The editor of this magazine has asked me to write about a new publication I am planning. You may possibly have read about it. Two weeks ago John Gapper of the Financial Times telephoned me to say he had heard that several people, including myself, were proposing to launch a new upmarket national daily newspaper loosely based on Le Monde, and provisionally called the World. I could hardly deny it. I told Mr Gapper that we had not yet raised the £15.4 million we are seeking, and suggested that he would be jumping the gun if he were to set pen to paper now. Would anyone be interested if we were hoping to start a widget factory but had not yet got the money? Mr Gapper replied that the prospect of a new national newspaper was a matter of public interest, even if its eventual publication was not certain, and he duly wrote a report which was accurate in every respect. This gave rise to many other pieces, all of which have been fair-minded apart from one exceptionally mean-spirited offering by Andrew Neil.
Over the years I have often grumbled about the dumbing-down of the broadsheet press. Britain is the only important country in the world which does not have an uncompromisingly upmarket title. (I exclude the Financial Times because it is not a general newspaper.) Of course there are many serious voices in the broadsheets, but they exist alongside ever more lavish coverage of celebrities and daft pieces about animals. There was a time not long ago when you could hardly pick up a copy of the Times or Daily Telegraph without seeing a picture of David Beckham on the front page or on page three. Look at the recent crazy coverage of I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here!
All this has happened over the past few years. If you study the Times of 1990 you will find almost no stories about celebrities or furry animals. Even though Rupert Murdoch had then owned the paper for nine years, it was still uniformly pretty serious. Why the rapid transformation? It is difficult to believe that we are all getting much more stupid at such an alarming rate. The Times’s reduction of its cover price in September 1993 was a decisive moment. The new readers who flocked to the cheaper Times could only be retained if the paper permanently dumbed down. In the highly competitive British newspaper market the Daily Telegraph and the Independent felt threatened, and tended to follow the Times downmarket. Whether this is a complete explanation I do not know, but it is undeniable that our broadsheet newspapers are a good deal less serious-minded (without being any wittier) than they were little more than a decade ago.
No doubt most readers are perfectly happy with this state of affairs, but not everyone is. The question is how many people really yearn for a grown-up newspaper that provides honest reporting and intelligent commentary without the trivia and pap that is generally also served up. It would be foolhardy to suppose there is an enormous constituency. We have done a good deal of research — you have to if you are hoping to raise money — and we believe there are at least 100,000 potential buyers of our newspaper — either disenchanted readers of existing titles or people who, whether out of boredom or despair, have given up reading daily newspapers.
A daily circulation of 100,000 is of course tiny by comparison with our prospective rivals, some of which lose money while selling several times that number. We believe that it is possible to break even at this level, partly by adopting a rigorous low-cost model, and partly by devoting disproportionate resources to those areas which we believe are most important to our readers. Our newspaper will cover the waterfront, but it will seek to do some things especially brilliantly. Perhaps I may be forgiven if I do not elaborate at the moment.
Some commentators have justifiably questioned whether it is really possible to make profits on a daily circulation of only 100,000. I can only say that we have not arrived at this figure on the back of an envelope. We have a chairman who is also chairman of a FTSE-100 company; strong non-executives, some from a newspaper background, others with a financial pedigree; a full-time managing director and finance director; an advertising director and a production director. Our costs and prospective revenues have been worked out in grinding detail. This is an intensely commercial proposition in which journalistic idealism has had to fit in with commercial reality. We know how difficult it is to launch a new title — I was among those who helped set up the Independent — and face the challenges ahead in a sanguine spirit.
Naturally one expects a degree of scepticism — if there were no doubts someone would have probably launched such a paper already — but a vengeful article by Andrew Neil in the Daily Telegraph (in which he failed to declare an interest as the possible next chief executive of that paper) should be noted. Mr Neil rightly points out that the broadsheet market is in slight decline, but he does not pause to consider that the Telegraph’s relentless drive downmarket might be one contributory factor. He thinks that £15.4 million will by no means be enough to launch our newspaper, and suggests that it will cost many times that amount. Since he ran the European into the ground while spending many millions, and has by his own account lavished tens of millions on the not particularly distinguished Business, he may be regarded as something of an expert when it comes to getting rid of other people’s money. Mr Neil may have been an effective editor of the Sunday Times, but he is certainly no businessman; he has been indulged to an almost unbelievable extent by the saintly Barclay brothers, who employ him to run their newspaper interests. My editorial colleagues and I will have to exist in a more austere commercial environment than he has had to.
Those editorial colleagues include the amazingly witty and erudite Frank Johnson, the previous editor of The Spectator, and the no less witty and erudite Francis Wheen, biographer of Karl Marx and former Guardian columnist. In encouraging me to write this article, the editor of this magazine, Boris Johnson, wondered whether the World, if that is what it will be called, might compete with The Spectator — in which case he told me that I would be ‘squashed as though I were an aphid’. I can assure him that the World will not be a daily Spectator, though I hope many readers of this magazine will take it in addition. Our newspaper will be a rallying point for those of the Right, Centre and Left who, whatever their differences of political outlook, are united in their yearning for a serious newspaper that is also elegant and witty. The World is intended for these dispossessed.
I have been wondering whether I should suspend this column while we attempt to raise funds over the next weeks. This would be a bereavement for me, so I shall try to avoid writing about our prospective broadsheet rivals, and when forced by events to do so I will, unlike Mr Neil, repeatedly declare an interest.