Rise and fall of a newspaper empire in express decline

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The Independent Online

Media Correspondent

When William Maxwell Aitken arrived in Britain in 1910 from the Canadian town of Newcastle, New Brunswick, he had little idea he was to become one of the great newspaper proprietors of the century. By his death in 1964, he had a pounds 12.5m fortune, owned the Express newspaper group, and had been raised to the peerage as the first Lord Beaverbrook.

He bought the Express in 1916. It was then 16 years old, losing money, with a circulation of 277,000 and a cover price of a ha'penny. It was founded by C Arthur Pearson in opposition to Alfred Harmsworth's Daily Mail, and the two titles have been in locked in battle ever since.

Beaverbrook's arrival began a 30-year period of continuous success at the Express. With his arrival circulation soared, profits were ploughed back into the business, and every big city had a Daily Express reporter. Circulation rose from 1.69 million in 1930 to 4.3 million in 1960.

Two years after acquiring the Express Beaverbrook launched its Sunday sister with a print run of 300,000. Circulation swelled under the successive editors John Gordon, Harold Keeble and John Junor, from 1 million in 1931, 2 million in 1945, 3 million in 1950 to 4.4 million in 1961.

It was in the early Sixties that the edifice began to crumble.Lord Beaverbrook died in 1964 and a decline began at Beaverbrook Newspapers, not helped by the thwarting of plans to become the first national newspaper to introduce new technology in the early 1970s.

In 1977 the group was sold to Trafalgar House for pounds 14.6m and renamed Express Newspapers. The following year the Daily Star was launched - the first new national newspaper for 75 years. But seven years later the group was sold to United Newspapers.

Over the next few years big cuts were made, with staff falling from almost 7,000 to 1,700. The famous black glass building at 121 Fleet Street was sold for pounds 80m and in 1989 the last Daily Express was printed there.

Despite a relaunch of the Sunday by its then editor Eve Pollard, in 1991, neither the daily nor Sunday titles have been able to lift themselves out of the doldrums. It was not until the appointment of new editors late last year - Richard Addis at the Daily Express and Sue Douglas at the Sunday Express - that Lord Stevens has shown any inclination to spend money on the newspapers. But last month, saw sweeping changes across both titles in a bid to lure in younger readers. The Express now boasts a new masthead, new columnists (out go Esther Rantzen and Robert Kilroy- Silk; in come Mary Kenny and Philip Norman), a celebrity-led letters page, an exhumed diary column (William Hickey) and new or revamped health and features sections.

Ms Douglas faces an even tougher job at the Sunday, where sales are at an all-time low. In January they fell to 1.27 million.