“If we ever get boring, we’ll close,” says The New European editor Matt Kelly of the weekly “pop-up” newspaper as it surpasses 100 issues.
Kelly told Press Gazette’s Journalism Matters podcast: “The last thing I want to do is get boring and just hang on for the sake of it…
“I don’t want to be just producing a weekly paper by rote because we happen to have landed a stable audience who no-one knows what it is anymore. I’d much sooner close that and do something more interesting.”
It is now two years since TNE launched as the paper “for the 48 per cent” of Remain voters in the wake of the Brexit vote, with its first edition published two weeks after the referendum result.
The title was planned for an initial print run of four-weeks, which was then extended “on a rolling basis” after it exceeded sales targets to turn a profit, according to publisher Archant.
Since then it has seen subscribers climb to 8,000 and circulation hold steady at between 23,000 and 25,000, says Kelly.
Financially the title is just about washing its face, he says, with an eye-catching front page able to make the difference between a week in the black and a week in the red.
Kelly says with no marketing budget, the only attention The New European gets “is me gobbing off on radio or TV” or posts on social media.
“Nothing goes more viral than a funny cover on Twitter so we get a lot of airplay from that” he says of the paper’s now familiar front page designs.
Kelly reveals the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo was his inspiration for the cover designs as he tried to make TNE, which is sold alongside the national newspapers, appear distinct on the newsstand.
“At the time I was really into the covers of Charlie Hebdo, which had these very binary coloured cartoons – obviously that got them into loads of trouble, but the look of them and the idea that you could have a very cheeky, fun thing on your front page but be very serious inside really appealed to me.
“I remember going to Jeff [Henry, Archant’s chief executive] and he said: ‘What’s the cover going to be like?’ and I said: ‘I’m going to do something like Charlie Hebdo’ and he literally went pale.
“He said: ‘I don’t want to be attacking Muslims, that’s not good’. And I said: ‘No, no, I just mean we’re going to be putting a cartoon on page one’. So there was a big sigh of relief.”
TNE has one full-time staff member in former Telegraph journalist Jasper Copping with freelance contributors filling its pages each week. Kelly is also Archant’s chief content officer, overseeing its local and regional newspapers and magazines, including Norfolk daily the Eastern Daily Press.
Kelly admits it is an “absolute bugger to get [TNE] out every week” and a “constant stress”. He says he had been considering making it a fortnightly, but adds: “…of course, half the revenue presents its own challenges”.
“For the moment we just try to get the best paper out every week,” he says.
“Every single week for all 100+ issues I have walked away on the Wednesday morning after we’ve gone to press and said to myself: ‘Was that the best you can do?’
“And every week I’ve said: ‘Yes’. So if I get a week where I say: ‘Do you know what, I could have gone better, or ‘that’s a poor paper’, I will fall into vast self-loathing and try to close the thing as soon as we can.”
Aside from his fears of putting out a “boring” paper, if there’s anything else that could be said be bothering Kelly, it’s the BBC’s failure to take The New European seriously and include it in its paper reviews.
He says: “We’ve had about two mentions on the Today programme, the Spectator gets mentioned every week, the News Statesman every week, why not The New European? We’re selling almost as many as the New Statesman now after just two years of life. We should be taken seriously I think.
“I think [the BBC] are slow to wake up to the fact that we are a serious, good newspaper and we’ve got a remarkably high calibre of writers for us. I don’t think they read the newspapers themselves – I think they read the Daily Mail, The Sun and a passing glimpse at the Guardian perhaps, but that’s probably it.
“Getting them to pay attention, to take notice of what is a very particular point of view, but on this huge issue, is very difficult.”
Kelly spent about 15 years on the Daily Mirror, joining the title in 1996, including working under Piers Morgan.
He says of Morgan: “Piers arrived like a bomb going off and in truth I think the Mirror latterly had become a tired slightly lazy paper.
“It wasn’t setting the agenda, it wasn’t exciting, it was going through the motions, and Piers came in and just ripped it all up and suddenly we were all on our best game or you were out.”
Since March last year TNE has boasted former Number 10 spin doctor Alastair Campbell as its editor-at-large. Campbell is paid for the role.
Kelly says he asked Campbell to join after the PR man had been helping him unofficially, sending ten to 20 emails most weekdays with comments and ideas about the paper. He says Campbell has been a “machine of ideas” and has “fingers in all sorts or pies”.
He adds: “Without Alastair I don’t think we could have kept on going. He really is a driving force at the newspaper… I think Alastair’s sincerity and the quality of his arguments make him a must-read and I think if Brexit ever gets overturned, not that he would ever take it, but he should be Sir Alastair Campbell.”