Where do we go from here?

The Telegraph Group finally has a stable future, but, says Damian Reece, the new owners will soon need to make some tough decisions

Tuesday 29 June 2004 00:00

Now that Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay have got their hands on the Telegraph Group - bar a last- minute legal challenge from Conrad Black - the mood in the Canary Wharf newsroom is one of relief.

Staff at the Telegraph Group want two things: a period of stable ownership and a period of investment. They can be sure of the first, but there is a big question mark over the second. The new owners of The Daily Telegraph need to confront a number of pressing issues, the most urgent of which is appointing a new chief executive. Management also wants to know exactly what role Andrew Neil is going to play. The Barclays will want to bring his experience and knowledge of News International to bear on the Telegraph management and a decision on his exact role has yet to be taken. So he could be rather less hands off than received wisdom currently has it.

At the same time there has been speculation about a new editor of The Daily Telegraph. The Barclays will give Martin Newland, the present incumbent, a chance to prove himself before deciding if they need a new person to reverse the paper's decreasing circulation. If he does go, the favourite to succeed him is Dominic Lawson, the editor of The Sunday Telegraph, who is good friends with Sir David's son Aidan. Jeff Randall, the BBC's business editor and a favourite of the Barclay brothers, would be a natural successor to Lawson. Before the BBC, Randall edited their Sunday Business (now The Business) in its heyday and before that held several senior jobs at The Sunday Times.

Anyway, the twins firmly believe The Daily Telegraph can perform a lot better commercially, which of course is why they bought it, and a central part of their strategy will be getting circulation back up above one million from its present 908,000.

However, they will have to take some big decisions concerning investment in the titles fairly soon, most notably the group's printing presses. The group has recently re-equipped its northern presses at Trafford Park, which it co-owns with The Guardian, with two new Heidelberg presses. These have delivered increased speed, more colour and greater pagination but more investment is needed at the southern print site, which is jointly owned with Richard Desmond, the owner of the Daily Express.

The Barclays need to decide whether to extend the Westferry site beyond 2009 or opt for a new site. Depending on what they decide they will be writing a cheque for between £50m and £100m.

Talk of new printing presses has inevitably led to discussion of new formats for The Daily Telegraph. The Barclays have been extremely interested in the experiences of The Independent and The Times with their compact formats, but management is advising the brothers not to go down that route. The Telegraph was ready to go compact in January but it believes that while The Independent has got it right and The Times has got it wrong, the experience of The Times is more relevant to its own situation.

The analysis the Barclays will be presented with is of The Times as a newspaper with two formats, rising costs and falling revenues. The dual formats are muddying the image of The Times, argues management at the Telegraph, confusing the readers and damaging the brand. The resulting confusion has helped the Telegraph recognise the virtue of being distinctive in format, which means it will stay broadsheet for the foreseeable future.

One innovation the Telegraph has toyed with is having a hybrid second section, containing both business and sport with the front page flipping between the two, depending on the day's news. However, the Barclays are certain to want a better projection for the Telegraph's business coverage. A three-section paper - news, business and sport - has been considered and may well satisfy any urge the Barclays have to interfere. The Business, the Barclays's Sunday title, may well end up being folded into The Sunday Telegraph.

On balance, the Telegraph staff should be pleased with the Barclays as their new masters. A private equity owner, such as 3i, would simply have led to yet more speculation a few years down the line about another change of ownership. That is something no one at the Telegraph Group wants to go through again, especially after the upheavals of the past seven months.

Damian Reece is a former assistant City editor of 'The Sunday Telegraph'

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