Will power: The Daily Telegraph editor talks tough

With its move to full colour complete, The Daily Telegraph is enjoying a 'new golden age', according to its editor-in-chief. Yet while he may be keen to praise his team (and himself), there are stormy waters ahead, he tells Ian Burrell
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The Independent Online

Inspite of having promised himself that he wouldn't, Will Lewis, can't help himself and, for an hour, the editor-in-chief of The Daily Telegraph and The Sunday Telegraph, reels off the gamut of superlatives: "great", "brilliant", "compelling", "wonderful", "fantastic", "efficient", "expert", "phenomenal", and his favourite expression of the moment, "formidable", an expression he draws on five times.

Lewis has laid out before him the first full-colour edition of The Daily Telegraph, which rolled off the News International-owned presses in Hertfordshire last week, and he is fairly bursting with pride. "In essence, what we have done is put a group of highly talented journalists in a room and asked them to get on with it. We have provided the means for them to express themselves in paper, online, down a mobile phone and in distribution outlets that we haven't yet announced. That is now working brilliantly. We are a united operation in a way that I haven't experienced before in newspapers," he says.

But Will, the word in the industry is that yours is the unhappiest newsroom in Fleet Street, hadn't you heard? "Yup. You are not the first to say that to me. But I will pose a question back to you. How can a paper be so bloody brilliant? How can a website be growing at a rate of 109 per cent a year, if we've got unhappy staff? It doesn't add up to me," he says.

Pausing briefly for reflection, he makes an admission. "I will concede it's not Disneyland. It's a tough place to work. Our people are very, very demanding of each other and they set very high standards. I will say this, if you can do it here, you can do it anywhere. This is probably the most demanding place to work in Fleet Street, I will admit that."

Has it become more demanding since Lewis, 39, ascended to the editor's chair two years ago, to become the youngest ever to hold that exalted position? "Yes, definitely. I'm not being disrespectful of former colleagues but I will be very clear. People are working substantially harder now than they were when I first arrived, no doubt about that.

"It was a place where the main complaint of colleagues was that they often went home not having had the chance to make a contribution because they hadn't got their story in the paper. Now there's no lack of opportunity and everyone goes home able to tell their partners or friends that they have earned their money that day."

This is not how everyone at Telegraph Media Group sees it, and the possibility of industrial action hangs in the air over a planned shake up that will do away with casual staff and end the nine-day fortnight enjoyed by a minority of journalists, while creating 40 new staff positions, many of them in what the group calls "new world" roles, such as a "data and mapping" specialist and a "digital technologist".

Lewis has spent part of the last fortnight meeting groups of staff to persuade them that it is all for the best. The north Londoner is bolstered by a natural self-confidence that itself is reinforced by a gilt-edged CV. A former business journalist on The Mail on Sunday, he excelled at the Financial Times before being hired as business editor of The Sunday Times, earning a reputation at all those papers for his incessant stream of ideas, a knack for landing exclusives and a supreme work ethic. A "formidable" journalist, you might say. He arrives in the offices of The Telegraph each morning at 7.45am, by which time the news operation is in full flow.

"We have a large number of staff who start at 6am and that's fantastic," he says. "They feel the passion of the mission and without that we wouldn't be at the races."

Tim Woodward, the executive editor, is one of those due in at 6am, but he chooses to arrive at 5.30am, before convening the first news conference of the day at 7am. "Tim's brilliant," says Lewis, who equates the demanding with "professionalism" and the axing of the nine-day fortnight as an act of "fairness" to those who work harder.

"It's a professional place. There's no glass ceiling, no concrete ceiling. People talk about morale and unhappiness, I can't compute that," he says, by now furiously turning the pages of his all-new-all-colour paper with a sense of bemusement. "You would soon know, surely? People would say 'Your paper's gone downhill' and no one says that to me... I consistently get people praising the newspaper and the website. At the end of the day do the products feel right? Yes!"

Lewis was so concerned about getting the palette right for the new look Telegraph that when he went on holiday near La Rochelle he took with him the "best colour printer of all time", so he could receive the latest prototype in its authentic tones. In London, design team Himesh Patel and Derek Bishton worked "in a smellpit of a bunker", honing the product without help from foreign-based consultants. The editor-in-chief describes the result as "organic" change, a "significant improvement but from within" that will not alienate The Telegraph's traditional readers.

That also explains why puzzles were at the heart of the redesign. Telegraph readers love puzzles. "Our readers are self-improvement obsessives. It's the last remaining intelligent paper isn't it? We reek of intelligence throughout."

When lunching a "senior military person" he was alarmed to hear that The Times' crossword was more challenging, and so has introduced an additional one called The Toughie, billed in the paper as "the most fiendishly difficult daily puzzle on Fleet Street". It will pit readers against such fiendish crossword compilers as Giovanni, Notabilis and Kcit. The word "daily" in the description of The Toughie is an acknowledgement that The Sunday Telegraph's crossword is harder.

As for the colour, he has opted for a "Petrol Blue" border for the news pages, a "Classic Blue" for business and a "Blood Red" to give authority to the comment pages and to highlight big news features. Red is the colour he sounds least sure of, admitting the team "really fought over it".

As the only broadsheet in its market, The Telegraph has to work hard on the front page above the fold to compete for the attention of casual buyers. The "puff" strip beneath the familiar gothic masthead is increasingly important and deputy editor Tony Gallagher will often revise it 10 times or more, switching colour tone and content to ensure it is "compelling", says Lewis.

Though the editor-in-chief prefers to lead on an exclusive he says the paper's base of 324,000 subscribers allows him not to overstate a story. "If it's not there, don't force it. If nothing happened today we'd be expected to say nothing happened today, that's part of the service," he says. "That's where the subscriber mentality comes in, we know we have a loyal readership who will buy it even if there isn't an exclusive story, so we don't have to overreach ourselves like a tabloid."

And besides, he has Matt on his front page, "the most brilliant cartoon anywhere in Britain now and for evermore".

Sales of The Daily Telegraph in August were 860,298, down 3.1 per cent year-on-year but slightly outperforming the quality market. Some might be surprised to hear Lewis talking enthusiastically about the so-called dead tree industry, given his reputation as a digital evangelist. But the two are inextricably linked he emphasises and Matt, for example, is also "a giant online".

The Telegraph website enjoyed a surge in interest during August when the Olympics and the Georgia conflict propelled it to unheard of levels of traffic. "There has been a structural shift off the back of those two stories," says Lewis. "You didn't really experience the Olympics unless you experienced it online. I have not watched the Olympics at all on TV, I've had it entirely as an online experience and not missed one bit."

The site has grown a large American audience who come to it especially for stories on terror and the state of the dollar. "Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, our international business editor, is an American journalism rock star, when he writes it's like Bono performing in a giant stadium, hundreds of thousands of Americans come to read him."

Africans read the website mainly for one subject. "Arsenal is consistently in the top three most searched for items," says the West Ham-supporting editor-in-chief. "It is the most popular things by a gazillion miles for our African readership which totals several million people. We were writing a lot about Arsenal, we now write more about Arsenal."

The area that Telegraph Media Group "can't serve up fast enough" to its audience, says Lewis, is Telegraph TV. "That's the place where the maximum attention is going, it's a key part of our future, and it's already making money," he says. "We are looking at star big name TV people as a potential addition, but I think we are as excited about talent from within."

He praises "Whispering Bob" Miller, who makes the show Business Bullet, as well as Harry Wallop (consumer affairs correspondent) and Claudine Beaumont (technology editor), AKA The Gadget Inspectors, and Andrew Pierce's political Westminster Whispers. Telegraph TV has even had a try at comedy with former investment banker Sameh El-Shahat's Holy Cows.

"I don't want it to sound like 'A tremendous series of successes'," says Lewis, putting on a strange voice. "But it is."

Then he remembers the impending threat of industrial action, and conjures up a nautical metaphor to outline his position. "There's an economic storm and we need to take measures – it was my conclusion we needed to batten down the hatches to ensure that we could continue to thunder on through the storm," he says. "The alternative was unpalatable, not adding to staff but reducing staff."

Lewis managed to talk staff out of strike action two years ago, and he will hope for a similar result this time. He is unapologetic about having recruited so heavily from Associated Newspapers ("they're a fantastically well-trained people", he says, as if talking about the Gurkhas), but adds that others have joined from elsewhere, such as The Financial Times.

"What we are attempting to do is fuse the traditional Telegraph culture, our heritage, with the fantastic professionalism of the people from Associated Newspapers, with the brilliance and creativity of people we have recruited from News International, The Financial Times and Bloomberg."

The suggestion that some observers feel the "last remaining intelligent paper" has moved downmarket under his watch, leaves him almost lost for words. "Show me what's inappropriate! Err, err, err," he stammers, turning the pages furiously once again. "It's so wrong, in my own mind I can't even begin to compute it."

No, The Telegraph is in "a new golden age", he insists. "We have put together a group of people that are phenomenally talented. On the back of full colour we have real momentum now. I didn't mean to be unrelentingly positive but that's the way I feel."

Click here to read Ian Burrell's blog on Lewis and The Telegraph