Peter Cole on The Press

Meet the 'new' Telegraph: fluent in modern geek. But can the print-and-web 'media group' be all things to all readers?
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The Independent Online

I went to a conference of the World Editors Forum in Paris in 1995 where the big theme was the digital revolution and how long newspapers had got. It was an engaging culture clash, dominated numerically by the sceptics and for noise and passion by the evangelists, who had a language all their own: modern geek.

The one person who bridged the divide was a man called Ben Rooney, who spoke plain English and had no aerials coming out of his head. He was the editor of "ET" (a topical joke at the time). This was the Electronic Telegraph, which was already "up" on the internet. Unlikely though it seems now, ET, then still full of hunting and fishing and dead war heroes, was a pioneer of online newspapers.

What happened next was not much. A lack of digital enthusiasm among traditional publishers, a lack of perceived internet revenue and, most important, the bursting of the tech bubble meant that ET "parked" its service and left the way clear for the BBC and Guardian to drive online news forward.

Today, 12 years on, they're all at it. The Daily Telegraph has new owners, new quarters, a new editor, new staff and a readership that is very much the same, although smaller. But the Rooney legacy is suddenly centre stage.

His heir is Ed Roussel, a clever financial journalist formerly at Bloomberg and now digital editor of the Telegraph and a main player in the changes now going on at that newspaper - or media group, as it prefers to be called.

The new offices in London are impressive, the huge newsroom purpose-built for multi-platform publishing with its "hub" and "spokes". You are reminded of the trading floor of a finance house - which is what it was before the Telegraph bought it. Will Lewis, the 37-year-old editor for the past four months, shows you round with immense pride - not surprising since he was responsible for its creation.

The dominant feature of the floor - with its radio and TV studios at the edge of the content- gathering spokes - is the "media wall". This is vast and carries many screens displaying the website, TV news, photographs and more. There is a list of the most visited stories on the website - there, says Lewis, to remind the staff what the readers are most interested in at that time.

Top of the list the day I was there was the Peckham teenager shooting, followed by the death of the size zero model. The site sets the agenda for the day, says Lewis, (although all these stories had been in the Telegraph newspaper that morning).

Lewis uses the word "brand" a lot, insisting that the website is there to reinforce the paper. Readers like to hear Telegraph writers such as Simon Heffer speaking on a podcast, and the special and highly planned web features, like the Ashes coverage, draw in Telegraph traditionalists. However, the average reader of the paper is 56 and of the website 41, and there is a 25 per cent crossover between the two platforms.

Lewis says taking conferences out of his office and on to a table at the centre of the hub has been good for integrating paper and website and editorial engagement in both. He cites the fashion editor, Hilary Alexander, insisting on video coverage to augment a report she is doing.

Is it all working? It's early days, but certainly Lewis and Roussel have an almost-born again conviction and neither is reticent about referring to the commercial aspects of what they are engaged in. This brings us to the controversy surrounding the Telegraph's claims in its advertising that it is the most popular newspaper website in the UK; one rival has reported it to the Advertising Standards Authority.

Roussel, though, is bullish. Advertisers, he says, do not think of visitors to the site as a whole. Increasingly, the rates they pay will be determined on a pro rata basis by the number of people who see the page on which the ad is placed. He cites the VW campaign on the Ashes pages. "Revenues are more important than eyeballs," he says. They say these things at the "new" Telegraph.

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield