Peter Cole on The Press

An old-fashioned story that became a new-fangled scoop. How the Telegraph's new media made waves with Michael Grade
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The Independent Online

In one way it was an old-fashioned scoop, the sort that gets your gritted-teeth rivals sending you a congratulatory email. That happened to Jeff Randall, The Daily Telegraph's editor-at-large after his "Grade defects to ITV" story on Tuesday.

In was also a new-fashioned scoop, a prominent manifestation of the new digital media age. Although labelled as such, the story in Tuesday's Telegraph newspaper was not exclusive at all: it had been around since before 10pm the previous evening.

The Telegraph was not the only paper to pursue the web-first strategy. The Sun did the same with its Thursday story about the baby of Gordon and Sarah Brown suffering from cystic fibrosis. It boasted in the paper that the exclusive story had been revealed on its website.

Randall had learned that Michael Grade, the BBC chairman, was in talks with ITV about becoming executive chairman. Randall decided to wait until he could write the hard "appointed" as opposed to the "talks" story. He confirmed the story last Monday. He told his editor, Will Lewis, the previous Friday. The key planning for publication took place between Lewis and Randall, later joined in the secret by city editor Damian Reece.

The traditional strategy to protect and gain maximum impact from a good exclusive is to leave it out of the first edition, the one rival news desks and viewers of the closing minutes of Newsnight see as soon as they are off the presses. That way the public (or those not living in first- edition land, such as Cornwall and the Hebrides) learns of the story the following morning. It provides great excitement for the media village, and passes the readership by. The story is either in the paper or it isn't.

But the new media age requires different strategies, and Lewis and Randall saw a story as big as this as the perfect opportunity to demonstrate what the "new" Telegraph was all about. The paper has been reinventing itself, moving into smart new offices with digital news rooms. It has sacked staff, almost had a strike, and introduced its readers, many of whom must be a little confused, to a world of podcasts, blogs, afternoon edition print-offs, videos and life on the website. And it appointed a young editor who is utterly committed to, and evangelical about, the digital age.

"It's insulting to readers of the first edition to deny them the story," says Randall. "If you play games with the competition you're just playing games for London readers and saying you don't care about the others. That's how it used to be. But we are now the Telegraph Media Group and we treat all media equally, and all readers. You have to find new ways to own the story for as long as possible."

So instead of leaving the story out of the first edition - old world - Lewis and Randall orchestrated ownership in a different way - new world. The newspaper story was written first, together with all the supporting profiles, analysis, and comment. That was done by about 5pm last Monday. Randall then went into the Telegraph studio and recorded his podcast and a video of the story. While the next day's paper was being printed, its multimedia release was being orchestrated.

The story was on the website at 9.45 pm on Monday night. Randall, who was BBC business editor for five years and still presents a weekly business programme on Five Live, then made some calls. "Shortly before 10pm I called Bob Shennan, the Five Live controller," said Randall, "and tipped him off. They knew nothing about it and ran the story attributing it to the Telegraph before the BBC had confirmed it. I then rang the BBC TV news desk and it was on the Ten O'Clock News."

Randall was interviewed on Newsnight more than 24 hours after the story first appeared on the Telegraph website. He was sat in an office in front of a large sign reading "Telegraph Media Group". As an exercise in new age media management it wasn't bad.

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield