Stephen Glover on The Press

Why slightly spooky Monty may not quite cut it over here
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The Independent Online

We are told that newspapers in a printed form are dying. There is a man whose recent success should make us examine this assumption: David Montgomery, an erstwhile chief executive of this newspaper. In a few years he has created from scratch a European newspaper group called Mecom that is worth almost a billion pounds.

Mr Montgomery is a very odd fish. He is a chilly Ulsterman who started his journalistic life as a sub-editor on the northern Daily Mirror. After editing the News of the World and Today newspaper, he moved into management and set his heart on becoming a press baron. He became chief executive of Mirror Group Newspapers, which took a controlling stake in The Independent. His stewardship of this title and its Sunday sister was not a great success, and MGN sold its stake to Independent News and Media, the current owners.

According to his critics, Mr Montgomery is a one-trick pony. He pounces on cost savings others have missed. Whereas an average newspaper executive might peer into a newsroom and see a tightly run ship, Monty will instantly discern waste, overmanning and general slovenliness. His skills extend to other areas of newspapers. His problem at The Independent was that costs had already been pared back considerably, and he couldn't bring much more to the party.

Mecom might be the name of a sinister organisation in a James Bond film, with a driven and slightly spooky Mr Montgomery plotting his domination of the European newspaper industry. After a bewilderingly rapid series of transactions, the company owns titles in Denmark, Poland, Norway, the Netherlands and Germany. The strategy is to get hold of comparatively sleepy family-run businesses that have often enjoyed monopolies, and take a scalpel to them. Margins are projected to rise from around 10 to 15 per cent.

Circulations do not soar under Mr Montgomery. In a market that is at best stable, at worst contracting, he offers shareholders better returns by reprising his familiar role as a one-trick pony. His success offers no proof one way or the other about the future of newspapers. He simply knows how to extract greater profits from them as they are.

Not all of his ideas are misguided. He recently aggravated Press Gazette by suggesting that newspapers can manage with fewer sub-editors. This would be nonsense were he talking about an intensely edited title such as the Daily Mail, in which care is lavished on the presentation of every story, but it can work with less high-octane journalism. State-of-the-art machines can lay out pages virtually automatically.

Mecom has attracted investors and traded at a better multiple than more established media groups. However, it has recently been affected by stock-market sentiment against newspapers, as well as more specific worries. Having reached 96p in July, the shares are now trading at around 50p, valuing the company at about 800m. Last month Mr Montgomery bought 50,000 shares at 48.5p each, increasing his holding to some 5.7 million shares, or just over a third of one per cent of the company. Even if you include share options, he is never going to be as rich as Richard Desmond.

Building up Mecom from nothing is quite an achievement, though more financial and managerial than journalistic. Some say that Mr Montgomery yearns for a British acquisition. Maybe, but most of our provincial titles have already had their costs hacked back though Monty might always find more savings and there is limited scope for making economies in our highly competitive national-newspaper market. A king in Europe, David Montgomery may never be crowned in his own country.

Wield your mighty pen Boris and try to forget about the mayoral chain

Political journalists are preoccupied with whether Boris Johnson (right) is going to be the next Mayor of London. This column is naturally more interested in whether he is going to continue to write a column for The Daily Telegraph.

Boris is a very good columnist indeed, which is why the Telegraph, not in the habit of throwing money around, pays him 250,000 a year for one column a week, about half his total annual emoluments. Perhaps I should say that Boris was a very good columnist indeed. Since he announced his candidature for the mayoralty, he has seemed a touch off-colour. His pieces lack their usual jaunty air. There is an aversion to stirring up controversy.

Perhaps in an increasingly hectic life he finds it difficult to snatch even the customary hour or two to entertain his Telegraph fans. Or is there a darker reason? His Labour rival Ken Livingstone has already trawled through everything Boris has ever written, and disinterred passages which he thinks justify his calling him racist and terrifyingly right-wing.

This is nonsense, of course. Boris is as gooey as a blancmange. However, one imagines the poor chap sucking his pencil on a Wednesday afternoon and wondering what he dare write that will escape Ken and his thought police. No man should be expected to write a column in such circumstances.

Perhaps, as the campaign intensifies during the coming months, the Telegraph should give Boris paid leave of absence. But what if he should win the contest? This must be a constant source of anxiety in the Johnson household, where there are mouths to feed and little Borises and Borisettes to educate. Surely even Boris knows that as Mayor of London he could scarcely go on writing a weekly knockabout newspaper column. Yet the mayor's salary is only about half his income as a columnist. If elected, he would also have to give up being an MP, with all the pay and perks.

Might this partly explain why he has not yet thrown himself into the contest with the verve his Tory handlers would like? Perhaps he is fretting about money. Or, to put it another way, he will have seen that the financial consequences of winning could be very disadvantageous to him.

Boris cannot be a top-flight politician and a highly paid, successful columnist at the same time. Personally I have always thought that the nation needs him more as a journalist than as a politician, which is why, possibly like him, I shall be rather relieved if Ken should beat him in May.

scmgox@aol.com

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