MEDIA WATCH

A high-tech fix for Fleet Street

George Bain December 23 1985
MEDIA WATCH

A high-tech fix for Fleet Street

George Bain December 23 1985

A high-tech fix for Fleet Street

MEDIA WATCH

George Bain

According to Audit Bureau of Circulations figures current in midsummer, 1,230,127 people on average took the Daily Telegraph —more than Britain’s other so-called “quality” national newspapers, The Times, The Guardian and The Financial Times could claim together. I don’t know about other Telegraph buyers, but a visiting 1,230,128th reader was jolted into full wakefulness over his eggs and bacon in Cambridge one July morning to find on the paper’s staid editorial page a letter, 30 solid inches of type, that began, “This newspaper, you may have noticed, is not very well printed.” It was signed “Michael Hartwell.” It is not often that newspaper proprietors tell subscribers what is in front of them isn’t up to snuff, and Lord Hartwell has been chairman of the Telegraph for 30 years.

His letter, addressed “Dear Reader (and Friend),” said the Telegraph was on the way to having “the most modern plant in Europe.” It would incorporate what newspaper people call “the new technology”—computerized typesetting and page makeup by photocomposition. Consequently, “we have had to find more than £100 million of fresh capital.” That’s where Toronto financier Conrad Black first came in for 14 per cent. What Black has gotten into, now with both feet as majority owner since last week, is not just an overstaffed, old-fashioned newspaper with declining sales but an industry in upheaval. Belated renewal is standing Fleet Street on its ear.

Thanks to the burgeoning revolution, I have at hand the recondite fact that, in the early 16th century, the average ratio of indoor and outdoor servants and hangers-on in English abbeys was eight men to every monk. Edward Pearce produced it last June in an Encounter article to cast light on present circumstances. Newspapers, he said, were being “dragged down with grotesque wage bills and a degree of overmanning which would have done credit to the abbey lubbers of pre-Reformation English monasteries.” Earlier, The Economist had made the same point differently. “British national newspapers,” it said, “are so used to behaving as a sunset industry they find it hard to see themselves as a sunrise one. For years, bosses and workers have had a tacit conspiracy to cheat their shareholders of profit

and their industry of innovation.”

In both those articles and in every Fleet Street conversation on the turmoil in the national press one name comes up—Eddie Shah. (It may be indicative of how recently Shah has become a name to conjure with that while the name is Eddie in Encounter it is Eddy in The Economist and both on one page in an issue of The Times.) Properly it is neither. Selim Jehane Shah is the 41-year-old son of an Iranian father and an English mother. Before 1972, when he set up three free, small-town weeklies, he had worked on the production side in films and TV. By 1982 his Messenger group, with headquarters near Liverpool, had a $10million turnover. Now, having raised capital from diverse sources including the Hungarian state bank, he is poised to bring out, next March, a new national daily that stirs motions in Fleet

‘Bosses and workers had a conspiracy to cheat their shareholders of profit and the industry of innovation'

Street, about 15 per cent excited and 85 per cent scared silly.

The fear is easily explained. Eddie Shah’s new paper—he has three names patented, but is believed to be leaning to Today—will be cheaper, at 17 pence (34 cents), than the other national dailies, which cost 20 and 25 pence. As well, 16 of a probable 40 pages will carry color to attract an audience reared on television—and, of course, advertisers. His ad rates will be onequarter Fleet Street’s usual—for example, offering a full color page for $19,200. He says his paper will break even at 300,000 copies, he is promising advertisers 700,000 daily to begin with and he thinks the potential is 2.5 million copies. What such figures imply may be gleaned from The Economist’s calculation that, on sales of 700,000 per cent of revenue from advertising, pretax profits could approach $40 million—or $16 million short of the combined pretax profits of Fleet Street’s nine dailies and its eight Sunday newspapers.

Fleet Street’s more pleasurable feelings arise from the fact that everyone knows newspapers can’t continue to

look away from cheaper and more efficient production. What everyone also knows is that the newspaper unions are going to raise merry hell—and that there is merit in having Shah to lead the way. The overmanning referred to by Edward Pearce in Encounter has been a joke for years—about printers on the payroll who not only do not work but may not exist. When Lord Hartwell referred to his paper, as not being well-printed, he went on to speak of “spelling mistakes and lines in the wrong place.” It is generally accepted that not all those mistakes are mistakes; some are related to contract provisions for extra pay for corrections which managements tolerate rather than incur the cost of getting a wholly clean paper. Managements have tolerated featherbedding for another reason: newspapers that are costly to run don’t invite outsiders to jump into the market—the meaning of The Economist ’s reference to a “tacit conspiracy.”

Now, like it or not, they have Eddie Shah. Shah took on the National Graphical Association at Warrington and beat the printers on the picket line and in the courts. His new paper will have just two unions—the National Union of Journalists in the newsroom and the Electrical, Electronic Telecommunications and Plumbing Union elsewhere. There will be no-strike agreements. Disputes will be settled according to pendulum arbitration; an arbitrator will pick the last offer of one side or the other, an arrangement calculated to encourage moderation by both. Shah will ship his paper in his own trucks to avoid the danger of secondary boycotts by railway unions. And 10 per cent of shares in the newspaper will be offered to staff. The new paper contemplates a staff of about 500, of whom 125 to 130 will be reporters and editors. The Telegraph, larger, but not that much, has a production staff alone estimated at 2,000 which it will try to get down to a still-inflated 1,200 by offering early retirement at a total cost of more than $75 million.

Paul Johnson, The Spectator’s media watcher, wrote last May that if Shah’s paper succeeds, the rest of the newspaper industry “will have to introduce the new technology and demanning in a hurry, with unforeseeable consequences.” He added, “I cannot wait to see it happen, and wish Shah all the luck in the world.” He might now add a word for Conrad Black.