Ian Burrell: A broken Mirror, or a reflection of the future of newspapers?

Media Studies
  • @iburrell

Where's the future of the newspaper business? In seeking an answer to this question, most experts would hardly rush to cite Trinity Mirror as an example, except perhaps as a lesson in what not to do.

The group's chief executive Sly Bailey is leaving – forced out by shareholders for poor performance – and the editors of both the flagship Daily Mirror and Sunday Mirror were summarily fired last week. The circulation of the Daily Mirror, once in excess of five million copies a day, is struggling to stay above one million.

Yet, in spite of everything, at Trinity's headquarters in the Canada Square tower at London's Canary Wharf, there is a surprising optimism that the organisation can be a model for the industry.

The source of this hope is Chris Ellis, Trinity Mirror's managing director for digital, whose 22nd-floor office has inspiring views across east London to the Olympic stadium and Anish Kapoor's futuristic Orbit sculpture.

Ellis talks unashamedly of his "lofty ambition", although many digital specialists will think he has his head in the clouds, given the spectacular stalling of the Mirror's relaunched website this year, when it temporarily lost 30 per cent of its traffic.

He's not a newspaperman. But he has tasted the power of digital technology as chief operating officer of MySpace in Europe during that extraordinary period in the mid-to-late Noughties when the site briefly ruled the world, before crashing around Rupert Murdoch's ears.

"I think it was the forerunner of social media as we see it today," says Ellis. "What it stood for was groundbreaking and turned out to be fulfilled, just not by MySpace."

Trinity Mirror last week announced a seven-day publishing operation, brutally sacking Daily Mirror editor Richard Wallace and Sunday Mirror editor Tina Weaver, who opposed the change. While the personable Lloyd Embley, former editor of The People, will oversee the joint newsroom, it falls to Ellis to get the most from the website, introducing changes in design and technology.

A year into the job, Ellis claims not to be distracted by the Mirror's great print rival. "I haven't spent any time thinking about The Sun since I have been here," he says. "I am worrying about what MSN have got on their home page or Yahoo News or AOL. That's my competitive set." This radical thinking extends to launching products with little connection to Mirror journalism. "Our plans go beyond traditional news – our ambition is much larger than that."

In March he rolled out Happli, a "daily deals" business that has built a 100,000-subscriber base for offers from Mirror advertisers. This is a fresh perspective – and not one that Wallace and Weaver are likely to have had. "We have a number of digital properties that have really come out of the newspapers. If you were starting from scratch you might go about it a different way and you need to create space to ask those questions."

It's a moot point whether Trinity Mirror can afford a strategy like this. Perhaps more than any British media business this PLC has had to justify its investments to shareholders and not look far beyond its quarterly results. It still makes money – but profits fell by 40 per cent to £74m last year. New chairman David Grigson will be looking for a change of direction and Ellis says he has been granted flexibility. "We are moving nimbly and I have the autonomy to do this," he says. "I want us to be a big digital innovator."

Crucial will be the launch of the Mirror's app for iPad in July. Ellis gives a demonstration. "If you look at the marketplace you see products that go from very straightforward PDFs through to almost a weblike experience. What I think people want is something in the middle that looks and feels like a newspaper but with the benefits of interactivity."

With Apple expected to launch a smaller and cheaper iPad before Christmas, this app could soon have a substantial new market of traditional red-top readers.

"A lot of these will be sitting under Christmas trees and it will move to being a mass market product," says Ellis. "There are no silver bullets in this world but this is a large opportunity for us."

Enough bullets have been flying at the Mirror lately, it could do with a silver one.


Love him or loathe him, 'Dirty' Desmond is loyal to his editors

The Desmond problem" was an expression used by Jeremy Hunt in his Leveson evidence. He was referring to Richard Desmond's refusal to engage with a press regulator, but there is a wider loathing of the Northern & Shell owner which extends throughout the media sector.

He's seen as a malign influence on our culture, dragging Channel 5 into the gutter and reducing the Daily Express to a journalistic husk. Yet the hard-to-swallow reality is that while many media businesses have no prospect of making money, Northern & Shell turned a £40m profit in 2011, despite blowing £28.5m on the contentious new HealthLottery.

And Desmond has a reputation for staying loyal to his national newspaper editors, unlike Trinity Mirror.

Opening up the Radio 4 'playground' for artists

Gwyneth Williams, the controller of Radio 4, wants to turn her station into a "playground" for artists and has been privately talking to sculptor Antony Gormley, poets Ruth Padel and Andrew Motion, writer Marina Warner and musician Brian Eno, to offer them time in the schedule.

"I want to open up the airwaves a bit for artists to see what comes in," she tells me. "With low economic growth, people need nourishment. Let's hear the heart beat a little bit louder!"