent Online

Unlike most desk-bound media executives, Bernard Gray, chief executive of TSL Education, publisher of The Times Educational Supplement, knows exactly what thoughts go through the mind when death seems imminent. In a former life, as a Ministry of Defence special adviser, he almost fell out of a military helicopter as it banked steeply over Bosnia.

"The thought was not, 'is this going to hurt?', or 'I'm going to die', but, 'this is going to look stupid when it gets in the papers'," explains the former Financial Times journalist.

There are no helicopters in Gray's life these days, and he's based in modest offices across the road from the Wapping plant of News International.

His latest task is to revitalise the franchise of the TES and its sister publications, The Times Higher Education Supplement and Nursery World, following Rupert Murdoch's decision to sell the publications last year to the private equity group Exponent for £235m.

The TES, which began life as a free supplement to The Times in 1910, has just had one of the most significant relaunches in its history, complete with the addition of a new weekly magazine and a £1m promotional campaign. The aim is to try to ensure that the TES, which has been losing circulation at 10 per cent a year, connects with a younger generation of teachers, an increasing number of whom are women.

"Our feeling is that we can grow circulation by appealing to a whole new generation of female teachers. In 10 years' time, is the whole TES print version going to be a magazine? It might be because that is probably the way that this market is going," says Gray, who was previously chief executive of United Business Media's business publishing division, CMP Information.

Gray has also turned the TES into a full- colour publication. Until last week, only between half and a third of the teaching profession's Bible has been in colour, and the weekly often had to turn away colour advertising.

The relaunch has included beefing up the TES's online presence, combined with a drive to increase subscribers. Its newspaper format has meant that the publication has, until now, relied heavily on newsstand sales, with subscriptions running at only around 20 per cent.

Was it brave to take over a business that Murdoch had decided he no longer wanted, partly, at least, because of the likely threat that the internet posed to its core advertising?

"Inside News International, this sort of business was never going to get the sort of attention it really needed. If you wanted to develop this business, you'd probably be the starving child at the back of the queue," says Gray.

There was a feeling that not only was the TES more than a little "semi-detached" from the heart of News International, but that the cash flow also went over the road and never came back.

Despite pressure on the TES's circulation - around 85,000, according to the latest official figures - the company is a decent business, with revenues of £55m and profits of around £15m a year. The TES website attracts more than 1.3 million visits a month.

The relaunch is designed to go beyond colour and appearance and try to concentrate more on helping teachers with the classroom challenges they face. "I think we had drifted into a situation where we were probably aimed a bit too much at the head teacher, with too dry political coverage," admits Gray.

The political issues will still be covered, but probably not in the form of 3,000-word "think" pieces. Above all, research shows, teachers want tips on what other teachers are doing, and what is most current in teaching practice. They also want the TES to "talk to the whole teacher, not just the person in school."

Gray is happy to oblige. The TES has close to 500,000 ABC1 readers, with an average income that is higher, he believes, than that of the readers of any of the quality dailies, with the possible exception of the Financial Times. Teachers travel a lot, too, and are consumers of financial services. Gray hopes to be able to attract more advertisers in future from outside the educational sector.

The TES also plans to take its campaign for more job advertising direct to schools. "We will be going into schools and saying that we have enough confidence in our product that, if we pick up your business, we will pretty much guarantee to fill your job," says Gray.

Currently, according to the TES, 80 per cent of the jobs advertised in its pages are filled with just one ad insertion, which is roughly half the price of local- press advertising. "Depending on which city you pick, we get to between two and five times as many teachers in that city, and the rest of the country is free," explains Gray.

Once the TES relaunch has bedded down, the management team will start to look at the THED, although its circulation, at around 22,600, had been more stable than that of the TES.

Over the four- to five-year cycle before Exponent seeks to realise the value of its investment through a sale or a stock market flotation, Bernard Gray knows exactly what he hopes to achieve at TSL Education. "My feeling is that we will have a company that has a much more solid franchise, a clear idea where it is going, with its circulation and web presence on the up, and more revenue streams," he says.

If all that happens, Gray might even try to mount a management buyout for the company himself, and could then afford to start travelling by helicopter again - should he still want to.