Is the Telegraph facing a fate only a little less dramatic than the precipitous ruin of its late owner, Conrad Black? Certainly panic and fear stalk the corridors. Panic among senior management, who recognise they are staring serious decline in the face but are uncertain how to deal with it. And increasing fear among the hacks, who feel they are the cannon-fodder in an ill-thought out campaign for change.
When the Barclay brothers bought the two Telegraph titles, in June 2004, there was an understandable sigh of relief throughout the organisation. After the Byzantine excesses of the Black years, the Barclays seemed white knights indeed. They paid top dollar (well, £665m if we include the Spectator) for their prize and brought with them a reputation for relatively disinterested stewardship (judged by Beaverbrook or Murdoch standards at least). The assumption was that life could go on pretty much as before, minus the plundering.
But Black, for all his faults, was a newspaperman to his fingertips – and the Barclays, though astute businessmen, are not. It has taken a crisis in the newspaper industry to reveal just how deep their flaws may be. What seemed inconsequential failings in acquiring the European, or Sunday Business, or paying too much for the more successful Scotsman, cannot be so easily ignored when they govern the future of a major press institution like the Telegraph.
In fairness, the brothers had the sense to bring in a seasoned newspaper professional, Murdoch MacLennan, to sort out the problems. But his regime is a far cry from the instinctive touch of a Citizen Kane. The Telegraph titles, from having done too little about the digital revolution for too long, now seem intent on doing too much too soon. Three editors in 12 months does not suggest a happy ship.
And for good reason. The Telegraph has long created a baffling conundrum for successive chief executives, editors and marketing directors. If your market leadership (meaning the daily, of course) is based upon gratifying the core prejudices of older readers, how do you recruit new ones – outside the young fogey set – without alienating the very people who underpin your success? Tinkering at the edges of this problem has not, over the years, proved too destructive to circulation. But "digital revolution" in the news room – in one sense simply an old problem recast on a much bigger scale – with its unfortunate collateral damage among sub-editors and senior reporters alike, might just be the catalyst to goad these apparently despised readers into action.
It would have made sense to get the repositioning right first, before bombarding the readers with podcasts and a multi-media assault that spreads news skills paper thin. The Guardian’s positioning allows it to do innovation and digital gimmickry, the Telegraph’s does not. Worse, the Telegraph’s senior management may be missing the strategic point. Making the Telegraph reader "younger" is of dubious value when the modal segment of the population is growing older, and living longer into the bargain. Not only that, ageing baby-boomers possess the majority of spending power, and are beginning to exploit their economic power more vocally on the political scene. Classic terrain for the traditional Telegraph, in fact.