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Kelvin MacKenzie

Why Dacre's worth his million

British Journalism Review
Vol. 16, No. 1, 2005, pages 70-74

Kelvin MacKenzie, a former editor of The Sun and deputy chief executive and group managing director of Mirror Group, is chairman and chief executive of The Wireless Group.

Contents - Vol 16, No 1, 2005

Editorial - A matter of honours 3

Nick Pollard - Diary of a disaster 7

Election 2005
Bill Hagerty - Spin, rottweilers and the virtual swingometer 13

Ivor Gaber - TV: dumb and dumber? 24

Kevin Maguire - When poacher turns gamekeeper 29

Clive Soley - The public is sick of us both 35

Emily Bell - End of the offline? 41

Steve Tatham - Al-Jazeera: can it make it here? 47

W Leon Smith - When principles stampede the herd 53

Suzanne Franks - The neglect of Africa 59

John Coulter - Moral reason never to tell 65

Kelvin MacKenzie - Why Paul Dacre's worth his million 70

Harold Evans on Ken Auletta 75

Bryan Wharton on the BPPA 79

Julia Langdon on Jon Snow 81

Charles Wheeler on Greg Dyke 83

Philip Jacobson on Stuart Allan/Barbie Zelizer 85

The way we were 46

  They are easy to spot at a party. Shoulders hunched – eyes darting narrowly – a general sense of despair. Yes, they are Britain's national newspaper editors. And boy, are they glum over their circulations. Nevertheless, as they ponder what they are going to make of their careers, they must never waiver in their belief that what they do every day does make a difference.

The most-prized employee in a newspaper company is the one who sits in an office with EDITOR on the door (although, incidentally, great editors don't spend much time in that office – they spend most of it creating mayhem on the editorial floor. Offices are for bank managers). An efficient chief executive officer is a great asset but, frankly, compared to the huge and varied disciplines required of an editor, CEOs are ten-a-penny. As for advertisement sales directors, well, just look at the bulging ad pages in most titles – despite plummeting circulations, it's a bit like selling clothes to Wayne Rooney's girlfriend.

I was particularly pleased to learn recently that Paul Dacre, the finest and most successful newspaper editor in this country, earns in excess of a million pounds a year. What was not so pleasing was to discover that his chief executive earns more. This doesn't properly reflect the vital role of the editor. Plenty of businessmen and women can do what the chief executive does. I am not saying that you could take a clerk from the pay-roll department and expect him or her to run the company. There are plenty of CEOs about. But there is only one person with the skill, the guile and the understanding of his customers that can turn out the Daily Mail each day. The sensational circulation figures over the last decade, in what is clearly an industry whose share of the media cake is in decline, proves the point. (It should be said that no major media are increasing market share – Channel 4 is getting only 6 per cent in multi-channel households. No wonder they are showing the begging bowl to the Government – they are going nowhere except the soup kitchen.)

The editor sets the style, content and tone of his paper. It is an incredibly skilful job because it has to reflect the concerns and aspirations of millions of readers. How amazing it is that one man or woman can successfully control such a wide church. No one else, not even the proprietor, can perform this function. A strong and knowledgeable boss – an owner as opposed to a hired hand – is essential for the overall game-plan, and mutual respect must exist between the two. But newspaper owners and chief executives should be dealing with issues such as media investment and expansion opportunities, business strategy and creating a company vision, rather than the editorial concept.

If a title doesn't have a fine editor, it is easily the most significant problem in the newspaper equation – one that cannot be hidden by giving away CDs. Before very long, sales will start to dip at a nerve-jangling rate. Confidence will be challenged throughout the entire company and the bottom line will start to look distinctly bleaker. That is what is happening at Trinity Mirror. Sly Bailey, its CEO, has seldom heard the rumble of a press hall or enjoyed the smell of ink pervading the building. She has never pretended that she has an abiding interest – or perhaps any interest – in newspaper journalism. Personally I find this quite shocking. How incredible that a CEO can, it appears, view with such disinterest one of the revenues (circulation) that keeps her newspapers afloat, especially as circulation also impacts seriously on the other revenue stream – advertising.

White-hot businessmen

Ms Bailey's attitude may come from her background at IPC, a successful magazine business where it dealt with the cyclical decline of a title by either shutting it down or hanging it out to dry. This cannot possibly work in the world of newspapers. There, the best operators are white-hot businessmen – Rupert Murdoch and Richard Desmond, for example – who have all been tremendously successful in a diverse set of media. A new evening newspaper for London? We'll launch one. Or if we can't launch one, we'll shoot down the opposition. A price cut? We'll meet the competition head-to-head. New colour presses, a new printing plant? We'd better get moving on that.

Is this process ongoing at Trinity Mirror? I don't think so. Before Ms Bailey took over in February 2003, the average annual rate of circulation decline for the Daily Mirror was 3.33 per cent. This accelerated to 7.07 per cent later in 2003, and in 2004 it was 13.35 per cent down. Sunday Mirror year-on-year numbers were running -4.46 per cent in 2002, before Sly came along. She took them to -7.31 per cent in 2003 and -9.03 per cent in 2004. The People is even worse. The year-on-year numbers started at -7.8 per cent in 2002, pre- Sly. She took them to -14.3 per cent in her first year and to 21.8 per cent down in 2004 – and the paper has now slipped below a million.

With the Mirror selling around 1,765,000 and losing 140,000 per annum, I have worked out that in 12 years – about the same time digital radio really takes off – the last Daily Mirror will be sold, on March 18, probably around the Crewe area. If the Trinity Mirror management keeps to the plan of increasing the cover price to bolster the coffers as sales decline, the last Mirror sold will cost about £14,218.30.

Of course Trinity Mirror faces problems that don't affect rival proprietors. It is a public company and effectively issues reports every quarter that put tremendous pressure on its executives. Sly Bailey's defenders point to the stock price as an example of what a fine job she has done. The reason the stock is high is because of the huge, and unexpected, price the Barclay brothers paid for the Telegraph group last year. The knockon effect boosted share prices and at Trinity Mirror reflects the fact that the company is a target for venture capitalists. I know — I'm approached by them on a fairly regular basis.

Within the executive set-up at Trinity Mirror, there is no effective editorial input at top level. There is no editorial representation at the top of the company. How different from News International, where chairman Les Hinton is a former journalist and where the journalism is soaked into walls. Trinity Mirror's chairman, Sir Victor Blank, is a cunning and clever financier, but he would not profess to have any editorial thoughts. The managing director of Trinity's national titles, Ellis Watson, came up along the marketing route, and the editorial side is a black art of which he knows little.

So where is the person in Trinity Mirror who will say they know how the readers think, that the content of the paper is no good, the page seven lead isn't strong enough, the lay-outs are poor, the pictures are being badly selected and displayed? Are we making the right editorial decisions? This kind of thought process appears unwanted in Canary Wharf. That's ridiculous and damning of the company's strategy.

Let's contrast this “loose and free” atmosphere with what happens at News International. Rupert Murdoch has a view about his newspapers 24 hours a day. Every day. When he is concerned about a title, he will gather all his executives into an office and talk through the issues for perhaps up to 12 hours. Sustained by only a few plates of sandwiches, he will scour through the issues until everybody in the room has a renewed clarity of purpose. How fantastic that this can happen. How incredible that a man who runs a massive media empire can devote an entire working day to The Sun, which has already out-distanced the competition as the best-selling daily paper in Britain.

The same sort of atmosphere prevails inside the Daily Mail building. Dacre is the master of the battleground and comfortably Britain's finest editor. In my assessment of Britain's finest, I do not include Sunday paper editors as they simply don't face the day-in, day-out grind of producing a daily paper. Nor do I consider any editor who has done less than five years at the helm. It's only after five years one can tell if he or she has the stamina and talent to do the job. Paul has been in his job now for more than a decade, but is still restlessly ambitious every day for his paper. He never loses sight of the fact that only constant and unstinting toil will keep the Mail at the head of the market.

What else is wrong?

It made me laugh recently when The Observer was forced to apologise to Dacre after it stated he had taken the whole of the Christmas period off. In fact, as the apology pointed out, he had masterminded the tsunami coverage from his office while his readers put their feet up. It occurred to me that if the Observer journalists can't cover even the media properly, how much else is wrong with the paper?

What I like about Dacre is that each day he arrives at work determined to crush the life out of his rivals. Further, he has the ability to appoint able lieutenants. It is part of any newspaper editor's role at that level to look to the future. Lord Rothermere can sleep easily at night safe in the knowledge that editorial succession is being thoroughly served.

So what are the differences between a Rupert Murdoch – or Lord Rothermere-owned – title and one in the Trinity Mirror stable? It is the relationship of trust between the editor and the proprietor. More particularly, as far as News International is concerned, the editors are aware that as they plough on through each rather tough day, the proprietor knows more about the product than he or she does. This is the complete opposite of what happens inside Trinity Mirror.

Mirror editors live in a world where they know there is nobody above them who knows anything like as much about newspapers as they do. This is not because they are all geniuses. It is because the incredible situation exists where the publishers of a collection of national daily and Sunday newspapers don't have a senior controlling figure for the editorial part of their business. This is very dangerous – even suicidal – and I would urge Trinity Mirror quickly to dispose of the national titles in order for the company to collect a good dollop of cash while they are still of some value. This would also perhaps allow the Mirror group of newspapers to find an owner who would cherish the product and take greater care over quality control.

Of course, not all editors are geniuses and many are soon found out. If the drink doesn't get to them, the ego certainly will. Some sacked editors have found it very tough in the outside world. They are like ex-MPs – nobody really likes them and certainly don't want to hire them. Some have gone on to very successful careers in other areas. Stuart Higgins runs a great PR business, while I see that David Yelland, another former Sun editor, is dispensing advice to Labour during the run-up to the general election (there goes the majority!). Back in the business of journalism, there are no short cuts to producing a great newspaper. You need one vital ingredient: a great editor. If you've got one, you will succeed; if not, you will fail. That's why Paul Dacre is worth considerably more than a million pounds a year.