The Grey Cardigan 09.12.05

SO WHAT are we to make of the Northcliffe sell-off? Former
colleagues who now work for the group have been on the phone all week
in sadness and anger.

Now I’m a bit naive when it comes to
financial matters. That’s why I have no money, but three ex-wives and
four ex-houses. But I still can’t quite get my head around why a
newspaper group that makes £100 million profit a year and is the
largest single contributor to DMGT’s riches needs to be sold off
because it’s apparently, well, crap.

So it doesn’t make the
fabled margins of Johnston Press or Trinity Mirror, but isn’t 25 per
cent enough? How many other industries enjoy such gluttonous profits?
DMGT’s national newspapers certainly don’t, scraping along at around 10
per cent.

The other thing that hurts my friends is that they
haven’t been allowed to pursue the new targets (and no-one is whingeing
about those targets) themselves. Instead, it’s been down to dead-headed
consultants to make the decisions, rather than men and women skilled in
the nuances of preserving editorial quality while still achieving that
bottom line.

The truth of the matter is Northcliffe missed the
boat. When the great consolidations of the industry were going on the
group stood back, like a shy girl at a school disco, afraid to embrace
the adventure of expansion. Subsequent managers have been less than
inspiring, with one key executive being described this week as “having
all the personality of a bucket of wallpaper paste”. Certainly once
accountants occupied the two top posts, the writing was on the wall.

Perhaps
it’s not all the fault of ineffectual – and expensive – group
management. Northcliffe editors were always proud, perhaps even
boastful, of their distance from group influence and control.

They
ran their own papers and that was that. With the benefit of hindsight,
perhaps that remoteness and separation from the London board, itself
disappointingly lacking in recent local newspaper experience, was a
mistake.

Here’s more naivety: what about the communities that
those 100-plus newspapers serve? The communities that have funded DMGT
for decades? The communities that helped to build Jonathan Harmsworth’s
new mansion? Don’t they deserve a continuing relationship with an
enlightened and effective proprietor, who recognises the importance of
print (and pixels) as social glue?

And we’ll not even mention the
assistant editors with hefty mortgages who’ve turned down better offers
from elsewhere, or the trainee journalists who took that £12,000 job
because their editors convinced them that they would be working for a
group in which journalism mattered.

I’m afraid it all turns the stomach, but not quite at the rate of revs the old Lord R will be spinning in his grave.

WE ALL make mistakes, but the five o’clock ITN News bulletin isn’t really the place you’d want to cock up.

Enter
stage left Tim Ewart, in Belfast to report on George Best’s funeral. In
one of those irritating back-and-forth thingies that are fashionable,
he responded to a question about how Best’s seraphic skills had bridged
that community’s historic divides by blithely stating: “Of course,
George Best was a Catholic…”

Well, I suppose if you exclude
Judaism it was a 50/50 bet. You’d have thought, though, that the
well-recorded fact that the IRA threatened to shoot him if he turned
out for his national team might have provided a clue, never mind the
location of his family home in East Belfast and the absence of incense
from his funeral service. Poor show.

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