Why the Barclays need a lot of Patience

'The Sunday Telegraph' is to have its third editor in 10 months - the former business editor of 'The Times', who starts next week. Can she give the paper some direction? By Joy Lo Dico
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The Independent Online

What could be more reassuring to the disgruntled readers of The Sunday Telegraph than a new editor whose nickname is Margot, after The Good Life character. The former business editor of The Times is held in high regard as a serious journalist and scoop-taker. This is in contrast to the perception of her predecessor, Sarah Sands, sacked five weeks ago, who traditionalists thought was turning the paper into a fluff-obsessed celebrity rag.

So has Wheatcroft been brought in to return the paper to its traditions? Most people assume so, but if that is the case, what was wrong with Sands's predecessor, the cerebral former Spectator editor Dominic Lawson, who was himself sacked last June?

Since the Barclay brothers appointed Murdoch MacLennan as chief executive from the Daily Mail last year, their eyes have been set lasciviously on the younger female audience of The Mail on Sunday.

But Lawson was not thought the man to deliver these nubile readers. Sands was hauled in from the Saturday Telegraph to make seismic changes, and produce female-friendly articles and magazines that the male executives thought their target audience wanted.

So, having had three editors in less than a year, it would be surprising if staff weren't wondering what the strategy is. While the acting editor, Richard Ellis, is thought to have had a good interregnum, John Bryant, the editor-in-chief of the Telegraph Group has barely been seen on the editorial floor since he came down to address the troops five weeks ago.

Staff at her former paper, The Times, regard Wheatcroft, 54, as having the authority needed to re-establish some order and direction. "She is incredibly well-respected, and highly intelligent," says one. "She's prim and proper - like a Margaret Thatcher figure. She can express her disapproval with just an arched eyebrow. She also had amazing shoes."

Female-friendly fluff is not what Wheatcroft has been hired for. "It was a strange idea," says one ST old-timer, "given that the readership was already 50-50 male-female when Sands took over." Strange maybe, but that change of direction, in a business where success requires a degree of continuity from management, did not inspire confidence on the shop floor.

At the least, Wheatcroft, although a republican and an atheist, is expected to re-engage the core audience of conservative, older readers, many of whom have been sorely tested over the past four months. Circulation under Sands dipped to a low of 642,256 in December, but the paper rallied to its longer term average of 680,000 again in February, propped up by DVD giveaways and higher bulk sales.

One of Sarah Sands's problems was a perceived lack of support from Bryant and MacLennan. Wheatcroft does not sound like one who will have trouble rallying her troops around her. She is a friend of Bryant and knows MacLennan's style from the Mail and The Times. She also supposedly demanded a no-interference clause in her contract.

Some people at The Sunday Telegraph report low morale mixed with hope that Wheatcroft is someone they'll be able to work with. Interestingly, she will not be inheriting Sands's paper so much as her predecessor Dominic Lawson's. Sands made few appointments during her eight-month rule. But the core staff, such as acting editor Richard Ellis, "Seven" magazine editor Susannah Herbert, assistant editor Topaz Amoore and sports editor Jon Ryan, have stayed.

"It's like a piece of elastic," says a staffer. "It was stretched under Sarah and as soon as she left, we just returned to Dominic's way of doing things."

The much-derided glossy magazine, "Stella", looks set to stay in some form, but there is talk of a return to the old Gothic masthead.

The former City editor, Robert Peston, who left to become the BBC's business editor in February, believes there is a middle way. "There is lots of potential," he says. "If I were in Patience's shoes, I would both reinforce Sarah's achievements in broadening the newspaper's appeal while reinforcing the paper's traditional areas. These are not mutually exclusive ambitions." Others, though, say the issue of the ageing readership is being ducked.

Wheatcroft may find the Barclays' purse strings quite tight, and her changes, probably to news, sport and business, are at first likely to be evolutionary. She is expected to want her old friend Andrew Pierce, the assistant editor of The Times, on board, but she has a three month no-poaching agreement with The Times, so the earliest that could happen is July, coinciding with the Telegraph Group's move from Canary Wharf to Victoria. Its City editor, George Trefgarne, may also be in line for a reshuffle.

The move is expected to precipitate more restructuring, but, as one source who knows the current management style puts it wearily: "There is no strategy." Wheatcroft may be joining the paper at an ideal moment. It is in urgent need of a sense of direction and she may be the one to provide that, but she will need time.

However, for The Sunday Telegraph and its readers, tired of revolution, a little patience might be all that's wanted now.

STEPHEN GLOVER

Media comentator, 'The independent'

"It would be good if Patience Wheatcroft was seen to have the support of Murdoch McLennan and John Bryant, something they didn't do with Sarah [Sands]. They also need to work out what kind of paper The Sunday Telegraph is. It's not as if Sarah produced the relaunch off her own bat. She was encouraged by McLennan and the Barclays. The whole relaunch was too dramatic, but it was far from being a cock-up. My advice would be to look after your old readers. The paper is strong on politics, arts and books. By putting arts and books in a different section you appear to downgrade them. That won't appeal to younger women."

TREVOR GROVE

'Sunday Telegraph' editor, 1989 to 1992

"I think the paper will steady itself when the new editor arrives. I'm told Sarah was working to order in making it more girlie and - the phrase one can't escape - dumbed down. Obviously one makes bits of it appeal to that audience. But 'Stella' was a dreadful magazine. It looked like 'You' magazine at its weakest. I think 'Seven' has been done very well, even though it is an imitation of The Sunday Times's magazine. The paper won't have lost many readers. It's roughly where it has always been. It has a loyal readership and they will come back if it reverts."

KEVIN MYERS

Former columnist, 'The Sunday Telegraph'

"It was a friend to many, but it began to act as though it had a mental illness. Why is a newspaper that used to be conservative and thoughtfully right-wing behaving like a girls' celebrity magazine? Patience Wheatcroft wrote a good column in The Times. She has a fine mind and is a steady, sensible person who should be editing a newspaper. The Barclays must have been out of their minds thinking they could convert The Sunday Telegraph into a celebrity magazine. It's like turning the QE2 into a landing craft. To try and take on The Mail on Sunday is like Luxembourg declaring war on the US. The Barclays still have a lot to learn about the newspaper business."

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