Strange days at the Daily Telegraph.

The British scene.
Oct. 25 2006 5:06 PM

Paper Tiger

Strange days at the Daily Telegraph.

What is the Daily Telegraph? In London's crowded newspaper scene, it's a question that would have seemed scarcely worth posing until recently. For decades, the Telegraph has been London's most bravely unfashionable newspaper—one that wore its nickname, the "Torygraph" (as bestowed by satirical magazine Private Eye), as a badge of honor. Its conservative editorial page retained its characteristic snarl long after Margaret Thatcher and John Major departed 10 Downing St. Its news pagesdocumented the latest horrors from London's courthouses, along with macho coverage of the military, foreign affairs, and sports, serving up a stew that was half serious and half sleaze.

But in London as in America, newspapers are groping for identity in the digital age. And among London's "quality" daily newspapers (the others are the Guardian, Times, Financial Times,and Independent), the Telegraph's groping seems particularly desperate. Earlier this month, the Telegraph appointed its third chief editor in less than a year, and, while beefing up its online presence, has jettisoned so many reporters and subeditors that Fleet Street has christened its new headquarters, in the rough South London neighborhood of Victoria, as "Jonestown." For a paper that fancies itself retrograde in all matters political and aesthetic (even its Gothic logo has barely changed in a half-century), the Telegraph'smove from a print newspaper to a multimedia hybrid is worth studying. How do you steer an old battleship into a new harbor?

Advertisement

Founded in 1855, the Telegraph has always been a heady mix of high and low. Its editorial page is a Tory Party institution, issuing terse edicts on foreign policy, immigration, and the military and occasionally intervening in disputes between the surviving Thatcherites. (Such is its connection to the Tories that any deviations from the party line inevitably brought indignant telephone calls from Westminster.) And yet the "footman's paper," as it used to be known, can be as accommodating to sleaze and celebrity swooning as any of London's down-market titles. Earlier this month, a front-page story and photo in the Telegraph alerted readers to this important news: Scarlett Johansson had announced that she had herself tested twice-yearly for HIV. "The Telegraph'sclever popular appeal is masquerading as a quality newspaper for a mass audience," says Kim Fletcher, who was the editorial director of Telegraph Group Limited from 2003 to 2005.

The typical Telegraph reader is a conservative, for sure, but one with a particularly tender constitution. He does not appreciate the mayhem of Rupert Murdoch's Times, another conservative daily, which is forever splashing the latest outrages of Cherie Blair on its cover to boost its circulation. As Max Hastings, who edited the Daily Telegraph from 1986 to 1995, noted in his memoirs, what the Telegraph reader wants from his newspaper is a narcotic experience. "[O]ther titles are in the business of telling people each morning that the world is a quite different place from what it was yesterday," wrote Hastings. "The DT is much more in the business of reassurance, of providing confirmation each morning for our readers that their world is looking pretty safe and stable." Old England will get along just fine, and please pass the marmalade.

For a newspaper that was so determinedly old-fashioned, the Telegraph quickly embraced the Web. Thanks to the efforts of its marketing department, its news pages began appearing online in 1994—an early start by industry standards. But its top editors were Tories who remained oblivious to the digital revolution—so much so that until two years ago, the Telegraph's reporters were still filing their stories on prehistoric ATEX machines. In many cases, the Internet was accessible only at terminals in the corner of the newsroom. So, while the digital Telegraph was being beamed to the Tory diaspora around the world, it was not readily available at its reporters' desks.

The new editor, Will Lewis, whose appointment was announced on Oct. 9, is striving to give the dusty old Telegraph a new face. Dubbed the "generalissimo"of a new wave of computer geeksby Private Eye,the 37-year-old Lewis may be the least-political editor the Telegraph has seen in modern times. (By point of comparison, Charles Moore, who edited the paper from 1995 to 2003, left to preside over Margaret Thatcher's memoirs.) "We've been around for more than 150 years," Lewis told London's Press Gazette earlier this month, "but it's almost like being at a start-up."

Lewis has made the right noises about sticking up for Tory ideals—lower taxes, less government interference. But as Kim Fletcher puts it, "He sees himself as much more of a managerial figure, producing this branded multimedia offering that is called the Telegraph." Echoing Guardian Editor Alan Rusbridger's efforts, Lewis is pushing the Telegraph toward a hybrid state between the newspaper and its Web site. After a decade-long slumber, the Web site is looking quite snazzy. The Telegraph now produces lively podcasts oriented toward its traditional strengths ofbusiness news, foreign reporting, and sports. The Web site also has a blog row that, to one's great relief, bears little resemblance to the thundering leaders on the editorial page. A survey of the Telegraph'sbloggers this week reveals a post about the sinister side of online gaming, a dispatch from a London screening of The Prestige, and a reporter's evocation of his "stunning and atmospheric" night in Kraków.

The Telegraph's Web siteclaims more than 3.8 million unique users per month. The layout of the paper's new headquarters, which has been built on stockbroker Salomon Smith Barney's old trading floor, is truly radical. Arranged in what the paper calls a "hub and spoke" layout, the newsroom will have reporters and Web producers working together on a single floor. This, Lewis says, will reduce redundancy and assist with the continuous publishing demands of the Web.

It's tempting to draw a parallel between Will Lewis and the young leader of the Conservative Party, David Cameron. Both are new faces in charge of creaky old brands. Both are trying desperately to grow their core audiences. Both are doing podcasts. (Cameron's dreary videocasts, which show him haranguing Londoners like a desperate tourist, could use some editorial intervention.) As Cameron is learning, the danger of a radical face-lift is that you get so far away from the core tenets of the brand that you risk losing your identity altogether. Unlike Margaret Thatcher, the new Tory leader has proposed family-friendly policies, like revamping the National Health Service, that in no way resemble those of his predecessors. His most vociferous critics? The editorialists at the Daily Telegraph.

Bryan Curtis is a staff writer for Grantland. Follow him on Twitter.

  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Nov. 21 2014 1:38 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? See if you can keep pace with the copy desk, Slate’s most comprehensive reading team.