Who at the 'Telegraph' will survive Monday's deadline?

When the crunch comes in the 'Telegraph' cull, the question of who stays or goes will be complicated
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It is 19 years since Conrad Black took control of the Telegraph titles and Max Hastings succeeded William Deedes as editor of The Daily Telegraph. Hastings recalls in his account of those early days in charge "a long procession of old men" passing through his office and telling him of the "assurances" they had been given by the previous proprietor that they would be "looked after".

In those paternalistic days of the Hartwell ownership, a pension was a promise and security was hoping somebody kept his word. We have moved on, at least in the area of employment contracts. This weekend some Telegraph journalists will be relieved about that.

New owners, Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay; new management, led by Murdoch MacLennan, ex-Mail tough man; relatively new editor in Martin Newland (he took over while the paper was being sold); the declared need to make staff cuts to secure the future. All are echoes of 1986.

This is not the first round of redundancies in national newspapers, and will not be the last. I remember the night of the brown envelopes when the Daily Sketch closed (I was on a sister paper, the London Evening News, itself to close later). I remember the anguish of fighting to keep the Sunday Correspondent alive, and seeing it die. And I watched in disbelief while working at The Sunday Times when that most profitable of newspapers had one of its "culls" - a few sackings to keep the rest of the staff on their toes.

Tomorrow is the deadline for the Telegraph voluntary redundancy applications, and it seems that the target of 90 sought by MacLennan will just about be reached. But that will not be the end of it.

These downsizing, cost-cutting operations are always complicated, and in newspapers they seem more so. There is no defined minimum number of journalists needed to publish a newspaper. There is no scientific formula to relate quality of journalism to number of journalists, just as there is no such formula to relate quality of journalism to number of copies sold.

Some have tried to deconstruct the journalistic process as if it were a car production line. They have tried to standardise how long it takes to research/write/sub-edit a story, and then apply it to productivity. It does not work because every story is different. We should not forget car production lines are staffed by robots.

Journalists on major regional titles are incredulous that it takes more than 500 journalists to produce the Daily and Sunday Telegraph each week. The justifications, once you get above the minimum needed simply to produce a paper, are all in the areas of thinking, discussing, exploring, investigating, conceiving, challenging and being sceptical, particularly where politicians are concerned. It is easy to sneer at the idea of this as "activity" but it is the root of good journalism.

The trouble is, the amount of it you build in must be arbitrary, and the view of what is needed will differ massively between those engaged in headlines and those delivering bottom lines. In Daily Telegraph terms, do you need six leader writers to produce three leaders a day?

The problem for MacLennan and his two editors, Newland and Dominic Lawson - said to be far away from the office flak on holiday - is that many of the volunteers for redundancy are coming from the young, talented, employable and mobile whom the papers do not want to lose. This is always the way. The stars can be tempted by a lump sum when they know they will walk into another job tomorrow.

So you have the "wish list", those who are applying to go, and you have what has become known as "Martin's list", those who the editor would not mind going. Management will decide who can take voluntary redundancy. Some who would like to go are cautious in case they are turned down and have to work on in what they assume would be career blight.

The more reflective among the Telegraph journalists will recognise that there will not be waves of public sympathy for well-paid journalists leaving with a month's pay for every year they have worked, and there are many others across the economy being made redundant more brutally and with inferior compensation.

It is difficult for the victims, in any business, to accept they are going in order that the enterprise may prosper. MacLennan has put it in terms of printing. Unless the Telegraph invests £150m in new colour presses it will not be competitive in attracting and charging for advertising. That must be true. MacLennan and the Barclays have decided that the investment must come from payroll savings.

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield

Comments