Jenkins vs Aaronovitch: do stars sell papers?

A breakneck round of musical chairs shows how much newspapers think columnists matter
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The Independent Online

Do columnists sell newspapers? Clearly some editors think so, judging by the transfer market activity. You would think that, as in football, the window was about to close and signings had to be completed quickly to make an impact on the circulation league table. Simon Jenkins is leaving The Times for The Guardian and The Sunday Times; David Aaronovitch is leaving The Guardian and Observer for The Times. There are even rumours about Anatole Kaletsky departing The Times for The Guardian.

Do columnists sell newspapers? Clearly some editors think so, judging by the transfer market activity. You would think that, as in football, the window was about to close and signings had to be completed quickly to make an impact on the circulation league table. Simon Jenkins is leaving The Times for The Guardian and The Sunday Times; David Aaronovitch is leaving The Guardian and Observer for The Times. There are even rumours about Anatole Kaletsky departing The Times for The Guardian.

What is it about these two dailies? Julie Burchill, the middle-aged angry young woman, also took this columnar road, to The Times, where she quickly got down to castigating The Guardian. I do not know whether agents are involved, but I do know that "tapping up" is entirely legal in newspapers, although it is usually described as "dropping in for a chat". Jenkins says he was seduced with "consummate sophistication".

Newspapers run columns of all sorts. The good columnists, of whatever brand, have a distinctive voice and share not just their views but their personality. If editors are not wasting their money paying large sums to the star columnists, particularly when transfers are involved, they should be bringing in readers. Editors like to hear the comment "I always make a point of reading ...". As Bernard Shrimsley, former editor of several popular newspapers, said in a British Journalism Review article: "Great columnists make the difference that great sauces make. Any time I light upon Béarnaise on a menu, I order whatever it comes with."

But can they transfer? The evidence is varied. Keith Waterhouse, doyen of columnists, transferred from the Daily Mirror to the Daily Mail, where he is apt to point out that it's not the Mail that employs him, rather that his column employs the Mail. Some columnists become such a part of the paper they write for that transfer is unimaginable. The late Lynda Lee-Potter was Daily Mail to the core. She could not imagine herself anywhere else, and nor could the readers. But that is partly because the Mail nurtures, promotes and keeps its chosen columnists, for as long as they can craft a column.

The columnar elite are the political commentators, the best of whom tend to carry the epithets "influential" or "informed". Most of them are writing at the serious end of the market, where comment or "op-ed" pages contribute greatly to defining the newspaper.

A political commentator has to "fit". The late Peter Jenkins wrote for The Guardian, The Independent and The Sunday Times. The late Hugo Young wrote for many years for The Sunday Times before moving to The Guardian. Opinions vary about how comfortably they occupied each berth. Simon Jenkins says he was a great admirer of Young's Sunday Times columns: but a more common view is that both Young and Peter Jenkins seemed more at ease at their more liberal bases.

But Simon Jenkins is about to do what neither of those did, write for two politically opposed papers at the same time. He will write two columns a week for The Guardian - one political, one non-political, non-metropolitan - while writing a political column, alongside Michael Portillo, for The Sunday Times. He does not feel that this will cause schizophrenia although he admits that, inevitably, he will address his two outlets with a different mindset. The two papers have very few readers in common.

Jenkins is a one-nation liberal Tory who strongly opposed the Iraq war. Politically he probably sits midway between the Guardian and Sunday Times, which may make life slightly easier. The former Times editor says he feels that the better columnists write against the grain of the paper. He points to Max Hastings in The Guardian. Hastings is a former editor - of The Daily Telegraph and, like Jenkins, of the London Evening Standard - who writes comfortably, but not regularly, in the Mail, Telegraph and Guardian.

All of which might suggest that the political commentators are bigger than the papers they write for, a dangerous self-image for any of them to have, although as a breed they tend to share a not under-developed ego. The feeling can only be encouraged by an interesting observation Jenkins makes. He says the internet has been the friend of the political commentator. Far from reducing their influence, as some predicted, Jenkins says he receives emails from people who have read his Times column on the net but read other newspapers. There is a new cyber-audience that seeks out the columnist, not the publisher. This will do the egos no good at all.

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield

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