Here Today and gone tomorrow as newspapers feel the strain

The shutdown of a national daily paper, for the first time in nearly 25 years, may signal lean times ahead for the industry. Torin Douglas reports

The death of a national daily newspaper is not yet a common event. The last to go – with the exception of the still-born Daily Post – was the Daily Sketch in 1971. Even the much-mourned Daily Herald, which closed in 1964, was immediately replaced by the old IPC Sun.

Yet Today was shut down last week with barely a whimper, let alone a bang.

Have we got to the stage where it is possible to close national newspapers without there being a huge political row? Perhaps more significantly, can newspapers be shut down even when there is a potential purchaser in the wings?

If so, a number of titles and a great many jobs are looking much more vulnerable now than they did a week ago.

Would anyone mourn the Daily Star if United News decided to shut it down, selling the Express titles to another purchaser, such as Andrew Lloyd Webber? Would there be an outcry if The Independent on Sunday and the Observer were finally merged, as has been threatened in the past? And what about The Independent itself, now struggling to make ends meet, keep up editorial standards and find a new editor, under the tight purse strings of the Mirror Group?

While Today was suitably mourned by the media the following day – and by the readers it had actively and creatively fought for – its swift and quiet passing is remarkable when compared with the loud, lengthy (and mainly successful) life and death struggles of other national newspapers in recent years.

The Times, the Observer (several times), Today (twice before), The Independent and The Sunday Correspondent all faced death threats – and all garnered acres of newsprint as they fought to survive. Express Newspapers, Mirror Group and The Telegraph all faced financial crises and changed hands. Potential buyers for each title were wooed and paraded, their suitability analysed and their negotiations dissected.

A string of Sundays failed to survive – The Sunday Correspondent, Sunday Today and the News on Sunday – but Today is the first established daily paper to cease publication for almost a quarter of a century. The fact it had a buyer waiting, with cheque book in hand – who claims he had serious negotiations with News International during the summer – makes the lack of debate about the paper’s demise even more unusual.

The Harrods chairman Mohamed Al Fayed may not be regarded by everyone as a “suitable” proprietor, but nor was Rupert Murdoch when he bought first The Times and Sunday Times, and later Today. News International said it believed there was no “credible” purchaser for Today. This puts Al Fayed firmly in his place, but does not explain why others were unwilling to take up the cause of a newspaper being closed down.

In particular, the Labour Party was muted in its condemnation. You might have thought the death of one of the few Labour-supporting dailies would have been anathema to the party in the run-up to a general election – particularly a paper which had employed Alastair Campbell, now Tony Blair’s press secretary, as its political columnist.

The explanation became clear the following day, when copies of the final issue of Today carried a four-page sampler for the Sun, complete with a message from Blair explaining “Why Sun readers are turning to Labour”.

Blair’s talks with Murdoch, culminating in his speech to the News Corporation’s editors earlier this year, seem to have borne fruit. The prize of a possible Sun endorsement of Labour at the election was not be put at risk over the death of a loss-making, and never very successful, Today.

Equally significant is the fact that Murdoch himself was prepared to admit the failure of his attempts to make Today a success. He had invested millions in the title over the past eight years trying to make it work, first as a yuppy, environmentally-friendly paper under David Montgomery, and then as a Labour supporter under Richard Stott.

Both versions increased sales and won awards as Newspaper of the Year, but neither established Today as a strong secure paper that seriously challenged its mid-market rivals, the Daily Mail and Daily Express.

With newsprint prices rocketing and the industry’s own price war biting – even on the Murdoch group, that had started it – News International’s new chairman Les Hinton took an unsentimental look at the business and decided Today was going nowhere. He hopes a sizeable proportion of the staff can be redeployed within the group, but at least 100 people seem likely to lose their jobs.

The question now is whether other newspaper managements can be equally unsentimental. The view that newspapers are different from other businesses and should be kept going at a loss, in order to maintain diversity of opinion or to give rich men a seat at the table of governments, has been taken for granted. But with two national dailies – the Express and The Independent – seeking editors, confidence about the way ahead in those groups is not high. Now that one paper has been put down, apparently painlessly, can more be far behind?

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