FEATURE 

Tea at the Telegraph

The Telegraph’s move to its shiny new newsroom at Victoria continues to attract much comment, some of it one-sided and not entirely positive. Ray Snoddy met with Telegraph editor Will Lewis to hear his side of the story.

By Ray Snoddy

To receive a personal invitation to take tea with Will Lewis, editor of the Daily Telegraph and have a personal tour of the revolutionary Telegraph newsroom, you only have to do one thing.

You have to write an article in InCirculation magazine quoting a French newspaper specialist likening the Telegraph headquarters to the Panoptikon, Jeremy Bentham’s revolutionary design for Victorian prisons.

For good measure Bertrand Pecquerie, director of the World Editors Forum added that no good would come of such an innovation – that journalists need more flexible arrangements, something more conducive to the encouragement of creativity.

The effect is rapid. Suddenly there you are with Lewis looking down on what is certainly the largest and most dramatic newsroom in London, larger even than the newsroom at the BBC Television Centre.

"We haven’t been very good at communicating what we are trying to achieve," acknowledges Lewis, clearly more than a little irritated by the continual sniping from the disgruntled ones who have left, those who think the place looks like a prison and national newspaper rivals.

That very morning there had been a report that Con Coughlin, the paper’s executive foreign editor had gone – as opposed to what he is really doing, spending more time travelling and writing.

"It’s been tough. We went through a very rigorous assessment programme. Producing a newspaper isn’t enough any more, but it’s a different environment and it isn’t for everyone," Lewis concedes.

Television screens are everywhere in the newsroom and, covering almost an entire wall, there is a screen large enough to grace a football ground displaying the latest on Telegraph.co.uk, the paper’s website.

There are indeed radiating spokes like a Panoptikon and editorial meetings are held, with unusual openness, right at the centre for ease of communication. Around the sides of the newsroom, there are the radio and television studios where journalists pop in to make their podcasts or video contributions.

Telegraph TV

The latest stage of the transformation of the Daily Telegraph is now well under way. The paper is in the process of moving to the production of daily television programmes available to download from the internet. Lewis admits the programmes will not exactly be competing directly with the BBC but they will feature Telegraph specialists in core areas of interest to his readers such as business, fashion, sport and gardening.

"Look, one day who knows, but to start off with, we know we have the best gardening section around. We attract a lot of people who read about gardening. Do you want to watch something about gardening?" asks Lewis.

"It’s not going to be 5 million, but if it’s 50,000 we are in business. It ties in loyal readership and raises the pressure on our competitors," the Telegraph editor adds.

It’s a perfect environment for people like Jeff Randall, the Telegraph’s editor-at-large whose career has encompassed print, radio and television.

"It’s a fantastic place to work. It’s at the centre of things. It’s exciting. I have a low boredom threshold but I can do all sorts of things here. I do a bit of telly, a bit of podcasting and columnising. I’m spoiled. I have the run of the place," says Randall who has fallen in love with Telegraph readers.

They see the publication very much as "their" paper and write politely thanking him for his articles.

The DFEs

"At the BBC it was ‘you rightwing fascist bastard, get off my screen’," laughs Randall who also takes a pop at the "DFEs" – the disgruntled former employees - and their criticism of the revolutionary newsroom and working methods.

Certainly if it is a model prison, it is an extraordinarily plush one. It used to be the trading floor of American bankers Salomon Smith Barney, although the phoney mahogany has long since been removed.

"Some people in the media talk about this as if it’s some cut and run operation - that the Barclay family is sucking money out. You just have to look. Do you think this building comes cheap? They bought it and then refurbished it. That’s proper investment," says Randall.

Why the rush?

But why did Lewis and his colleagues decide to throw all the balls into the air at the same time as making considerable staff changes?

As the Daily Telegraph editor tells it, the change happened rapidly, and radically, for a combination of reasons. Foremost of all, it was what the owners wanted, that was their vision. But there was also a realisation that the Telegraph had been first movers in the internet in 1994 but had blown its advantage and had allowed rivals to overtake it.

"We had to either play catch-up or go for the leap. We have done the hare’s leap and we would now say we are a year ahead of anyone else. It’s not much of an advantage but it’s enough to hang your hat on for the time being," says Lewis who spent six months down at the Victoria site planning the move.

"It was March last year when all of a sudden we had that ‘fuck me moment’ – that even I can do this," says Lewis of the move to multi-media.

But what has been the result so far of all the effort and the investment, above all the commercial impact?

Reaching new readers

Lewis is the first to acknowledge that the transformation of the Daily Telegraph from national newspaper to media business is still work in progress but he argues that the first signs are positive.

He cites the Ashes in Australia, where there was little option about providing coverage online because of the time difference. There was interactive coverage from Simon Hughes of Channel 4 and Geoff Boycott. The coverage, which was sponsored, gave the paper its best online results so far. But something unexpected also happened.

For no obvious reason, certainly not additional expenditure on marketing, the readership rose that month by around 10 per cent.

When research staff looked into it, they found that the new readers tended to be men under 45 – the very people who normally wouldn’t want to be seen dead with the Daily Telegraph.

All the signs are they found the website and then went to the paper the next day for more, mainly from copies already in the family or the office.

"They’re not yet buying it. So the Holy Grail is not yet in our sweaty palms. Readership is sharply up in blokes under 45, directly as a result of our online thing," says Lewis.

The evidence is also emerging that Telegraph readers like strictly targeted Telegraph television such as Hilary Alexander on fashion who can get around 100,000 hits. Mick Cleary or Brian Moore can easily get 80,000 downloads on a big rugby weekend.

"Rupert Murdoch is not worrying about Telegraph TV, but the readers like it and we can make money out of it," says Lewis.

Telegraph talk

Telegraph talk can also attract "tens of thousands" of listeners after, say, a particularly lively Prime Minister’s Question Time.

"We have a number of advantages. We are well known for news and we are well known for what we stand for. Nobody can pretend not to know we are a conservative newspaper with a small ‘c’ and you can’t get that on Radio 5 Live," says the Daily Telegraph editor.

He believes the move into new media has also brought a new sense of energy to the paper and that it is a lot busier and more exciting because it is able to feed off all the online activity.

And, although there have been many departures from the editorial staff – whether disgruntled or not – and all but one of the news department heads are new, there is also continuity.

Happily working among all the new technology is Roley Gribbon who retired ages ago as Telegraph business editor but is now writing for the paper again as many as four days a week.

New arrivals include Andrew Pearce from the Times and Brian MacArthur who works part-time looking after books and serialisations after retiring from the Times.

The political environment also seems to be moving in the way of the Daily Telegraph which is now "fundamentally encouraging" to David Cameron although the paper would like to know more about his political instincts.

There is also, according to Lewis, an end-of-regime feel about Labour "which is beginning to get a little bit smelly" and helps to give the Telegraph a new spring in its step.

Right now, Lewis is encouraged at how the new Telegraph is doing. The circulation of the newspaper is "stable" while online is going up sharply and feeding into increased readership, if not yet circulation.

"It’s a magnificent experiment, that’s the truth of this. First indications are very positive, from a reader point of view and an advertiser point of view," says the Telegraph editor.

On a slightly longer range perspective, Will Lewis has a clear target – or at least aspiration.

"If you go five years out, we are pretty convinced that if we can get this right, that 900,000 (circulation) – that number, whatever it is, is stabilised. Looking at the graph, that would an enormous, successful achievement. And then there is all the rest of it…"

Telegraph.co.uk is a very lively active website which benefits both from ease of use and ease of access. Nobody makes you register and nobody tries to charge even for historic searches in the database. It is well ordered and attractively illustrated and promotes its own virtues such as TelegraphPM, the afternoon multimedia newspaper available for download.

The daily audio programme features items such as 20th anniversary interviews with the creators of the Alex cartoon, Anthony King on the likelihood of a hung parliament next time and an anti-Labour rant by Jeff Randall about Labour trying to wriggle out of compensating pensioners who have lost everything.

The sound can be ropey in parts but the editorial content is easily the match for professional radio.

Unfortunately, the video doesn’t seem to want to play on Apple Macs, but despite that the site will still be added to my favourites.