My conscience has been nagging me this past week after I suggested that, at 35, James Murdoch may be a little young to be running Britain's largest newspaper group. How old was Alexander the Great when he conquered Persia? Or Attila when he started laying waste to Europe? The more I thought about it, the more unfair it seemed to make an issue of young Mr Murdoch's age.
As I was brooding over this, he said something which confirms that he is far from being a geek with lots of trendy, untested ideas. Addressing his own staff, he spoke out against integrating daily and Sunday newspapers into seven-day operations, dismissing the process as "cost-cutting exercises".
Mr Murdoch may have been referring to The Daily Telegraph Media Group, which has largely integrated its daily and Sunday titles, and carried out a number of redundancies. But The Guardian and The Observer have also been turning themselves into a seven-day operation, and The Independent and The Independent on Sunday share more and more editorial resources. By contrast, the Sunday titles overseen by Mr Murdoch, namely The Sunday Times and the News of the World, remain stand-alone journalistic operations, separate from their daily stablemates.
In this argument, Mr Murdoch can be said to be the voice of tradition. Against him are those who say that if Saturday newspapers can be produced out of a Monday to Friday operation, surely Sunday titles can be as well. For most publishers Saturday is the strongest day of the week; for many Sunday is increasingly problematic. How can one justify having a separate (and costly) journalistic staff for a Sunday paper when, as everyone knows, many of them do rather little work on Tuesday or Wednesday, and often do not fully wake up until Friday, if then?
So the modernisers have argued. There are even those, such as my old colleague and friend Peter Wilby on The Guardian, who assert that quite soon there will be no distinctive Sunday newspapers at all. Peter has spent many years in a lengthy and distinguished career on various Sunday papers, and can remember the day J L Garvin first occupied the editorial chair at The Observer during that long, enchanted Edwardian summer before the lights went out. If such a venerable authority declares that the game is up for stand-alone Sundays, who are we to doubt him?
And yet I cannot prevent myself from pointing out one or two home-truths. Which are the most successful Sunday titles in their respective markets? The Sunday Times, The Mail on Sunday and the News of the World. And what do these papers have in common? They all have their own editorial staffs and remain wholly unintegrated. I grant that my argument may seen vulnerable in respect of the News of the World, which has lost a lot of sales over the past 25 years and is being overtaken by its daily sibling, The Sun, but it has hardly yet gone the way of Nineveh and Tyre. No one will dispute, I think, that The Sunday Times and The Mail on Sunday are strong and profitable titles.
Let me also summon as a further exhibit The Observer, which although still unprofitable, has outperformed its rivals in terms of sales in recent years. Until recently it has been a stand-alone title, and I would suggest it has partly flourished because it was separate from its sister paper, The Guardian. Now, out of considerations of cost-cutting referred to by Mr Murdoch, as well, I fear, for reasons of envy, the poor Observer is being colonised by Alan Rusbridger, The Guardian's editor, and his commissars. The two papers share new departmental heads, all of whom, with one exception, came from The Guardian rather than The Observer.
To those who say that if Saturday newspapers can be produced out of a Monday to Friday operation, so can Sunday ones, I suggest the truth may be different. Readers do not want something on a Sunday that is a replica of what they were offered the previous day. Only a zealot would rule out sharing some resources between a Sunday and a daily paper: foreign correspondents, being prohibitively expensive, are a good example. But Sunday titles can only survive, and ideally thrive, in what is a difficult market if they are distinctive, and the best, probably the only, way of making them so is to have a dedicated group of journalists.
Young Mr Murdoch is right. Though other arguments are deployed, Sunday and daily titles are being integrated for reasons of cost. I haven't heard anyone argue that this process will produce better, or more successful, Sunday newspapers. The truth is that it won't.
Doomed by a one-sided argument
Polly Toynbee's tirades against the Daily Mail in The Guardian are always highly enjoyable, and last week she excelled even her own high standards. As Polly sees it, the Mail with "its doom laden poison" is responsible for pretty well everything that is wrong with our society.
Yet there was a phrase in Polly's romp that made even me sit up. She wrote of "too many newspapers competing for a shrinking readership." This is an odd thing for any journalist to write, however aerated.
Surely as a democrat Polly should welcome the multiplicity of titles in this country. In an ideal world, wouldn't there be even more? I suspect that Polly doesn't really like newspapers because too many of them contain articles with which she disagrees. She doesn't really dig diversity. In Polly's perfect state we would only read The Guardian, and preferably only her column. But whom would she then rail against?
The Times has recently put its archive online, and for the time being access is free. Every issue between 1785 and 1985 can be read at timesonline.co.uk/archive. It is enormous fun to browse and, of course, the archive is an inexhaustible resource for historians. My only plea is that it should remain free. In that case, The Guardian, which charges £7.95 a day or £49.95 a month for access to The Guardian and The Observer archive, might be shamed into making its service free. James Murdoch would then have the solace of doing a public good while clipping The Guardian Media Group's profits.Reuse content