When Jason Seiken stood on the stage in the conference theatre at the headquarters of The Daily Telegraph last week he could have been excused a sense of trepidation.
The editor-in-chief and chief content officer at Telegraph Media Group is a confident public speaker, given to rousing presentations on the media’s digital future during his days at the US broadcaster PBS and online giant AOL. But this was a very different scenario.
One of the Telegraph’s most successful editors of recent times, Tony Gallagher, had just been brutally fired. Seiken, a bald American whose name is pronounced “Psychen” and who had spent most of his first four months at the publisher cooped up in his office, now had to introduce himself to a bemused staff.
He accepted that he had been reclusive – gathering email feedback on how the organisation might change. He acknowledged that some regarded him as a television and internet executive. And then he reeled off anecdotes from his time as a reporter on The Patriot Ledger in Massachusetts, knocking on the door of bereaved parents or bringing down a local mayor with an investigative series. He mentioned his time leading the online operation at The Washington Post. He finally won over the foot soldiers by saying that reporters – and not the paper’s desk managers – would decide the angles on stories. When the speech ended, Seiken was given spontaneous applause.
Some executives were less impressed. To them, his words were platitudes – so much “digital baloney”. After all these weeks, Seiken still did not have a credible strategy.
When Gallagher left he was given a traditional “banging out” by those who most admired him. Others watched the hard-man editor go with a sense of relief. Across Fleet Street, the sacking was greeted with shock. Gallagher was admired as a brilliant news man, the journalist who masterminded the Telegraph’s award-winning coverage of the MPs’ expenses scandal in 2009. Why would the organisation want rid of him?
Seiken was hired by Telegraph Media Group (TMG) chief executive Murdoch MacLennan last September to reposition the publisher just as he had revitalised PBS in the US. Gallagher, who previously turned down the editor-in-chief role because he wanted to remain at the heart of the news operation, was unimpressed by Seiken’s reluctance to set out a vision.
MacLennan had a problem. Company chairman Aidan Barclay (the son of Sir David Barclay, who owns the business with his brother Sir Frederick) wants TMG to emulate the successful digital transformation that he oversaw with the catalogue company Littlewoods.
TMG might be one of the most profitable UK newspaper publishers, but it has lost its way technologically. Its website has stagnated and its iPad app has been problematic. The 50 digital hires promised as recompense for a round of 80 redundancies last year have not materialised. To Telegraph old-timers, Seiken is just the latest of six digital “gurus” whom MacLennan has hired to navigate the new world for him – and then let go.
MacLennan had already fired six editors (on the daily and Sunday papers) since he arrived at TMG in 2004. He decided to sack Gallagher, too. To some, the editor was an obstacle to the cultural change that Seiken wished to introduce. To others, he was sacrificed to make MacLennan and the new man look like they had a plan.
Where now for the Telegraph? There will be an effort to take the title upmarket and less like its old rival the Mail. But the new weekday Telegraph editor, Chris Evans (previously characterised as Gallagher’s henchman), and weekend editor, Ian MacGregor, both originate from the Mail stable. They are “acting” editors, suggesting that they are on probation and Seiken is in charge, but he will depend on them to keep the papers coming out.
There have been signs of change, with front-page pictures of Kiev riots and then King Lear at the National Theatre last week being untypical of Gallagher’s product. But the physical paper will probably alter very little because MacLennan, himself a veteran of the Mail’s publisher, Associated Newspapers, will be wary of jeopardising the Telegraph’s print product – which makes nearly all the company’s £61m annual profits – by handing it over to someone with no experience of the competitive UK national newspaper market.
Seiken has asked that key staff journalists are not wasted rewriting copy from other online publishers and chasing the “clickbait” found on the Huffington Post site and Mail Online. Most of all, he wants to end the traditionally hierarchical newsroom structure – so successfully operated by Paul Dacre at the Mail – because he worries that it will inhibit recruitment of the best digital talent, for which there is no shortage of competition within and beyond the news industry. His mantra is that staff must be encouraged to take risks without fear of failure.
Seiken rebuilt the reputation of staid PBS by getting the broadcaster to make online-specific content such as its YouTube channel PBS Ideas. Unsurprisingly, he sees video as key to making people think differently about the 159-year-old Telegraph, which has the oldest readership in the national press.
He has invited staff to audition as video presenters in a process dubbed “Telegraph’s Got Talent”, delighting some and provoking snorts of derision from others. The paper has history in this area. Telegraph TV, championed by previous editor Will Lewis, was before its time and never made money. The readership wasn’t ready for programme gems such as Heffer and Liddle Unleashed, starring former columnists Simon Heffer and Rod Liddle.
Instead of imitating TV broadcasters – Sky News, for example – the Telegraph will seek to rival the likes of Vice by making videos that exploit its expertise in areas such as lifestyle, where it already enjoys success with its daily online section Wonder Women. It’s an idea – although Jason Seiken will need much more than this. But then he shouldn’t fear failure – he can only get the sack.
Newsnight disses its own and opts for the Vice vibe
I’m enjoying the revitalised Newsnight under new editor Ian Katz because you never know quite what to expect. But I was unsettled by the intro from Kirsty Wark last Wednesday on a story about the narcotic plant khat, the social chew of choice for sections of the Somali community. “We asked the magazine and TV channel Vice to look at the subject for us…” said Wark. What? It’s hardly an unknown issue – couldn’t the BBC deploy some of its own 5,000 publicly funded journalists to cover it? Vice is a savvy collaborator (I wrote last week of its alliance with the gay rights group Stonewall on a film about homophobia in Russia). It’s also a New York-based company, part-funded by 21st Century Fox after it caught the eye of Rupert Murdoch. Maybe Katz thought the youth-slanted Vice would encourage younger viewers. The reporter, Alex Miller, settled into a khat café and asked the locals: “It’s a good vibe, right?” Who will Newsnight be delegating its next film to?