Out with high tables, and in with hard news

More pumped up than patrician, Martin Newland, new editor of 'The Telegraph', talks to Jane Thynne
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The Independent Online

The one thing everyone remembers about Martin Newland the last time he was at The Daily Telegraph was the sight of his rippling muscles being pumped in the company gym. Now, plucked from the National Post in Canada to become the newspaper's surprise new editor, he is still planning to sweat it out alongside his journalists.

It's hard to imagine Max Hastings or Charles Moore on the step machine, but the 41- year-old Newland is plainly going to differ markedly from his predecessors. An approachable, jovial father of four, and surely the only Fleet Street editor to have youthful experience as a catwalk model (he modelled clothes but attempts to make it a career foundered), Newland is about as far from the patrician Tory as you could get.

Though he had risen to home editor before he left for a five-year stint as deputy editor of the Post - formerly part of the empire of Telegraph proprietor Lord Black - his hands-on style suggests he will be more likely be found on the backbench in shirt sleeves than having lunch with the Home Secretary. Indeed his appointment was met with a degree of astonishment among staff. "If it's him, why not me?" asked one newsroom reporter.

But that is to underrate the talents for which he was chosen. Selecting a true newspaperman, instead of an ideol- ogue, may signal Lord Black's aim to refocus on what has always been The Telegraph's key strength: its news. After the spate of libertarian campaigns on its editorial pages, such as Beebwatch, Newland is keen to innovate in news.

"In North America, one of their great tools was if you had a big news story on the front, you would have beside it a 'voice' - a commentator - and that would tend to represent a little more of what the paper would like to say," he explains in his first interview since being appointed last week. "I think I'll be testing how far you can get away with that.

"Definitely I want a more exciting presentation of news. I find a lot of people look at papers and they all have the same stories on the front, so the difference for the reader depends on something stupid like the masthead. I'll be rushing for an identity that is immediately apparent on the front page. I want to have The Telegraph shouting a little more stridently and to show a readiness to play down the worthy story and show your heart - though of course I will also be aiming to increase readers."

Which is burying the lead story. For, like other broadsheets, The Telegraph has suffered both a sales decline and a crippling advertising recession. Circulation under Charles Moore tumbled 12 per cent, below the magic million mark to around 920,000, partially due to a bitter price war with The Times. The paper's financial recovery is crucial to Lord Black's publishing empire, currently dogged by cashflow problems and clashes with shareholders.

Yet Newland insists that getting back to a million sales has not been part of his brief. "There's far too much focus on the 'decline of The Telegraph', largely due to a sensible decision to strip out bulk sales which other publishers aren't doing. I would hate you to come away with the impression I am a last-gasp Lord Black placeman to save the ailing Telegraph. How can you describe as ailing reaching over two million ABC1 readers? Two million influential, rich people a day?"

Influential, rich, but, unfortunately, old. More than half the readers are over 55, and only 17 per cent are under 35, compared with 30 per cent of The Times readership. Telegraph readers are dying faster than they can be replaced.

"When you talk about old people, you make them sound like a bunch of lepers," Newland protests. "They are and have been our constituency readers and we love them and look after them. It's not a question of getting rid of old readers and substituting them with young ones, it's a constant life process. With younger readers, the first thing they spot is when they're being patronised - hey, this fluffy, monosyllabic piece is for you. So we'll give them news, but there are ways of doing that with more accessibility, mischief and design."

Besides, the paper's rivals have problems of their own. "The thing about The Telegraph is it says first the thing that everyone's thinking. Whereas The Times I find far more tentative and it jumps according to what we do. We're the market leader; they've spent millions to get nowhere. They're still 300,000 behind us, and being obsessed by us, they don't pay enough attention to what they are."

One way he will not be luring new readers is with a strong party political agenda. Newland doesn't want to be boxed in over the euro and he is giving the Conservative Party conference a miss - "that's Charles' arena this year". While the traditional support for Conservative values isn't under threat, the "Torygraph" image is one he'd like to shake off. "We'll guard the core values, but relations with parties need to reside on a set of principles. If partisan politics fail those principles, we'll hit them.

"We are above all a paper of Middle England and I've never known a sector of society that is more having the shit kicked out of them."

Said with feeling. After being sacked from his job at the Post in May, after it had passed out of Lord Black's control, Newland found himself transporting his wife and children - Evelyn, Otto, Raphael and Gabriel - back to a financial hiatus in London. Getting the editorship was a surprise he's still recovering from. "The way I feel now is like when you step into a road and a bus misses you by one inch and for 10 seconds you're stunned and delighted to be alive. And then you think, what do I do next?"

One thing he could ponder is his relationship with his proprietor. Max Hastings recalls the horror of Lord Black ringing after midnight to discuss Kurdistan or IVF, or to demand the sacking of correspondents who wrote rude things about his friends. Newland says he has spoken to him just four times in five years.

"I don't know how closely I'll work with Conrad. He is an interested proprietor, but that doesn't mean he's an interfering one.

"He's a proprietor like there are no more. As long as he continues to show this wonderful attitude to newspapers, shaking things up and risk-taking, I'll be able to follow him."