Media Headliner: How the 'Lunchmaster' has mastered the City

Ian Darby talks to City AM's MD, Lawson Muncaster, about tackling the recession and why he's not bothered about the web.

Meeting Lawson Muncaster, the managing director of City AM, is always an event. Within seconds of plonking himself down in a leather director's chair in the boardroom of the newspaper's offices, he's launching into an anecdote about his lesbian boxing trainer that somehow ends in a competent analysis of the financial meltdown.

We meet to discuss City AM's fifth birthday, which it celebrates this week. An anniversary many thought it would never see. Yet, in the event, the title has outlasted bigger, better resourced, London launches such as London Lite and thelondonpaper, both of which closed last year.

In September 2005, Muncaster, previously the vice-president of global sales at the newspaper group Metro International, and his chief executive, the Dane Jens Torpe, backed by some Dutch private investors, launched the title into a competitive marketplace. The concept was simple: a free newspaper with lower distribution than the likes of Metro but with a higher advertising yield because of its City audience.

Muncaster explains the attitude towards it at the time: "Being a fat Dane and a fat Scot, with investors who had no background in the print business in the UK, nobody knew who we were and so the instinct was that we'd fail. But it's testament to the brand, the product, our editorial and commercial teams that we've come through the worst recession probably ever."

He argues that City AM's "start-up mentality" meant there was no real fat to trim but the title suffered last year, albeit less than other newspapers. However, it appears to be bouncing back. The paper lost around £650,000 in 2009 but is set to make a profit of between £750,000 and £1 million in 2010. Its ad revenue, which fell 7 per cent last year, is up 40 per cent and surpassed 2009 levels on 17 August.

Muncaster, a ball of Scottish energy, is certainly not shy when talking up his product. While critics of City AM might find its editorial package less comprehensive than rival offerings, Muncaster praises its editor, Allister Heath, as "the most exciting business journalist" in London and says he is the best appointment City AM has made (Heath joined the paper in 2008).

Otherwise, there has been continuity in the City AM senior line-up, with the sales director, Jeremy Slattery, and the commercial director, Harry Owen, having been onboard since launch.

The passion in Muncaster's argument steps up a notch when you get him on the subject of "free" versus "paid-for": "When I hear the word 'free', I go fucking bananas - probably the most iconic service in communications is the BBC World Service and it's 100 per cent free. CNN, ITV, most radio - it's all free." He argues that it's self-interested "hot air" from newspapers that sustains the view that paid-for is better and argues that City AM's 30 journalists deliver quality, albeit in bitesized chunks, consistently.

Muncaster is intent on turning this year's anticipated profit into consistent performance and is already buzzing with ideas for the next five years. There are plans to extend its UK circulation (currently 94,000 in London, but comfortably above 100,000 outside of the summer months).

He expects that this can increase to a maximum of 150,000 in London and 190,000 in the UK. Planned launches in Manchester and Edinburgh were put on hold due to the downturn but are likely to be back on the agenda in the near-future.

City AM's team is also looking at an iPad version in the autumn and a range of iPhone apps.

One thing he's pleased about is that it didn't invest in the web: "I'm not a big fan of the internet, not for newspapers. In our five years, we've probably spent £36 million on the business and perhaps just £100,000 of that on the internet.

"Newspapers go on about pay-walls and they're nuts. Whether they like it or not, it's free content, but I'm far more interested in the future for distribution on the iPad and the iPhone. In five years, people will be reading City AM via apps but I guarantee there will still be a paper on the streets of London doing very, very well."

As for Muncaster, since turning 40 he seems less inclined to live up to his "Lunchmaster" tag but continues to be one of the more ebullient figures on the media scene. He admits to disliking spending too much time in the office and leaves the sales department to Slattery, while he's just as likely to be out seeing senior clients in the investment and spread-betting world as media agencies.

He says: "The reason this industry is cool is because of some really interesting people. I hate it when things become really boring and scientific. I understand sometimes why that has to be the case but it's all about creating a good brand that you can charge more for and it's all about selling, and that shouldn't be a bad word."

In the immediate future, Muncaster suggests that the business is stable and that the City AM shareholders, wealthy individuals who like owning a London newspaper, are in no hurry to cash in. "They're very, very proud of it," he says.

Ultimately, City AM's strategy is to look beyond the UK and spread its wings into one city overseas. Muncaster sees potential in Moscow, Mumbai and New York. Lawson Muncaster hits the Big Apple. Brace yourselves in Manhattan.

THE LOWDOWN
Age: 41
Lives: North Berwick
Family: Wife Zoe, children Ben, Ruby, Olly and Zac
Most treasured possession: My home in Scotland
Interests outside work: Golf, Celtic, rugby and history
Last book you read: Long Walk To Freedom by Nelson Mandela
Motto: Plus est en vous - There is more in you than you think

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