'Telegraph' is shaken but not stirred

Strike averted. Mission accomplished. The new editor of the 'Telegraph' is shaken but not stirred. But are his demoralised staff really 'up for it'?
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It was never going to be another Wapping. But there was still a palpable sense of relief on the part of Will Lewis, The Daily Telegraph's new editor, when journalists voted on Friday to postpone a strike that would have disrupted his radical vision of the newspaper's future.

"This is a little domestic which I hope we've dealt with," he said of the dispute over rotas. "But everyone's been very common sense and Daily Telegraph about it and now, wow! Just watch us."

There was indeed a curious irony in the idea of striking journalists warming their hands round the braziers outside their new offices. Old-fashioned industrial action was never meant to happen at a title that sees itself as the most forward-looking newspaper. Just a couple of weeks ago, journalists were ushered to their workstations at the shiny new "hub and spoke" newsroom.

But, it seems, no amount of angst can sap Will Lewis's evangelism for the multimedia integration of Telegraph newspapers. Indeed, he forecasts, the rest of the industry will have to follow his lead, or perish. "This has in no sense diluted our sense of excitement and enthusiasm for what we're doing. I reckon we're about one year ahead of our competitors and they can either follow us or die."

Although he has spent the past few days apologising to staff for "crap" communications on working conditions and accepting part of the blame, he also warns: "We're way advanced from our competitors but there's a huge amount of nitty-gritty and day- to-day administration. There's no magic wand to wave."

Lewis can be forgiven a sense of being thrown in at the deep end. In the course of his short editorship, he has overseen the move to Victoria - which contributed to last week's £12m loss for the Telegraph Group, compared to a profit of £31.6m in the previous year - and has also implemented a raft of redundancies, the scale and method of which has contributed to immense ill-feeling among journalists. And last week the paper's star writer, Craig Brown, turned his satirical guns on those - we can reasonably guess who he meant - who say newspapers have to adapt or die (see right).

Lewis is rapidly discovering that while editing newspapers is partly about vision, it is also about man management. Being young (37) and egalitarian, and never having edited before, may account for his bewilderment at the antagonism between management and staff. "This is not a 'them and us' situation," he insists. "We have no option but to change. I say to people, 'This is your Telegraph. Sort it out.' We will only work in a digital world if it's not top-down any more. Creative enthusiasm has to come from individuals."

In a letter to journalists last week, he conveyed a mix of incomprehension and incredulity that some staff may diverge from his vision so far as to strike. "In this industry, only a real Luddite would argue that no one should have to start work before 10am, or work on Saturday, without extra payments," he protested. "Anyone who is aware of what is happening in the media world must realise the madness of such demands. Newspapers, and those who work for them, have to evolve if they are to survive in an increasingly competitive environment. Our competitors are doing so and so must we. That means being more flexible about how and when we work."

By the end of the week, however, he was more consensual. "What really emerged from the union demands was that they were unhappy with Saturday working, and amazingly I listened to people and said, hey, they've got a point, let's change. That's all. It doesn't have to be complicated."

Management has now removed the compulsory requirement for production staff to work on Saturdays, and agreed to consult on "family friendly" arrangements as well as the new rota, under which some reporters will come in at 7.30am or 8am without extra pay to prepare copy for the website. Yet even if disagreement over shifts and overtime payments abates, there remains a rumbling discontent at the level of staff cuts.

"It's not so much the shifts, it's more that everybody is so deeply fed up and there is so much residual anger," says one member of staff. "For the past 20 months we've been waking up every morning feeling sick and thinking, is this the day we will lose our jobs?"

Another says: "I know it's old- fashioned to strike and people in Sainsbury's work Sundays for no extra pay, but the way they have treated the staff is so awful that people here have been joining the union to protest."

Departures at the paper are continuing. After last week's resignation of the Berlin correspondent, The Daily Telegraph has lost six foreign staff in a month and has no contracted employees in Europe. Bars are booked up with farewell parties - gloomy events where a distinct etiquette is observed. "You don't ask the person what they're planning to do," says a journalist. "To be laid off from a prestigious post in your late forties is hard, and it's unlikely they'll be able to get something similar. If you do ask, most give the stock reply that they're writing a book."

To many long-serving staff, it is still surprising that the once staid and conservative Telegraph should be the focus of so much public tribulation. If it's not the image of journalists grappling with multimedia training, it's the vivid and gossipy detail of the Conrad Black years currently being played out in the press.

For some, there remains a fear that the entire tone and quality of the paper is being altered by the influx of executives, largely from the Daily Mail, whose approach differs markedly from previous editorships.

"I remember Charles Moore saying, 'I had an interesting conversation with Tom Stoppard last night and he gave me an idea,' " recalls one staffer. "It's hard to imagine any of these new executives swapping editorial ideas with Tom Stoppard."

If such issues trouble Lewis, he does not show it. "We are now making really exciting inroads into the digital arena. Our coverage of the US elections on text, audio and video was superlative. We have a huge multi-media plan for the Ashes."

There are still many issues to consider. Lewis is keenly aware of the price sensi-tivity of newspapers and the 117,000 circulation drop recorded by The Sunday Times since it raised its cover price to £2. But he is not ready to make any pronouncements about his strategy. "We've only just moved in and started unpacking the boxes. All that matters right now is that we can now move forward as a team and people are really up for it."

Comments