OPINION - QUESTION TIME WITH ... Conrad Black - The Telegraph’s owner is bullish about the future of print

’Power is my mistress. I have worked too hard in conquering her to allow anyone to take her from me, or even to covet her.’

’Power is my mistress. I have worked too hard in conquering her to

allow anyone to take her from me, or even to covet her.’



The quote is attributed to the French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, but

Daily Telegraph proprietor Conrad Black - who built a dollars 3 billion

media empire from scratch - might empathise with the words of his

boyhood hero.



And, like Napoleon, it is a brave person who crosses the Canadian

tycoon, as a number of heads of government could attest. One such is

Canadian premier Jean Chretien, who is being sued for vetoing William

Hague’s recommendation of Black for a peerage. Black claims that, since

he now holds British citizenship, the appointment is none of Chretien’s

business.



Last week, it was the British ambassador to Germany who aroused Black’s

ire after he claimed ’foreign-owned’ papers such as The Telegraph had an

anti-European bias. Under threat of libel action, and possible exile to

Outer Mongolia, our man in Berlin was reduced to issuing a grovelling

public retraction and an apology.



It wasn’t just the accusation of bias that hurt Black. For an avowed

anglophile and long-term London resident, the foreigner tag rankled just

as much.



Reports such as these present an impression of Black as a bombastic and

litigious egomaniac. But the Telegraph chief insists he was merely

exercising his democratic rights and, when you meet him, such

impressions dissolve quickly. Impressively large in stature and

presence, he is also genial, exceptionally courteous and has an

appealingly dry sense of humour.



His fabled opinion of journalists - ’a very large number are ignorant,

lazy, opinionated, intellectually dishonest and inadequately supervised’

- was probably laced with wit. Even so, he seems to hold advertising

sales people in higher regard. ’Frankly, I think they come under much

more competitive pressure and perform more fully than journalists,’ he

says.



Black recognises that the future for sales people in the multimedia age

is also likely to become more difficult. ’As the media pie gets sliced

up, the roles of both media buyers and sellers becomes more

complicated.



Targeting will become more precise, making for sharper trading,’ he

says.



Unlike other media moguls, who are scrambling to find partners to create

multimedia leviathans in the AOL/Time Warner mould, Black is unmoved by

such activity. Although he sees the trend towards consolidation of new

and traditional media continuing, he doesn’t believe it will end with

all media in the hands of a few giants.



Black is the owner of the Chicago Sun Times (through his US company

Hollinger) and is more interested in the recent merger of the Chicago

Tribune and Times Mirror, owner of the Los Angeles Times. ’That makes

for a huge company and a signal that traditional media are putting their

wagons in a circle. We’ve already seen evidence of that here with the

Carlton/United and Trinity Mirror mergers.’



His own digital interests were combined last November into a separate

division, Hollinger Telegraph New Media, which many assumed was a

precursor to a flotation on Wall Street. But, while Black admits he will

soon be in a position to do that, he prefers to keep old and new media

together.



’Separation tends to further devalue the traditional business, which

doesn’t get you anywhere,’ he says. ’I think it’s more likely that we

will see a flotation of certain new media assets, such as

Handbag.com.



That may go public in the next year or so.’



But he predicts a strong future for print media. ’It’s not like silent

movies or black-and-white TV sets. No-one is going to become extinct.’

However, Black recognises that because old media is crucial in promoting

new media, newspapers are likely to fall prey to cash-rich dotcoms and

broadcasters. A case in point was Chris Evans’ bid for the Daily Star as

a cross-promotional tool for his broadcast and internet ventures.



’I’m surprised it hasn’t happened already,’ says Black. ’Compared with

the astronomical prices being paid for internet operations, newspapers

are hugely undervalued. The Daily Star may have its troubles but it

still has a big trademark.’



He adds: ’Newspapers are the best way of attracting eyeballs and so are

strategically important in developing online audiences.’



Newspapers also provide valuable cashflow. The Daily Telegraph is the

broadsheet market leader and the funder of his online strategy. But, in

a fragmenting market, many have questioned how long the paper can keep

its sales above one million, which is considered to be psychologically

important in maintaining advertising revenues. The discounted

subscriptions policy that followed a cover-price war with The Times has

been costly and the paper might be preparing for a managed retreat from

one million.



’I’m not wedded to the one million but it’s crucial that we maintain our

leadership over The Times,’ he says. And should his nemesis, Rupert

Murdoch, try any further moves at usurping that dominant position, Black

warns that The Telegraph has a range of weapons ready for battle.



In 1998, he launched a daily newspaper in Canada, the National Post,

which has revolutionised the market. By exporting a Telegraph design and

putting Telegraph journalists in key positions, he has built a paper to

rival the nation’s most influential broadsheet, the Globe and Mail. In

little more than a year, the Post had climbed to within 30,000 copies of

its rival.



Perhaps the most surprising aspect is that British newspapers have not

exported their talents before. The self-proclaimed ’most dynamic

newspaper industry in the world’ has a history of Canadian and

Australian ownership and virtually no imprint overseas. Murdoch may have

exported some of The Sun’s unique flavour into the US tabloid market but

Black is mystified by his other UK rivals’ lack of overseas

expansion.



’British newspapers undoubtedly lead the world and we should be

exporting that leadership to other countries,’ he urges.





THE BLACK FILE



1944: Born Montreal, 25 August



1962: Studies history at Ottawa’s Carleton University



1967: Acquires 50 per cent interest in two small weekly papers in

Quebec



1986: Buys control of The Daily Telegraph



1988: Acquires The Spectator



1998: Launches National Post in Canada.



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