There seems scarcely to be a person alive who does not hope to acquire ‘ or know someone who hopes to acquire ‘ the Telegraph group in the coming year. The names of former Daily Telegraph editors and managing directors, and even one or two still on the payroll, are associated with this or that possible bid. The Barclay brothers, who own the Scotsman, are said to be making inquiries. The interest of the Daily Mail and General Trust and of Richard Desmond, owner of the Express group, is, of course, already well known. American publishers are being cited, though none has so far said that it will make a bid.
What this tells us is that the Telegraph group is a highly desirable property. It was not always so. When Michael Hartwell ran out of money in 1985, there was no such list of wealthy suitors. Conrad Black, a Canadian businessman at that time unknown in this country, was able to acquire a majority shareholding at what seemed a knock-down price. Many critical things have been written about Lord Black over recent weeks, and will doubtless continue to be, but he can comfort himself with the thought that under his proprietorship the Telegraph group has prospered to the point where half the world wants to buy it.
It is also true that whoever acquires the Daily and Sunday Telegraph and The Spectator (I write on the common assumption that these titles will be sold, though not necessarily en bloc) will almost certainly see them becoming more profitable over the coming years. The price war initiated by Rupert Murdoch and the Times has ended, and there is likely to be more scope for the Daily Telegraph to raise its cover price than there has been over recent years. There is also plenty of evidence that the advertising recession is beginning to lift as the world omy recovers, though whether we will quickly return to the heady days of the late 1990s remains to be seen. Finally there are the cost savings which any buyer will hope to make. The Telegraph group, for example, does not have to be housed in the relative luxury of Canary Wharf until the end of time. The subscription scheme, which enables loyal buyers to purchase the paper at too great a discount, can be tightened further. It is true that some investment is also needed ‘ if advertising income is to be maximised there needs to be more colour capacity, and therefore new presses ‘ but on balance there are still economies to be made, and possibly substantial ones.
A company which made not very far short of ’40 million last year might therefore make significantly more money within a few years. This no doubt helps to explain why so many people are queueing up to buy it. But there are nonetheless questions over the long-term circulation trends of the Daily Telegraph which any prudent buyer will want to address. Though it remains the highest-selling quality newspaper in Europe, and among the top four or five in the world, it has lost a good deal of circulation over the past 25 years. In the late 1970s the paper sold more than 1.3 million copies a day. During the year-long closure of the Times in 1979/1980 it even reached 1.5 million copies a day. Yet it failed to capitalise editorially on the problems of its grander but much smaller rival, and since the early 1980s its sales have declined slowly but inexorably to their present point, where they stand at a little over 900,000. The Times meanwhile has advanced considerably by means of its price war, though failing to fulfil Rupert Murdoch’s ambition to knock the Daily Telegraph off its perch. The Daily Mail, which in the late 1970s outsold the Daily Telegraph by only a few hundred thousand, now sells nearly 2.5 million copies a day.
Twenty-five years ago there was little debate about what the Daily Telegraph should be doing. Nearly all the paper’s problems had to do with the rapacious print unions. Editorially the paper was sure of its readership, which occupied the then substantial territory between the Times and the Daily Mail. But times, and society, have changed. As the Daily Telegraph began to lose sales, the joke became that its readers were dying more quickly than they were being replaced. This was literally true. The not unnatural reaction of the management was to try to reach out to younger readers. In recent years the paper has striven to reflect the values and interests of a ‘yoof’ culture of which its older readers know little and care less. There are numerous stories about ‘boy bands’, misbehaving disc jockeys, pouting actresses and sports celebrities. No doubt some of the paper’s more established readers lap up this stuff, but not all of them do. Meanwhile the paper has had limited success in attracting readers in their twenties, many of whom are notably promiscuous in their newspaper-buying habits and, if they read at all, are more likely to be drawn to the Guardian, Times or even the Daily Mail. In trying to appeal to an elusive constituency which it can never really win over, the Daily Telegraph has not always been on the same wavelength as its core readership.
Of course, it remains an immensely strong paper. Its news coverage is more reliable, and more trustworthy, than that of the Times. Its political commentary is miles more sophisticated than it was when I worked on the newspaper 25 years ago, and the sports pages far more extensive. The obituaries, formerly neglected, are now a delight. The newspaper does not read, or feel, like one in decline. Nonetheless, the sales figures speak for themselves. A sensible purchaser will want not merely to turn out better profit figures over the next few years, which should be fairly easily achievable, but to halt, and ideally reverse, the long circulation decline. That is much more easily said than done, but the key to success must lie in catering first and foremost for the needs of the Daily Telegraph’s core constituency. It will certainly help in this respect if the paper does not sometimes give the impression of being edited in Washington, DC. There are plenty of suitors for the paper, but I am not sure that all of them have grasped the magnitude of the task.
In writing about the future of the Telegraph group I have scarcely mentioned The Spectator, which to you and me, dear reader, is its most precious jewel. As I have said before, the magazine has prospered under its present ownership and management. Those who love it may therefore quail a little as they peer into the future, especially if they espy there the figure of Richard Desmond. And yet I am unaccountably optimistic. Whatever happens ‘ the present owners miraculously retaining control; the Telegraph group being sold en bloc; or The Spectator dropping alone into friendly hands ‘ I sense that the future will be a good one, and I am sure that this magazine will go on being itself long after we have all gone. With that thought, I wish everyone a very happy new year.