Let the good Times roll again

Does a new editor mean The Times is ready to stop chasing mass readership and head upmarket? David Lister reports
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The Independent Online

The departure of an editor is an obvious time to put a newspaper under the microscope. At The Times, Peter Stothard is stepping down after a decade as editor, and Robert Thomson, the managing editor of the Financial Times's American edition, has been lined up by Rupert Murdoch to succeed him. The Times's independent directors meet this week, and Thomson is likely to be confirmed in the post by Friday.

Analysis from a rival paper is seldom 100 per cent objective. The headline over the piece by Peter Preston in The Observer remarked that the problem with The Times lies in its branding, not its content. The former Guardian editor should perhaps have mentioned that The Times's content is partly, and sometimes wholly, the responsibility of his son, The Times deputy editor Ben Preston.

Neither can the Daily Telegraph be an objective witness. Though The Times has crossed the floor from Tory to Labour, it is not the "cheerleader" for New Labour that the Telegraph described it last week. The Telegraph and The Times are head-to-head rivals in the broadsheet market.

What Mr Thomson might decide is that The Times lacks a coherent and sufficiently serious voice. The view from this paper is also from a competitor in the same marketplace; but it does seem that Mr Stothard's departing reorganisation of The Times's pages is only a partial success. A large amount of money has been poured into what is now the biggest business section outside the FT, though readers who want that much business news might well gravitate to towards the FT.

Most curious is the new Debate page, a bitty and confusingly designed internet-style forum with all the contributions by email. This can only devalue the letters page. Obituaries have expanded, but their new home between business and sports is the wrong place for the traditional Times Court and Social reader.

The tabloid second section, as train travellers will have noticed from the discarded copies, has failed to find a clear identity; some columnists and specialist sections seem buried, one assumes by accident.

That's not to say that The Times does not have some excellent writers. Simon Jenkins is an incomparable asset to any paper; and its op ed pages can still carry a clout not always echoed in the news and general features.

It is not just analysis of the product that is automatic when a new editor approaches. Fear and loathing among the staff are also de rigueur. There was no shortage of either in Wapping yesterday. The received wisdom is that Robert Thomson will certainly make changes. The paper's assistant editor Michael Gove is said to be sleeping a little less soundly; Andrew Pierce, its high-profile political writer, wooed last year by Radio 5 Live to be the station's first dedicated political correspondent, is now doing the wooing.

The biggest immediate question will be over the future of Ben Preston. As the man who ran the paper during Stothard's absence through illness two year's ago, he must have expected to have been considered for the top job. He is known to be unhappy about that; the word in Wapping, however, is that his future may lie at the helm of The Sunday Times. Most new editors bring in their own deputies, either immediately or after a decent interval. Those who know Thomson say his personnel changes are much more likely to be at the top end of the executive structure than with the toilers in the newsroom.

Thomson, a 41-year-old father of two, who (like Murdoch) is married to a Chinese wife, started his career at The Herald in Melbourne in 1979, and later became the FT's Beijing correspondent. He moved on to Tokyo then served as foreign editor in London before really making his name by launching the weekend section, with its women-friendly features. He was given the US post in 1998, and the circulation of the FT in America rose from 32,000 to 123,000 in four years. To his great disappointment, he failed to win the FT editorship last year, losing out to Andrew Gowers.

Without wishing to detract from Mr Thomson's achievement with the FT's US edition, a little context is necessary. Richard Lambert, the former FT editor who oversaw the launch of the international edition, must be a little surprised that his name has not featured among the credits for the success. That success owed as much to a price cut as any editorial innovations. Cutting it to one dollar made it competitive with The Wall Street Journal, and was handy for buyers, able to drop four quarters into the boxes, which accounts for a lot of American newspaper sales. Even with the Thomson/Lambert successes, the FT in America only has a fraction of the sales of The Wall Street Journal.

Thomson is understood to have convinced Murdoch that The Times should also have an international edition. If he acts on that, and it proves a success, others in Fleet Street will be sure to follow. Murdoch will have seen how the FT's foreign sales inflate its ABCs. Repeat the formula with The Times, and his dream of sales of one million could become a reality.

One of Thomson's former colleagues describes him as "very clear minded, reader conscious, but not overly creative nor inclined to discuss big ideas. He is a manager and presenter, rather than an initiator."

So why does Murdoch want him to edit The Times? Why too did Stothard decide to go at this point, having effectively just relaunched the paper? There isn't a clear answer to either question. Stothard and Murdoch get on well; and it is unlikely he was pushed in any overt way. Indeed he was said yesterday to be looking extremely happy. Maybe both men recognised that he had achieved a large circulation rise, mostly thanks to the price war, and that Murdoch's ambition to get one million sales a day and eventually overtake the Daily Telegraph was not going to be achieved. Perhaps Stothard the newspaperman, who can look back with some pride at taking The Times circulation from 370,000 to over 700,000, wishes to be Stothard the classicist for the rest of his career. There are certainly rumours linking his name with the mastership of an Oxbridge college.

As for why Murdoch wants Thomson to replace Stothard, it may be that Thomson has given him a vision for a one-million-selling Times; but these two are not natural soulmates. Thomson is described by those who have worked with him closely as a non-conformist who does not buy in to corporate management lines and "does not know when to hold his tongue". Such men do not always have long, healthy lives at News International. But he is also a serious and bookish man, who could be the man to take The Times upmarket. Murdoch might at last have been convinced that The Times must go in that direction rather than competing with the Daily Mail.

Don't underestimate, too, the appeal to the eternal outsider of giving The Times its first foreign editor. And an Australian, to boot; it must have proved irresistible.