Gamble on Fleet Street

February 16 1987

Gamble on Fleet Street

February 16 1987

Gamble on Fleet Street


Just over a year ago Canadian millionaire-businessman Conrad Black took control of Britain’s money-losing Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph newspapers in an investment widely viewed as a gamble. Black appointed his friend Andrew Knight, 47, former editor of The Economist magazine, as chief executive. Together they have launched a radical overhaul of a company plagued by obsolete technology, union battles and poor management. Those changes came as Rupert Murdoch, owner of The Times, shut out 5,500 workers from his new plant at Wapping in London ’s East End and precipitated a bitter dispute that still continues. Maclean’s correspondent Paulette Roberge interviewed Knight in the imposing 19-k sera Telegraph headquarters on London ’s Fleet Street.

Maclean’s: To what extent has Conrad Black succeeded in restoring the Daily Telegraph to profitability?

Knight: We have cut $49 million off the London print workers’ wage bill effective next April through the new union

agreement. It is a salutary thought that that returns the company to bare profitability. But we have to get the whole nonprint side working as a modern company. That means using new technology in the way it was designed to be used, such as the direct input of journalists’ copy into one electronic computer system. Two of our three competitors now use it, and they have a better-looking, more literate product. It is a situation we have to match.

Maclean’s: You have personally been credited with convincing the print unions of the need for change in the face of growing competition.

How much of your suecess do you ascribe to the company ’s new management—and how much to the “Wapping effect?”

Knight: It is easier to make a peaceful agreement after a war, and there was—

and still is—a war at Wapping. It certainly helped concentrate the minds. We have a tradition in Fleet Street of proprietors who are taken for a ride. But I was able to tell our employees that in Conrad Black they had an employer who was not ready to go along with the old practices. He puts profit first and that’s unusual in Fleet Street.

Maclean’s: Will you achieve the same degree of success in your current talks with journalists and the other nonprint unions from whose ranks, the press has reported, you wish to make 600 jobs redundant?

Knight: We have to achieve this, and we will achieve it. There is no alternative. We cannot

ave a major paper los2 ing circulation—as we £ were—without substan| tial cost-cutting. No pro-

prietor, and certainly not I Conrad Black, would al§ low that to happen. It’s

early days yet, but the negotiations are real and tactical. I think we will get the redundancies we want.

Maclean’s: Do you think changes like your pn'omotional campaign and new editorial staff will alter your stuffy

right-wing image and attract a younger readership, even if the conservative editorial bias remains unchanged?

Knight: The point is, are you intelligent and stimulating or are you not? What we have done is drop the country-colonel image, which gave rise in the old days to the idea of the “Torygraph.” We are now running a newspaper that has a much more stimulating attitude to many issues of the day. And those are not all right-wing. We have been regularly carrying one of the country’s leading centre-left columnists, John Mortimer [writer of the British television series Paradise Postponed]. And the strength of the Telegraph is not in its politics anyway. Its strength is in the width of its appeal.

Maclean’s: What is Conrad Black's standing in Fleet Street?

Knight: There was considerable uneasiiness to begin with because he was an unknown quantity who had never shirked controversy in Canada, who had been highly successful, who was more than usually articulate in comparison with many businessmen and who, at a very young age, had had a biography already written about him. For all these reasons, in a community such as Britain, which has its own parochialism, there was a lot of speculation and worry. I would have thought that all these concerns have been met. He has appointed a very responsible management and two outstanding editors, one of whom [Peregrine Worsthorne of the Sunday Telegraph] had been one of his most outspoken critics at the time. He has not failed to express his views, but at no point has he interfered with the editors, even on stories which I imagined he would disagree with. And he brought off a union agreement that other members of the industry thought at the time would be impossible. So I would have thought his standing was rather high. Maclean’s: But Max Hastings, editor of the Daily Telegraph, has said that Black disagreed with the paper's condemnation of the British government for supporting the Reagan administration's bombing of Libya last April. How often does he express displeasure with editorial positions?

Knight: That was a rare instance where he did express a view, but he specifically said, in expressing it, that he did not expect the editors to change their view. Maclean’s: Do you think Black has taken a huge investment risk?

Knight: You have to admire him. He bought into a business that did not seem viable, knowing that he could probably limit the downside and that there was a considerable upside both for the company and for himself. We are in the process of making sure that it is the upside that materializes.^