MEDIA: FORUM - Where might Telegraph go, post-Black?

Assuming it's even up for grabs, who do advertisers think should own Conrad Black's broadsheet?

What are the odds on Richard Desmond then? It's almost unseemly to start chalking up prices on the runners and riders in the Telegraph stakes while the paper's owner, Conrad Black, hasn't officially put the prize up for grabs. In fact, last week he made an almost-credible fist of toughing it out. "I don't have to sell," he told the audience at a book signing in Toronto.

But this is too good an opportunity to miss. A major media asset goes on the block but once in a decade, if that, and a little bit of fevered speculation never did anyone any harm.

Black, of course, has already resigned from Hollinger International and it does seem likely, in the wake of his ongoing financial difficulties, that the group will be sold, either as one unit or broken down into its component parts. And with the greatest of respect to titles such as The Spectator, the Jerusalem Post and the Chicago Sun-Times, the excitement is almost entirely about the future of the Telegraph Group.

It's made all the spicier by the fact that Desmond, the Express proprietor and pantomime-style bogeyman by appointment to the British establishment, has been installed as an early favourite. This is primarily by virtue of the fact that he is the joint owner of the West Ferry print plant (and has an option to buy the Telegraph's stake if the newspaper is sold) at which the Telegraph titles are produced.

It would be awkward if you managed to buy the Telegraph titles but could find nowhere to print them because Desmond didn't like you. Which might make it difficult in the long run for another of the potential front runners - Daily Mail & General Trust. For some reason, Desmond believes he was put on this earth to make life hell for Lord Rothermere.

There are one or two current press owners in the frame - including the Barclay brothers, the Washington Post Company and The New York Times - but the most interesting bets are to be found among the slightly maverick outsiders. The recently ousted ITV boss, Michael Green, for instance; or the US financier (with a personal fortune of more than $500 million) Nelson Peltz. The former Mirror Group boss David Montgomery is also linked to a bid, as is Stephen Grabiner, a former Daily Telegraph managing director.

But what do people in the industry want to see happening with the Hollinger Group - and particularly at The Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph?

Roy Jeans, the managing director of Interpublic's Magna Global UK, says that from an advertiser point of view, ownership doesn't really matter.

He states: "The only thing that we are interested in is whether the product has integrity and whether it's delivering the right audience in right numbers. As for the individuals themselves, there's a lot of nonsense written about Richard Desmond in particular. Since he came in at The Express, it has been a well-run group and, from an advertising point of view, there is a real business focus there. The Telegraph has been evolving in recent years and I think we'd want to see that continuing at something like the same pace."

Kelly Harrold, the deputy director of press at ZenithOptimedia, wonders whether a change in ownership might affect its advertising sales policy.

But primarily, she would want a new proprietor to invest in the newspaper medium as a whole, backing initiatives such as those from the Newspaper Marketing Agency. "I imagine Daily Mail & General Trust is a strong contender. Associated has a record of investment in its products and has an extremely successful product portfolio from doing so," she argues.

Meanwhile, Paul Thomas, the press director of MindShare, says he would like to see an existing media owner involved, rather than someone with a lot of money and a notion that running a newspaper might be fun. "It would also help if we had another stronger player overall in the newspaper market to balance out News International and Associated," he states.

However, Priscilla Rogan, the head of press at Media Planning, points out that the ownership issue is already making an impact at The Telegraph.

The timing of Rupert Murdoch's decision to do "an Independent" and print a tabloid version of The Times for distribution within the M25 was no accident. She hopes that The Telegraph won't be caught with its eye off the ball. "I have read Telegraph sources quoted saying that they can contemplate a situation in which they are the last remaining broadsheet. Would that be by choice or by default? And what would it say about the paper?" she ponders.

- "There are outcomes we wouldn't want. I don't think anyone would like to see Murdoch completely dominating the quality market. The Sunday Times and The Daily Telegraph would be a hell of a combination. There would be an ITV feel to the market."

Roy Jeans managing director, Magna Global UK

- "I would be keen to see a buyer who would invest in the product - editorial, marketing and people. Broadsheet experience is not necessarily a prerequisite as The Telegraph's current experience should be maximised by any buyer." Kelly Harrold deputy director of press, ZenithOptimedia

- "Desmond would be the most likely to look for ways to cut costs and you could also argue that that would be risky because you need more in terms of investment on a broadsheet compared with a mid-market title. But Desmond is not stupid. He's a very canny businessman."

- Paul Thomas press director, MindShare

- "The question more broadly is about the continuing evolution of The Telegraph - and that has become much more interesting in the past few days, because the tabloid-format issue is one of the most important things to hit the broadsheet newspaper market in years."

- Priscilla Rogan head of press, Media Planning.


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