Right message, wrong reader

The Telegraph’s top-down construction of a digital news service has alienated its ground-force of reporters, who are seeing their numbers shaved as a consequence. And it’s equally unlikely to impress the core readership, with its older and conservative demographic. By Mark Choueke.

After months of upheaval, redundancies and abrupt changes to the management structure, journalists at Telegraph Media Group have decided enough is enough. The union vote for industrial action by Telegraph staff last week over job losses and the company’s move to new digital headquarters in London’s Victoria district, which involves the forced acceptance of extra duties, has long been coming.

When the Barclay brothers bought The Daily and Sunday Telegraph, along with The Spectator magazine, in June 2004 for £665m, many industry observers felt they had overpaid and wondered whether they had sufficient expertise to succeed as media owners.

Since then the pair have spent several hundred million pounds more on purchasing and kitting out the new state-of-the-art newsroom that chief executive Murdoch MacLennan boasted was likely to become “the digital market leader in news”. Reporters and production staff from all departments are located on a single floor at the new Victoria HQ and, following extensive multi-media training, will work together to produce the Telegraph’s website, the daily and Sunday editions of the newspaper and a range of other digital products, including audio and video interviews, newscasts and alerts.

The necessity for newspaper management teams to spread their brands across a range of multi-media platforms is well documented. The recent shift of focus away from print content towards digital platforms such as the internet and mobile means that any attempted innovation is roundly applauded by the newspaper industry with its new “we can’t afford to do nothing” attitude.

However, Telegraph Media Group is expected by many to find the shift tougher than most. The Guardian marketing director Marc Sands says: “More than half of the Telegraph’s readership is aged over 55. What the Telegraph is doing is definitely the right move but is it the right move for that constituency? Telegraph readers are conservative anyway, but how will 60-year-olds use podcasts? I defy anybody in the industry to say they are doing the wrong thing but the jury is out as to whether they can pull it off.”

Off-Message
Another source says the Telegraph brand will be hard-pushed to survive when its content is transmitted digitally: “What digital content could possibly fit that brand in the same way that The Sun’s World Cup mobile offering matched Sun readers’ values?” Tens of thousands of Sun readers paid to sign up for a service whereby a Page 3 girl pictured on their mobile phones removed one item of clothing every time England scored a goal.

The source adds: “Each brand has its own set of values both internally and externally. Whereas the values of innovation, change and technological development are very much a part of, say, The Guardian brand’s make-up, the Telegraph eloquently sits at the other end of the scale. Its journalists and readers share a set of values that are somewhat opposed to such dramatic change.”

A newspaper’s journalists are integral to those values and little has contributed more to the battered morale at the Telegraph than seeing hundreds of shop-floor hacks replaced by ever more managerial appointments, a situation that led former editor Martin Newland to remark of the “new” Telegraph: “It is more a construct of managers than a construct of journalists”.

The Telegraph might find itself facing further problems because of how suddenly it has launched its digital future. Whereas The Guardian has developed a website that is now read by about 13 million unique users across the world every month over the course of about ten years, the changes to the Telegraph have happened over the course of 20 months – if the announcement to staff that 300 jobs were to be axed to help pay for “modernisation” in February 2005 is taken as the starting point.

The Telegraph was the first newspaper brand to launch its electronic version in the early 1990s but the service faded along with investment and managerial interest. The breakneck pace at which developments and changes to managerial structure have occurred since the Barclays’ arrival have left no time for any one new regime to sink in. Will Lewis, announced last month as the third editor of The Daily Telegraph in the space of 12 months, was originally hired as city editor at the newspaper in August last year, but was promoted to deputy editor while he was still working out his notice at the Sunday Times. His quick rise to editorship, via a two-month stint as managing director editorial, has centred around his belief that the group’s survival depends on embracing the internet age, a view shared by MacLennan.

Jeremy Deedes, a former managing director at the Telegraph, says the varying digital news services on offer are positive, presenting “the sort of choice we enjoy in supermarkets and befitting an innovator like the Telegraph”.

However, another former managing director, Hugo Drayton, notes the axing of four more senior journalists from their roles last month and says: “I’m a digital evangelist and was marketing director when we launched the electronic Telegraph, but the danger with all the new stuff is that the Telegraph brand will be chucked away.

“The management is launching into digital kamikaze style while neglecting and undermining the newspaper product and the journalists that made it great. In the rush to kick out the old-guard writers, the paper has lost so much talent and authority.”

He continues: “Whatever medium is used to put information out, what really matters is the quality of journalism, and the management has shown no respect for, or understanding of, journalistic heritage or core readership. Without those the digital future means nothing.”

Drayton also calls the reduction of the average age of a Telegraph reader “a preposterous ambition”, noting that the average age of UK citizens is increasing and that “older people have all the spending power and income”.

Another source says the Telegraph’s digital revolution has happened too fast and should have occurred after changing the age of its audience: “The Telegraph should have repositioned the print product first because the current generation of readers won’t enthuse over digital offerings, and young people will already have their favourite online sites to visit for news and information.

Barclays’ Miscalculation
“It’s clear to me the Barclays don’t understand media brands. They made money from the Scotsman but paid well over the odds for the Telegraph. The annual £30m return they make from profit is nothing. To get their money back would require a serious upturn in ad revenue, which is unlikely in such a fragmented digital market.”

Marketing Week placed several calls to individual Telegraph executives requesting comment but received no reply. Some observers believe that senior figures at the group are wary of commenting publicly because the situation is changing constantly.

Lewis, for example, spoke of a “fantastically upbeat newsroom” and a team harbouring a sense of “great self-esteem” in a Sunday newspaper only two weeks ago. Maybe Lewis believed that at the time, but last week’s vote to take industrial action suggests a radically different situation.

The changes at the Telegraph look sensible on paper, but to make them work requires the will of the journalists and the approval of its 1.5 million weekly readers, rather than just the desire of an increasingly demanding management.

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