The man who killed Today holds the key to tomorrow

By the time the news was made official last week that Today would close, it was nearly an anti-climax. The rumours had been far more exciting, if fanciful, and seemed to presage yet another wholesale restructuring of the industry.

The hottest speculation had Rupert Murdoch buying as much as 25 per cent of United News & Media, to secure some control over the ailing Express titles and to help the Daily Express challenge the might of the Daily Mail for the first time in a decade. The persistence of the rumour - outlandish as it might have appeared - had even seasoned newspaper executives wondering. Would the Government let Murdoch swap Today for a part of the Daily Express?

Soberer heads conceded the logic but rejected the specifics. Lord Stevens, United's chairman, has been desperately looking for a way to push up his company's share price, on which the declining profits of the Express titles, along with a slow and steady fall in circulation, have taken their toll. At the right price, say pounds 300m-pounds 400m, he might be willing to sell his national titles, perhaps to a consortium led by Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, who confirmed that he would put up pounds 100m. If Lord Stevens was willing to sell outright, might he not also welcome an investment from outside?

With the departure earlier this month of Sir Nicholas Lloyd as editor of the Express, and 200 redundancies, plans are apparently in train to seek cost-cutting alliances with other newspaper groups - by merging back-office functions, for instance.

Meanwhile, with the demise of Today, it may even be time to consider closing the struggling Daily Star, the far-from twinkling sister to the Express titles. Murdoch has shown that well-established national newspapers can and do fail.

The Monopolies and Mergers Commission would have to review any attempt by Murdoch to increase his control of the UK newspaper industry. This makes a Murdoch raid on the Express less believable. Yet for those who believe in conspiracy theories the connection is not so outlandish. According to one favourite rumour, Murdoch had done a deal with the Government, refusing to sell Today to Mohamed al-Fayed, owner of Harrods, in exchange for a freer ride when new cross-media ownership rules are unveiled at the end of the month.

Even sceptics were convinced that Murdoch had been weighing his political options when he shut down Today. In its final edition last Friday, the paper ran a full-page advert offering every reader a free copy of Saturday's Sun and a cheery message from Tony Blair inviting them to read his column in Murdoch's downmarket flagship. Murdoch was hoping to lure most of Today's 500,000 readers to one of his other titles. But it also reinforced the growing expectation that at least one of his remaining titles will endorse Labour at the next general election. No deal, then, just a bet that after the election, the environment might be a bit more conducive to the expansion of Murdoch's business interests.

Commercial considerations are more significant. The closure of Today was the latest proof of how difficult it is to make money in the mid-market, where the Mail reigns so supreme. Cheeky, left-leaning Today could make no headway, despite the efforts of one of Fleet Street's most respected editors, Richard Stott. The Express, starved of investment and original thinking, has found it increasingly difficult to stand up to the Mail. Only with serious money behind it could the Express beat the Mail. No wonder so many believed Murdoch might have been the answer.

Last week, Murdoch took steps to ensure there would be even more money available to him. His decision to raise the price of the Times to 30p marked the beginning of the end of the price war. The higher price will improve revenue prospects just months before newsprint costs are expected to peak.

Whatever the outcome, the rumours prove that no restructuring of the British newspaper industry is possible without Murdoch. It was his launching of a price war two years ago that showed newspapers up for what they were - commodities sensitive to price and capacity. It was he who forced the pace on cost-cutting, by compelling competitors to follow his lead. And it was he who did the unthinkable, closing down a national title, so leading us all across a psychological Rubicon.

He sets the agenda, and others follow.

MATHEW HORSMAN

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