It was 20 years ago Today
... that Eddy Shah launched his dream of an all-colour, hi-tech newspaper. It crashed. Yet its legacy lives on
Sunday 05 March 2006
Fleet Street folklore has it that the launch of Today exactly 20 years ago this weekend was so accident-prone that the paper should probably have been staffed by stuntmen rather than journalists. There have been first issues more editorially hapless - The Mail on Sunday, for instance - but when it comes to mechanical malfunctions causing high expectations to run spectacularly off the road, nothing else comes close.
Having told the nation in a £2m ad campaign that "We're Ready!", and proclaimed its ability to be the first paper to deliver colour on all pages, the paper approached its launch without ever having produced a full-scale "live" dummy. Today was an accident yearning to happen.
Sure enough, on the opening night of 3 March, the paper's computer system repeatedly went down, the paper was two hours late to press, the picture technology so untried the first editions had a black and white photograph on the front, a racing editor so frustrated by network failures that he headbutted his terminal, the deputy editor and proprietor had a slanging match, the splash story turned out to be old, text jutted into column rules, and colour pictures, when they did get printed, were off-register. Small wonder that a female member of staff later threatened a colleague with a knife.
Senior staff still talk about that first night like survivors reeling from the wreckage. "A disaster", said consultant Charles Wintour; "It was a shambles", says features editor Michael Williams; "Humiliating", says editor Brian MacArthur; and news editor Colin Myler recalls: "I walked back to my hotel feeling very dejected."
The paper's founder, Eddy Shah, told the BBC recently he felt there were "degrees of sabotage", a reference to the discovery, just weeks from launch, that the paper's Vauxhall Bridge Road offices had not been earthed, causing the walls to glow hot.
Both he and MacArthur rue the "We're Ready!" campaign (Shah says: "I wish we hadn't gone down that route,"); and MacArthur still talks of the devastating combination of untried technology and a small staff. While some impressive writing talent was hired (including reporters such as Geordie Greig and Philip Jacobson), there were just 17 subs for a seven-day rota (the Express had 68 for six days). He said: "My one regret is that we didn't postpone the launch. We didn't hit the ground running; we hit it crippled."
And, to the damage the paper's poor planning had already inflicted on itself, was added the best efforts of rivals for whom predatory behaviour was first nature.
While Today set out with untried technology to transmit a "live" front-page picture of the Queen on tour in Australia, other papers, lacking this kit or the blind ambition, went down a safer road. They had rather less up-to-date pictures of the Queen pre-printed on glossy paper. The upshot was that while MacArthur's "We're Ready!" Today had either no colour or the famously blurred "Shahvision" version of Her Majesty, his rivals were on the stands in sharp Technicolor.
Yet, oddly, from the remains of that first night emerged the press we have today; and, to understand why, it is necessary to imagine Fleet Street circa 1985. Then, print unions used their ability to stop producing this most perishable of commodities to dictate pagination and print runs, ante up their wages (some Express printers pocketed £1,000 for a 16-hour week), to ambush innovation (no national newspaper journalist could touch anything more technical than pen, paper or typewriter), and to periodically stop the presses. Every so often, someone called the Imperial FOC would march his solemn officials in to see the editor and inform him that the lads were not happy and production of that night's paper would not start until they were.
Rupert Murdoch is often credited with ending this Kafkaesque world, but his way was paved by Eddy Shah and Today. They pioneered a lot of what we now take as read: the absence of print unions, journalists controlling editions, "on the run" colour, fully computerised production, satellite printing, and truck (and not rail) distribution. Much of the success of The Independent's launch later that year was due to the paper's team learning the hard lessons of Today's first night.
There were other, less palatable lessons to be drawn from Today. One of the things that Shah (Gordonstoun-educated but a former double-glazing salesman who owned small papers in the North-west) and MacArthur (ex-Times but whose previous job was as editor of the Western Daily News) wanted to do was to produce a paper that broke editorial moulds as well as technical ones.
In MacArthur's words last week: "We were going to be the nice paper, the nice tabloid. Eddy saw Today as a paper that would stand out from the excesses of Fleet Street."
Even if such an ambition was achievable (and audited circulation figures suggest that, in the mass market, readers don't crave an outbreak of generosity and pleasantness), Today did not have the staff to deliver.
This was especially true of the reporting team, at least initially. A lot of them were relatively inexperienced and recruited from the regions. Says news editor Colin Myler: "Many were from the provinces and were going up against some very experienced reporters on other papers. They could turn you over and you wouldn't know you'd been turned over." Their copy was at first, he says, "very raw".
Today's reporters got better, and many, says Myler, went on to become high-flyers and executives all over Fleet Street. Speaking from the New York Post, where he is now a senior executive, he said: "We did later turn it around and it was not too long before we were getting good news exclusives. It was a low point at the launch, but in the next few years I had far more highs than lows."
Part of the paper's problem, says features editor Michael Williams, was that "it never really knew what its market was. I remember one day we all trooped along to a focus group where a revamp of the Sunday magazine was being tested. On the cover was a picture of David Owen in a Fair Isle jumper. When the prospective readers were asked for their opinion of the dummy, one woman said: 'It's very nice, but I can't find the knitting pattern for this man's jumper.' It was a reminder of the gulf between our journalism and the target market that the management had in mind."
And so the paper never really took off, and losses continued to mount.
It stuttered on, via ownership by Lonrho and News International, until closure on 16 November 1995. That day, in the press box at Ascot, some wit amended the sign above the desk of the paper's racing correspondent. Before the word Today, he added "Here", and after it, "Gone tomorrow".
Such gallows humour should not be Today's epitaph. Eddy Shah did what most Fleet Street managements would not dare even contemplate, and his legacy is on news-stands every day. Colin Myler says: "Today led to a different way of producing newspapers. For that it deserves some credit." And that, in the end, long after the last off-register picture has faded, is the lasting Shah vision.
A TOMORROW AFTER 'TODAY'
Where are they now? Shah presided over a galaxy of star journalists, many of whom went on to greater things
Brian MacArthur EDITOR IN CHIEF, TODAY
Joined from Western Daily News, of which was editor. After Today, he became executive editor of The Sunday Times, then associate editor of The Times. He is now a media columnist for The Telegraph.
Anthony Holden EDITOR, SUNDAY TODAY
Had been executive features editor of The Times, but had gone freelance before joining Today. Left to become a writer and broadcaster. Has been a music critic for The Observer for the past four years.
Jonathan Holborow DEPUTY EDITOR, TODAY
Joined Today from The Mail on Sunday. Returned to MoS as an assistant editor, rising to become editor. Was an adviser to William Hague during his leadership of the Conservative Party. He is retired.
Alastair Campbell NEWS EDITOR, SUNDAY TODAY
Came from the Mirror where he had been a political reporter. Went back to Today as an assistant editor in 1993, before being appointed Tony Blair's director of communications. Now a sports writer for The Times.
Mary Ann Sieghart CITY EDITOR, TODAY
Joined from the Financial Times. Left to work at The Economist as a political correspondent before joining The Times as editor of the opinion pages. Now a columnist for The Times.
Jeremy Deedes MANAGING EDITOR, TODAY
A year at Today, after the Daily Express (deputy editor) and Evening Standard (managing editor). Then, at the Telegraph Group, rose to deputy chairman and chief executive. Now founding The Sportsman.
Amanda Platell FEATURES SUB-EDITOR, TODAY
Rose within Today to become a deputy editor, finally leaving in 1992 to become managing editor of the Mirror group and then The Independent. Now a regular writer for the Daily Mail.
Sue Ryan WOMEN'S EDITOR, TODAY
Joined Today from the Daily Mail. She then moved on to The Telegraph where she stayed for 14 years. Was a news editor and then managing editor. She left The Telegraph last week.
Jane Reed FEATURES EDITOR, TODAY
Had edited Woman's Own and been editor-in-chief of Woman magazineand assistant managing director of IPC magazines. At Today she rose to managing editor. Now a director of Times Newspapers.
Geordie Greig REPORTER, SUNDAY TODAY
Began as a local news reporter, became a reporter at the Sunday Times, then its arts correspondent, New York correspondent and literary editor. Now editor of Tatler.
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