Europe or bust: a tale of two newspapers: When Robert Maxwell died, few thought the newspaper he founded would survive. Thanks to its editor's faith, it has, says Martin Wroe

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SPEAKING to members of the International Advertising Association last week, Charles Garside, editor of the European newspaper, rehearsed one of his many Robert Maxwell stories. Maxwell, who founded the European in 1990, cracks a joke to a crowded room of newspaper staff, but one individual fails to ignite in sycophantic laughter. Turning on the solemn staff member, the late media tycoon and pension fraudster demands to know why he isn't laughing. 'I don't have to, Mr Maxwell,' comes the reply. 'You fired me this morning.'

Charles Garside could tell you Robert Maxwell jokes until the Daily Mirror was left-of-centre again, but, 18 months after Maxwell's death, Mr Garside is having the last laugh. Next week, the newspaper Maxwell launched with heavy fanfare predicting our pan-European futures celebrates its third birthday. While Maxwell was alive it struggled, and was kept going more for personal vanity than commercial reality. When he died, the European came within a whisker of following him into the grave; only the kiss of life from Mr Garside, then deputy editor, saved it.

The editor, John Bryant, left for the Times and the paper went into the hands of the administrators, who, with no better ideas, allowed the confident Mr Garside to keep publishing, through his own private company, while buyers were sought. For five weeks Mr Garside, a former news editor of the Evening Standard and assistant editor of the Times, was the sole employee, paying freelance contributors himself while putting together funds to buy the title. Instead, the paper was rescued - for an estimated pounds 2m - by the wealthy, reclusive Barclay brothers, David and Frederick, based in Monte Carlo, who made their fortune in shipping and hotels.

Once installed as editor and with the novelty of editorial freedom, Mr Garside began hiring staff and the circulation began increasing: since January last year, it has been rising week on week and is now approaching 200,000 weekly sales, with one-third sold in Britain. At its post-Maxwell nadir, it was less than 80,000.

The paper's editorial has the feel of a Sunday mid-market title, with 'news' meaning foreign news (to the British reader) but with correspondents across the Continent. The stylish eLAN section has returned after temporarily being abandoned to cut costs and the comprehensive pink business section ensures the audience is sufficiently upmarket to please advertisers.

According to Mr Garside, who will say little about the media-shy Barclay twins, the pair are keen readers and did not want to see the European go under. Better still, they lack the self- publicising inclinations of their predecessor. Mr Garside claims they have never intervened editorially: 'They are proprietors, thank God,' he says. 'They will never even have their names in the paper. They have kept their promise of editorial freedom.'

But commentators have pointed to high-profile contributors who never had a by-line in Maxwell's day, but whose stories have since improved the paper's image. Margaret Thatcher chose the European last October to outline her newsworthy views on Europe and other contributors have included the late Lord Ridley and Lord McAlpine, former Conservative Party treasurer. The paper urged its British voters to vote Tory at the general election and then for the Tories to get rid of John Major. It urged French readers to vote against the Maastricht treaty.

The Barclay twins are known to be part of a Thatcherite network and reportedly sold the Thatchers a 10-year lease on their five-storey home in Chester Square, London, after the couple left Downing Street. Mr Garside maintains that the paper is not in hock to any party line.

'We cross every shade of opinion, just as we cross every border in Europe,' he says. 'We're on a tightrope but we are the only real forum for Europeans in Europe to ask where we go from here.'

It may have been Margaret Thatcher one week, he says, but it was Jacques Delors the week before. The paper may have urged the French to reject Maastricht because the country was so evidently split on the issue, but no one has worked harder at explaining the treaty to its readers - and not just in its pages. Last month, in conjunction with Sky Television, it released a video - Sex, Drugs, Rock and Roll and Maastricht. 'Our journalists are independent, we will praise the EC when it does well but react strongly when it does badly.'

Pan-European competition includes the Financial Times, which sells about 80,000 copies in Europe (excluding Britain) and the International Herald Tribune, which sells about 120,000 outside the UK. The Economist, although a magazine, is also a weekly title in competition for advertising revenue and sales, with a figure of about 112,000 on the Continent.

Small changes have made significant improvements: Mr Garside quietly moved the day of publication from Friday to Thursday and put sales up by 13 per cent. Under Maxwell, the paper was perceived as a British perspective on Europe. Mr Garside has hired more writers whose first language is not English - now three-quarters of his staff - and draws on editorial offices in key European capitals. Circulation is improving in Germany, France, Spain and Italy.

'Other titles,' he says, 'do have an American slant or an English slant, but we are aiming for a European slant. We are far less British than we were at launch. We can never be a competitor to a national newspaper in France or Germany or anywhere else, but we can offer a wider perspective.'

(Photograph omitted)