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'
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The Independent Online

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

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