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City AM's Christian May says after three years editing newspaper 'I feel now like it's mine' and looks to 2018 as 'best year commercially' for title

“It’s the best thing I’ve ever done,” says Christian May as he marks three-years as City AM editor, with the former PR chief having been hired “out of the blue” by the daily newspaper’s proprietors for the top job.

Plucked from the comms team at the Institute of Directors, a group for business leaders, he admits having had misgivings about taking on the role – “it was a very unnatural step” – and says it has been a “very steep learning curve”.

“Most of the established media reaction to my appointment was ‘what the fuck is this about?’ An entirely fair reaction by the way,” he says plainly.

Regardless, on Sunday 17 August 2015 he was in the hot seat and working on his first paper, which went out the following morning across London.

“The rhythm of a daily print product is such that you can’t exactly spend three months getting to know everybody gently and then making some changes, you’re in it,” he says.

“By the end of the first week you’ve done five papers and you carry on.”

During his editorship, the free business newspaper, whose readers are typically well-remunerated City types working in business and finance – has marked its ten-year anniversary and put out its 3,000th edition.

“I feel now like it’s mine,” he tells Press Gazette. “I’m comfortable with it and I’m enjoying it every bit as much as I did that first Sunday.”

Over lunch in the City, May reveals that when he was first announced as the paper’s new editor, former Scotsman editor Iain Martin – whom he “didn’t know particularly well at the time” – sent him a letter containing eight points of advice.

The letter was based on one Martin had received himself from his predecessor Magnus Linklater, having, like May, been only in his late 20s when he took the editor’s chair (May was 28 when he became City AM editor).

“It was fantastically kind and helpful of him,” says May, now 32 and recently married with a young son.

“I won’t reel them all off, but some I remember well – not least the opening point, which is that an awful lot of people are suddenly going to want to be your friend and they are going to invite you to things and they are going to try and take you out, but just always remember that it’s not the dynamism of Christian May that they want to spend time in the company of, it’s you as an editor and everybody has an agenda.

“I have remembered that from day one, and it’s true. He also concluded with the recommendation that my job should be to ‘ruin the breakfasts of powerful people’, which I know we have done on plenty of occasions – so that advice was well received and has stood the test of time.”

But May is not a proponent of that age-old journalism advice, attributed to everyone from Lord Northcliffe to George Orwell, that “news is what somebody somewhere wants to suppress – all the rest is advertising”.

“There is this kind of romanticised notion that all journalism is is pissing people off and exposing things and making enemies, and if you’re not doing that day in day out, if you’re not under constant attack and living in a world of hostility then you’re somehow not really doing it right.,” he says.

“Now, I don’t think that is ever entirely the case.

“Of course we piss people off, of course it’s our job to write about things that people don’t want appearing in print – and that is fundamental – but if you subscribe to that view then, for a start, you would never cover good news, you would never cover achievements and successes of individuals or firms, and City AM is a pro-business voice…”

May is first to mention Brexit during our conversation, but it is to remark that it was a good thing for his newspaper – as it was for many others – and a “brilliant time” from a journalistic perspective.

He says it helped bring the interests of the City, the Square Mile and financial services “right up the agenda”.

“I know a lot of people who started to pick up City AM during the referendum campaign because suddenly they felt they couldn’t get their head around the political debates without understanding the input of the business world and finance world in particular,” he says.

When Press Gazette returns to the topic later on in the conversation – “I try not to mention [Brexit] very often, but you’re right I did mention it” – May confirms he did vote for Britain to leave the European Union.

“Personally I voted for Brexit,” he says.

“But I also had a decision to make about whether the newspaper was going to articulate that perspective and my proprietors made it very clear – as they always have done – that the decision was entirely mine.”

He says co-owners Jens Torpe and Lawson Muncaster had “very different perspectives” on Brexit compared to him.

May says he is not a “hard Brexiteer, or even a particularly fervent one, but we were given the choice and I made mine” and that his vote was grounded in social and economic liberalism with a pro-immigration stance.

But May acknowledges there was an “institutional City view in favour of Remain”. Editorially, he took the decision not to support one side or the other and hold “the feet of both campaigns to the fire”, he says.

“The City had plenty of Leave voters in it, and if we had just leapt on board the Remain campaign we would have alienated them, albeit they’re a smaller constituency,” he says.

“I don’t think it’s for me or any other newspaper to tell its readership how it should vote on such a major issue.”

Two years on from Brexit and May admits City AM has “shone a light on more positive stories for London” that could be construed as pushing a pro-Leave agenda, but adds: “I haven’t been out of my way to look for them.”

He says stories that run counter to the narrative that Brexit is bad are “not spinning or twisting the news to an agenda, that is the bloody news”.

“There’s no bending the news agenda – uncertainty exists, the consequences of a no-deal, which I fully advocate against, would be undesirable. My position has always been that London will survive.”

While he admits to having biases, he says they are not a secret.

“I think [Jeremy] Corbyn and [John] McDonnell would be a disaster – they would be an utter catastrophe for the economy and for the city. I think, on a sort of philosophical note, low-tax environments, liberal economic policies are better than the alternatives.

“I think the free market, whilst imperfect, is better than any alternative. I think we should be wary of the size and role of the state in all areas of our lives, not just in areas of business and economics – so those are my personal positions.”

While these spill over into the paper through the leader column which May either writes personally or oversees,  he says: “The only way that we would be able to have a kind of concerted in print bias, is if everybody was in on it and everybody agreed the same objective, but it just doesn’t work like that.”

Elsewhere, he expects the Daily Mail to soften on Brexit under new editor Geordie Greig, but says it “would be a mistake for that change to be dramatic and overnight”.

May says he doesn’t believe the BBC has been biased on Brexit, but were “caught off guard by the Leave result and fell into a couple of fairly lazy, early explanations as to why it happened”.

He says he thinks Sky “didn’t make those mistakes” and is “much better on these bigger picture items”, but adds: “From a news perspective, I don’t think there’s bias at the BBC at all.”

City AM has an editorial team of about 30 staff, including 15 news reporters. “If you think about it, that makes it one of the biggest business desks in print journalism,” says May.

Reporters mostly write across both platforms with a focus on digital or print depending on the time of their shift. As the paper’s deadline is 12.45am, those on a late shift tend to have more of a print focus.

The paper goes to print at 1am and reaches its 1,700-odd distribution points across London by 6am.

City AM prints about 90,000 copies – the latest July figure of nearly 86,000 May puts down to a summer lull in the City when about 5 per cent of his readers are away.

While the newspaper has seen some fall in distribution, which is felt across the entire news industry, May says “the silver lining is that it is absolutely not been in line with everyone else”, keeping to small percentage drops.

In fact he says he wants to put out more copies of the paper midweek.

“There’s no secret that demand is bigger than supply for that print product,” he tells Press Gazette. He claims 155,000 copies could be easily absorbed by adding new locations to distribute the newspaper.

But while he might harbor the desire, he says simply “doubling distribution does not double print ad revenues”. Print ad revenue is still the lion’s share of the business and May says it has actually increased on last year.

He says 2018 “might well be the best year in a number of years commercially”. In May this year, City AM launched a new magazine, to be published six times a year, replacing all of its existing titles.

“There’s quite a lot going on at City AM, there’s quite a lot of investment going in,” says May.

“There’s quite a few commercial innovations coming soon, products and things being launched, and I think all of that, including just being restrained on our costs is all going to contribute to the business being in a pretty [good position] by the end of this year.

“If that is maintained, who knows what? Maybe we do then say let’s up our [distribution] footprint, because we know it can be done, we know there’s an appetite for it.”

In 2015, the latest full-year financial figures available, City AM made £8.9m in revenue, up from £8.3m the year before, and a pre-tax profit of £110,000, up from a loss of more than £600,000 on the year before.

Among the products touted for launch this year is City AM Club, a membership package offering “discounts, access and experiences” for an annual fee.  Events will be a part of the offering, although May says City AM is “a little late to the party” on that.

But, he says: “A crude look at the numbers suggests it will be eminently worthwhile.”

In 2016 City AM launched City Talk, a native advertising platform that gave companies the ability to use its CMS to publish straight onto the website. The move raised concerns over the classic “church and state” divide, with companies able to publish with no oversight from professional journalists.

Nonetheless, May says he was “perfectly relaxed” about it and says the “quality” of the companies using it is a first line of defence against potential abuse of the platform.

He says he has “yet to have encountered a scenario where [a partner company]  has used that platform to publish a rebuttle to a story about them that we’ve run”.

He adds: “If somebody calls me up and says are you aware of this outrageous article online and I click on it and it turns out to be from one of our City Talk partners then things will very quickly fall into motion, but it hasn’t happened and I don’t expect it to because of the nature of who’s using that platform”.

May claims City AM has between 60,000 and 100,000 daily unique browsers and is “nudging” a couple of million monthly page views, although its website – along with many other national titles – is not audited by ABC.

Digital now “washes its own face” May says, although print ad revenue still drives revenues. He says this year it has been “very robust and has grown”.

He says the team have a good idea of who their readers are – “youngish, well remunerated, high disposable income, aspirational” and that this remains valuable to companies looking to advertise in the paper.

“Undoubtedly there’s value in being a curated, trusted, credible product and that’s what’s going to keep most print products and newspapers alive – the death of them has been exaggerated in my opinion,” he says.

“There may well come a time when some of them cease printing on paper, but that’s different.”

As long as print ad revenue continues to be the lion’s share of overall revenue, May says City AM will continue to publish a print edition.

He adds: “[Print] is a very obvious and high-visibility, physical asset. And I think it’s still pulling a good chunk of weight commercially. It’s a big deal.”

City AM has no sub-editors, with night editors and May the only staff to proof pages, which are written straight onto by reporters.

“City AM has always been a sub-less system,” says May. “I constantly worry about errors creeping in. I turn the page each morning in fear of an erroneous apostrophe or a typo.

“You’re never going to eradicate 100 per cent of them, there’s always going to be human error. But I sign off the pages, and it’s got my name on it, so any errors in there are my responsibility.

“I do see every page – that said you won’t find me now hunched over the board room desk in my office with a stubby pencil and a print out of every single page of the newspaper in a way that you would have done two years ago.

“Part of that is because I feel more confident in the product and part of that is because I’ve got a toddler.”

He says he believes any editor at City AM has a responsibility to continue ‘punching above the paper’s weigh in terms of the stories that we break and the way we cover them.

Last month Press Gazette reported that City AM’s website had been down for a week – the result of an “unprecedented” technical fault.

“As I understand it, a variety of things that should never go wrong – a number of which are out of your control – went wrong,” explains May. “And a number of things that should have happened immediately were not triggered.”

“It was a pretty shit week,” says May. “It is embarrassing, when a very public facing part of your operation falls down. Philosophically I can look back at it and say worse things have happened at sea, and they have.”

When it the site did return, it was with a caveat – some nine months of recent news content was missing. May says this is not a permanent loss, but reporters must currently request for a specific article to be retrieved.

“My understanding is they’ve yet to find the switch that will allow it all to just be restored good as new,” he says. “So the content is there and it is recoverable – the challenge operationally is the rate of recovery.

“But I’m pleased the site’s back, publishing is back to normal. It doesn’t appear to have hurt us too much on traffic.”

He said the incident had “put some boosters under a lot of conversations that were taking place about the future of the website, products and personnel decisions etc, so there’s always a positive to take away from it”.

He says: “This happened at a time when we were considering City AM 3.0 and it has hastened those discussions. We’re back where we were three weeks ago, albeit with some content missing.

“It’s not a good place, but it’s breathing space. And the conversations that were happening when the site went down have taken on a new urgency and those conversations were about what should the City AM website be, how should it look, what should we do with it?”

The newspaper has seen a high turnover of staff this year, and has struggled to retain a digital editor, with three new names appearing in quick succession.

“It never ceases to frustrate me, but it never annoys me because people move on invariably to move up,” says May.

“We enjoyed a period of stability over 2017. A lot of people who joined in 2016, at around about the same time, who had been there for two years and had made a name for themselves – in the beginning half of 2018 quite a lot of people moved on within a couple of months of each other.

“We lost people over the course of two months to the Mail, the Mail on Sunday and Telegraph and Press Association, Sky News and others. It is difficult when that kind of happens all at once, or rather close together.

“But my philosophy on this remains that it would be far worse a situation if nobody thought to hire from City AM.”

May says a large part of his job is to spot young talent, with many reporters joining City AM as their first job in the news industry. That talent is then poached by papers with deeper pockets and larger newsrooms.

“Unless everybody is just being desperately polite to me, everyone who has moved on in the last year has been approached, an opportunity has been put in front of them and that’s entirely understandable because we are the pool in which other places fish,” he says.

“We will train them up, we will get them into the beat, we will take care of their copy, we will support them as they become better journalists and then someone else is going to find that an attractive proposition…

“And actually I’m very proud that I can look around and see so much of the talent that we cultivated moving on up and going elsewhere. If I find myself in the index of everybody’s autobiography in 40 years’ time then I’ll be pleased with that.”

While others are moving on, May says he would like to still be editor of City AM three years from now and writes off a possible return to PR. “It’s a bit like asking a vegetarian who tries their first fillet steak whether they are going to go back to just munching on greens,” he says.

Picture: City AM

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