Memo to the new owner of 'The Telegraph': don't sack the readers

Some friendly words of advice to the winning bidder for ownership of 'a national treasure'

Dear new Proprietor,

Dear new Proprietor,

Congratulations on acquiring the Telegraph newspapers, described recently by the former editor of The Daily Telegraph, Charles Moore, as "a national treasure". It is no mean achievement to have won the prize, although it would be understandable if your hand is shaking when you write out the cheque. Never in the field of newspaper ownership has so much been paid for one set of titles.

It has clearly, and perhaps surprisingly, been a seller's market. Who would have thought? All that money for two major titles with seriously declining circulations, an engaging but hardly money-spinning political weekly, The Spectator, a niche upmarket art magazine called Apollo, and a half interest with an unpredictable goose-stepper in a printing works. But there's something about newspapers. While pundits constantly talk of their decline as other forms of publishing, in particular the internet, take over, on those rare occasions when major titles come up for sale there is a queue of hungry buyers.

Newspapers are not like other products; there is often more than reason behind a desire to own them, which must be good for journalism in that it protects the plurality of titles in Britain. But we are no longer in the age of proprietors with an emotional or sentimental attachment to owning newspapers, or press barons who regard newspaper ownership as a means to fulfill other ambitions in, say, politics or society. No, it is more of a business these days, and you will spend little time celebrating your acquisition before you get down to the real business of turning the business round.

It is vital you get a real feel for the Telegraphs, what they stand for and who they are aimed at. The Telegraph is special, as are a number of newspapers that define, describe and influence our national life. I suggest that you concentrate first on The Daily Telegraph, because this is the flagship, the biggest seller, and the paper that defines the group.

You will not, I am sure, do anything silly, like sacking the readers you have got - as did Clive Hollick when he bought the Tory supporting Express and switched to New Labour. You will not lose respect for your current readers, most of whom have taken the Telegraph for a long time; and it doesn't matter if some of them are less than young or less than female. One of the first things you should do is send a memo to the obituaries editor with the terse instruction "Carry on as heretofore". Similar memo to the crosswords editor. Then you should tell the classified advertising manager that if ever bookings for births, marriages and deaths - particularly the last - decline, explanations will be required.

You will not, of course, interfere with the editor's freedom to edit, but having spent this amount of money on the paper you will, reasonably enough, want to talk to him at length about his plans, and your plans, and what needs to be done. The advice, modestly offered, that follows is thus as much advice to your editor as to you. But it is to you I write.

You should see and stroke the living legend that is Bill Deedes, the former editor. Forget how much he is revered within the world of journalism. Remember that he is loved, and always read, by readers all over the country who live only to agree with him.

Unless you are personally obsessed with sport, and even then probably not, do not meddle in your paper's coverage. Part of its reputation is based on superb sports reporting by gifted writers, and on being an integrated and well thought out section that is the first part of the paper addressed by many readers.

By now you must be wondering why, if all is so rosy, the circulation continues to fall, down 3.9 per cent in May on the previous month, and heading for 800,000 when not so long ago it was over one million. Of course, declining circulations exist across the market, but your decline has been serious and must be arrested. You will have to think about news and politics, the soul of the paper (its readers) and its size.

Why not consider the following questions: are Telegraph readers, always small c and often big C conservatives, as taken with "tabloid" issues as the paper seems to think? Was it wise to attack the BBC as much as the paper did during the Kelly/Hutton saga? Telegraph readers love the BBC, particularly Radio 4. Are readers as rich as the paper often considers them? There is a strong and large middle class across the country, potential if not actual readers, who do not have that kind of money.

Are Telegraph readers as preoccupied with unknown aristocrats and landed gentry as the paper seems to believe? Are there as many hunters, shooters and fishers, or "country people", around to justify the coverage given to and for them? Do Telegraph readers care quite as much as the Telegraph staff about the metropolitan in-group it has defined and writes about? And that includes Club Boris (inset, below) - himself, his sister, his father and all Johnsons so regularly referred to throughout the paper.

The Telegraph's politics are probably about right for the readers, and its consistent anti-Europeanism has been vindicated. While its independence from the Conservative Party is admirable, its distance from time to time must be confusing for its readers.

Size is a problem. The Telegraph, in its period of limbo following the discrediting of Conrad Black, has done some preparation for the possibility of joining in the compact revolution. I would caution you about pressing the green button. Telegraph readers are conservative, and might be far more more resistant to a compact size than readers of rivals. There might be commercial benefits in being one of the last broadsheets. After all, being a little old fashioned is nothing Telegraph readers feel ashamed of.

Finally, do read Max Hastings's book on his 10-year editorship of The Daily Telegraph. As well as enjoying it immensely, you will get a real feel for the Telegraph, its history and culture, and the problems of change management at such an institution. His subtle transformation of the paper while maintaining its integrity; his carefully disguised modernisation for a new generation of readers; his recognition that the readers' values were not always fashionable but often traditional, and were better repackaged than dumped; all of this is worth thinking about as you plan the next stage. May all go well.

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield

DIARY

Old waterworks

The Evening Standard's departing executive editor, Philip Evans, was full of jokes at his leaving party on Thursday. Evans, who served 32 years at the paper, recalled being sent to doorstep Sinead Cusack (pictured) and George Best as a young journalist. After he'd waited an age outside their love nest, a window opened and Cusack tipped a bucket of water over his head. Years later, hebumped into Cusack at an awards ceremony. Did she remember the incident, he asked. "Yes," she replied. "But don't be so sure it was only water."

A stumbling block

The appointment of Tim Gardam to the panel reviewing the BBC's Royal Charter for the Department of Culture has caused amusement at Horseferry Road and Broadcasting House. One C4 insider says: "Everyone believes Tim resigned as director of programmes because he couldn't stand working for Mark Thompson." A BBC source says Gardam regards the new DG as "his intellectual inferior". "Tim has never been able to tolerate seeing Mark succeed. The competition here is to guess what traps he will build into the new charter for Mark to trip over."

Can't pick up a Penguin

An astonishing bit of bad timing for the publisher Penguin. After launching its "Good Booking" campaign to boost reading among men, a distribution problem means many shops are waiting weeks to get hold of titles. One author said: "It's very disappointing - you spend months producing a book and then you find that readers are unable to buy it."Penguin has drafted in the big guns to sort out the problem in the shape of Bill Gauld, the US-based chief information officer of parent company Pearson.

Typhoon warning

The arrival of the former Scotsman editor Martin Clarke (pictured) as The Mail on Sunday's executive editor is causing a bit of a tizz in Kensington, sources say. Reporters are looking forward to "the most monumental power struggle" when Typhoon Clarke sets in. The paranoia has even effected the editor, Peter Wright.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Guru Careers: PR Account Manager / AM

£20-30K(DOE) + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a PR Account M...

Guru Careers: Account Manager / Account Executive

Competitive (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: One of the UK’s largest and most s...

Guru Careers: Marketing and Communications Manager

£Competitive (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing and Co...

Guru Careers: Digital Designer / Interactive Designer

£ Highly Competitive (DOE): Guru Careers: A Digital Designer / Interactive Des...

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence