Media Forum: Will Telegraph find digital tough?

Are the digital ambitions of theTelegraph Group achievable, Alasdair Reid asks.

Much has been made about the layout of the Telegraph Group's new editorial offices - its "hub and spokes" structure of desks is hailed by management as a functionally elegant design revolution; though more churlish elements among the scores of editorial staff made redundant as a result of the relocation (and more sackings are believed to be on the way) might point out that the floorplan contains spooky echoes of the "panopticon" format much beloved by the architects of Victorian prisons.

Whichever way you look at this, the company is making a powerful statement of intent. As the Telegraph chief executive, Murdoch MacLennan, put it last week, in an open letter: "Some aspects of our news operation have not altered significantly in decades. The digital revolution is rapidly making them obsolete ... The prize of our move (to the new offices), and of our huge investment in the future, is to become the cutting-edge media group in the UK - fully integrated, customer-focused, efficient and profitable."

The plan is that this will go beyond the customary multitasking that sees journalists filing copy earlier than usual so that it can be posted on the website. They're being asked to embrace skills more commonly associated with broadcast journalists - recording podcasts or doing reports to camera and editing in video stream footage supplied by the TV news agencies.

Some observers, however, will wonder at the apparent gap between the Telegraph's radical ambitions and the innate conservatism of its culture. Most of the paper's readers are intelligent and a good number are young enough to be in full-time employment. However, some of these readers take pride in being unable to understand how these new-fangled computer things work.

Jane Wolfson, the head of press at Initiative, says you have to applaud the Telegraph for what it's doing - and it's interesting that some of the people charged with implementing this are ex-Emap people (the Telegraph's executive director, Dave King, for example). On the one hand, she suggests, this is good news because many of the Telegraph's executives have impressive track records in making digital properties of print titles. But there are dangers too: "They can't expect to import Emap principles wholescale into the Telegraph environment. Emap brands tend to be new brands so there's no surprise they have a multiplatform existence."

Alison Brolls, the global marketing and media manager at Nokia, agrees: "That they are considering cross-media platforms suggests branching out to reach a broader catchment of readers, which the Telegraph doesn't necessarily achieve compared to its direct rivals. After all, what would be the point of coaxing advertisers to use a cross-platform route only to end up reaching the same audience repeatedly?"

The key, she says, will be for the group to put a distinctive Telegraph slant on all content, across all platforms. As a number of people have pointed out, that isn't going to be easy. But Robert Horler, the managing director of Diffiniti, argues that all print owners will, sooner rather than later, have to do what the Telegraph is doing.

"Yes, this is necessary and, yes, they should be doing it as quickly as they can," he says. "I think what has spurred them into action has been the activities of News International, which has been showing its intent in the digital area through some important recent acquisitions," he says.

The most notable of these was the purchase in July 2005 of MySpace, the leading social networking enabler that has become the fourth most popular English language website. Theorists believe social networking sites will be the most important driver of user-generated activity (as opposed to spoon-fed traditional media owner content) on the web for the foreseeable future.

"As people seek to consume news in different ways and at different times, print-based product becomes less relevant," Horler points out.

And Claudine Collins, a managing partner at MediaCom, says she's optimistic about this. She concludes: "There is no doubt that the Telegraph has to become a multimedia content provider and management is more than aware of this, as they have been embracing the digital revolution for the past couple of years. All newspapers are raising their game to provide their consumers with content when they want it and in whatever format they require it."

MAYBE - Jane Wolfson, head of press, Initiative

"The people they have there these days have impressive track records in developing print properties online. But the challenge for the Telegraph is to bring in a younger audience by making the content younger."

That audience would certainly have trouble with some of the opinion-led content that's currently a strong feature of the Telegraph."

MAYBE - Alison Brolls, global marketing and media manager, Nokia

"It will boil down to how well the various platforms are integrated, plus how brave they are prepared to be. National press is floundering and doesn't really know what it should do next."

YES - Robert Horler, managing director, Diffiniti

"The Telegraph isn't well-placed to take advantage of new opportunities. It has to work out how it takes what it does and makes it relevant to a younger community. It's not enough for it to make the current product available on more platforms."

NO - Claudine Collins, managing partner, MediaCom

"Since the Barclays and Murdoch MacLennan have taken control at the Telegraph, their focus and investment has been very much on becoming a media brand. The newspaper is just one part of the cake. This is what clients want." and I have no doubt that the other media owners are doing or will be doing the same thing."

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