Allister Heath: 'Youth is just what the founders of 'City AM' were looking for'

At 30, Allister Heath is young to be editing a daily paper

By Ian Burrell
Sunday 23 October 2011 08:10
Heath says: 'I love my job. I'm 30 and I'm editing a daily newspaper with a circulation of 100,000 which everybody in the City reads.' © Teri Pengilley
Heath says: 'I love my job. I'm 30 and I'm editing a daily newspaper with a circulation of 100,000 which everybody in the City reads.' © Teri Pengilley

In the editor's office of City AM there's an Alsatian – wearing fashionably rimless spectacles and a Raymond Weil Swiss watch. Allister Heath, who has recently taken the helm at the world's first free daily financial newspaper, speaks with just the tiniest hint of a French accent, which hardly makes him unusual in London's business quarter, where Nicolas Sarkozy comes to hold political rallies.

Having lived in Alsace for his first 17 years, Heath, who has a French mother, studied economics, first at the LSE and then at Oxford, before embarking on a journalistic career that has followed a sharp upward curve. His current post sees him sitting eight floors up, looking over the roof of London Bridge station.

The City AM office is upriver but downmarket from the Financial Times's swanky HQ on Southwark Bridge. But it's not an inappropriate locale given that train stations are crucial to the paper's carefully-researched distribution model, and that the title's editorial offering is more "everyman" than that of the Pink 'Un.

The freebie – or "controlled circulation" to use the paper's preferred term – carries the slogan "Business with Personality" and though this was not Heath's invention, it is a philosophy he has embraced.

He talks of City AM as a "Parish News" for the capital's business community, and he publishes coverage of their social lives and their working ones. Heath has appointed Victoria Bates, 22, as editor of a diary called "The Capitalist", tasked with partying with the City crowd.

On Fridays, the paper carries a sports-dominated supplement called "Punter", which reflects the Square Mile's obsession with spread betting, and stretches to 20 pages, as big as the rest of the paper. "Spread betting is what City people do," says Heath. "You don't buy a share, you spread bet on it. It's the way that people now operate. The key for City AM is to be up to date with people's customs and interests."

Heath knows about these interests because a lot of his close friends are "investment bankers, hedge fund managers, corporate lawyers". Given these pals are all on a far greater whack than the salary City AM founders Jens Thorpe and Lawson Muncaster can afford to pay him, does he not regret having put his economics qualifications to greater use?

"No. Every morning I'm happy to go to work. I love the buzz of newsrooms and I love news and there's nothing I'd like to be doing more," he says. "I'm 30 and I'm editing a daily newspaper with a circulation of 100,000 which everybody in the City reads."

Heath is indeed just 30 but is no ingénue. He has combed his fringe forward to cover a receding hairline and is sharp dressed in a "business with personality" combo of dark suit with pink shirt and tie. An appointment with the head of Lloyd's of London beckons in the afternoon.

Thorpe and Muncaster saw Heath's youth as a significant asset in targeting affluent under-35s, a demographic that's craved by advertisers but increasingly beyond the reach of more established media. "Our readers are clearly much younger than those of paid-for national newspapers," says the editor proudly. "The City is a very young place."

When he was hired, Heath checked out City AM's reputation among his friends and was pleasantly surprised at its level of penetration. He was previously editor of the weekly magazine The Business, where he was a protégé of Andrew Neil. Two days after Heath left, Neil announced The Business was being closed and replaced by a monthly, Spectator Business, linked to the famous periodical from the same Barclay brothers's stable. "They tried everything and I'm very grateful to them for trying for so long," says Heath of the owners of a title that he worked on for six years, having joined as economics correspondent.

He has a copy of this morning's City AM on his desk and is excitedly monitoring activity online as the paper's splash (detailing plans by pharmaceuticals company Shire plc to flee the UK's tax regime) is followed up on and other business sites. "It's one of those massive stories because it has huge political implications," says the editor, with a smidgen of hyperbole.

Heath knows that business news stories – more than the spread betting supplement, the party coverage and the fresher graphics-led redesign that he has introduced – are what will really get his paper noticed. City AM benefits hugely from its 1am deadline, which allows it to react to late breaking stories, and to the scoops in the first editions of the paid-for titles. When the crisis at Bear Stearns investment bank was confirmed late on a Sunday night, the paper outgunned its rivals by clearing the front page for the story. Splashes are often a tight 190 words, which is a "brief" in some papers but suits the appetite of a young readership that lives online.

Heath is confident enough to boast that his paper is read by more people in Canary Wharf than any other title. City AM is like "a local newspaper in that it's targeting a small influential community of a few hundred thousand people". Whereas the FT aims at the CEOs and CFOs, City AM is happy to widen the net as it fishes in a much smaller pond. So the paper is peppered with vox pops of City boys and girls, getting their views on the breaking stories and making them feel a part of City AM's world.

The paper is distributed beyond the Square Mile and Canary Wharf, so that it reaches the Hedge Fund and Private Equity workers based in Mayfair, and the commuters that head east from such affluent London suburbs as Surbiton and St Margaret's. Plans to roll City AM out in other cities have still not been discounted, with Edinburgh being the most obvious new territory.

Although Heath acknowledges that advertising monies are being squeezed by an economic downturn that at least makes the paper more widely read, he says advertising revenues are up year-on-year. The website has also had a Heath makeover, offering stacks of company data to assist the City with its spread betting.

He says that in an industry where traditional players are having to manage decline, City AM is fortunate to have room to grow. "Our plan is to be profitable in our third year. Well, this is our third year and we are on course to meet that," he says. "That's quite remarkable for any newspaper."

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