Who'd be a newspaper manager these days? You usually end up toiling at the mercy of crazy economics or egonomics
Monday 04 August 1997
The past week has seen the abrupt departure of top executives from both warring camps. Chris Maybury, general manager of The Times and master of the Wapping propaganda machine throughout the price war, has left to take up a senior position outside the media industry. Almost simultaneously, Chris Haslum, deputy managing director of the Telegraph Group, has parted company after just one year in that post.
Speculation is rife that Haslum (who joined the Telegraph 11 years ago) is being made the scapegoat for its disastrously expensive direct subscription drive. The "seven issues for pounds 1" offer has shored up the circulation of the two Telegraph titles but at a catastrophic financial cost, wiping almost pounds 20m off the bottom line for Hollinger, the papers' Canadian parent group.
Rupert Murdoch is replacing Maybury with a Murdoch son-in-law, Alasdair MacLeod, husband of his eldest daughter Prudence (the only child from his first marriage), who is now roughly on a par with the three children from his second marriage, Elisabeth, Lachlan and James, all of whom hold powerful posts in BSkyB and News Corporation.
Observers both inside and outside the Murdoch empire are startled by the degree to which the Dirty Digger is succumbing to nepotism. His desire to keep it in the family could wreck quite a few career plans.
Even more disturbing to those who aspire to clamber up the greasy pole in his global media conglomerate is the fact that it appears to be governed by ego as much as economics. As Media Week reports, there is growing feeling among Murdoch's top lieutenants that his desire to establish The Times as market leader at whatever cost is being driven by a blind personal obsession to finish off The Telegraph.
The word in Wapping, apparently, is that management of The Times need to adopt a more patient and sophisticated strategy, taking a cool, hard look at the product, which has not undergone as much of a dynamic transformation in the past few years as its soaring sales graph might suggest.
The editor of The Times, Peter Stothard, cannot relax, for he hasn't a clue how much of the circulation increase reflects the quality of the paper he and his staff produce and how much is down to "carpet-bombing" promotions and price-cutting. He does, on the other hand, have the small comfort of knowing that none of Murdoch's Ivy League-educated offspring appears to be attracted to the grubby world of newspaper journalism. They want to be media barons, not mere editors!
But few media gossipmongers found it difficult to believe the recent rumour that Stothard was going to be replaced by the man who was undoubtedly Murdoch's first choice for editor of The Times, Paul Dacre. That rumour turned out to be untrue. Dacre is sticking with the Daily Mail, for now anyway.
Put on the spot, Stothard couldn't deny that many of the people who buy The Times on a Monday only do so because it is virtually a freesheet - as proven by the number who switch back to a rival title for the rest of the week.
When they break down the daily demographic details, advertisers are not overly impressed by the quality of the readers attracted to the cut- price Times. Media buyers no longer see the one-time "top people's paper" as a true premium brand. Consequently, they are not prepared to stump up much of a premium for space on its pages. The Telegraph still commands much higher ad rates than The Times.
But for how much longer it can continue to do so is a moot point. A deep fear must stalk its boardroom at the Isle of Dogs that many of its 270,000 direct subscribers - accounting now for more than a quarter of The Telegraph's average daily sale - will desert in droves when the "seven issues for pounds 1" offer ends.
In the latest issue of adland's weekly bible Campaign, Bill Kinlay, of the independent media buyer The Network, chides The Telegraph's management for being "too often in defensive mode ... merely responding to events".
Colin Robinson, the head of press at BBJ Media Services, defends the subscription strategy as an efficient sampling operation. "In the fmcg business they will tell you if a product is any good, sampling is the best way of promoting sales." For those not versed in marketing jargon, fmcg stands for "fast-moving consumer goods".
Is that what Britain's two establishment broadsheets have been reduced to? All right, to some extent that's what every newspaper is - an fmcg (though some clearly move faster off the shelves than others). Never more so than today, when a rising percentage of papers are flogged in supermarkets and service stations.
But the people running quality titles, particularly The Times, used to have a more elevated outlook than mere marketeers. They operated in the earnest belief that they weren't just running a business, but were also charged with the stewardship of a prestigious institution performing an important role in the governance of this realm.
A decade and a half of rule by Rupert Murdoch has certainly put paid to that institutional myth. Not entirely a bad thing.
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