NEWSMAKER/STAN MYERSON: Myerson handed second chance at the Express - But he must move quickly to pacify those who doubt him, Matthew Cowen writes

The new owners of Express Newspapers will launch a weekend supplement to the Daily Star focused on the world of entertainment. The 88-page magazine, which is due for launch in mid-December, will appear in regional versions, providing a weekly guide to film, TV and theatre across the country.

The new owners of Express Newspapers will launch a weekend supplement to the Daily Star focused on the world of entertainment. The 88-page magazine, which is due for launch in mid-December, will appear in regional versions, providing a weekly guide to film, TV and theatre across the country.

The launch is the first editorial innovation introduced by Northern & Shell, which acquired the Daily Star, along with the Daily Express and the Sunday Express, last week. The decision to extend the Daily Star's entertainment coverage reflects the increased celebrity focus that its new owner, Richard Desmond, has promised the titles.

News of the new Daily Star magazine follows shortly after the announcement of bold circulation increases for Express Newspapers as Northern & Shell looks for a speedy means to increase its presence on newsstands and offer a more visible challenge to the rival Daily Mail.

The print run for each issue of the Daily Express and Sunday Express will increase by 200,000 and that of the Daily Star by 50,000, a rise of 10 per cent. Northern & Shell management are also understood to be looking into other means of tackling Express Newspapers's long-running distribution problems.

The speed of these decisions is very much in character with Desmond's first few days in charge at the Daily Express. Within an hour and a half of signing the deal to buy the group, he and his managers were in position at Ludlow House calling meetings. The first few issues under Desmond's ownership carried coupon promotions for his celebrity magazine venture OK! and, on the front page, an editorial tie-in with OK!'s coverage of Catherine Zeta Jones' wedding to Michael Douglas.

Within the next few days, OK!'s ad sales team will be moving in to the Ludlow House offices and is expected to be followed shortly by an editorial staff. Then, over the next few weeks, sales managers from Scotland and Manchester will be summoned to Blackfriars as a comprehensive top-to-bottom review of Express Newspapers's commercial operations begins.

At the centre of this whirl of activity is Stan Myerson, the joint managing director of Northern & Shell, whose return to Express Newspapers four years after his sensational departure is one of the acquisition's major talking points among media agencies.

Looked at from a purely commercial point of view, there is much of interest in Myerson's renewed involvement in Express Newspapers. He is proven as a revenue driver and has had considerable success with OK! since joining up with Desmond in 1996. He is also firmly from the old school of ad management, in contrast to the more creative style of Richard Bogie, the director of ad sales (under Lord Hollick) of Express Newspapers.

This change in style is likely to manifest itself most in an increased emphasis on sales yield over volume. 'Newspapers in general have pursued a policy of as much volume as possible at the expense of yield,' Myerson said. 'One area I am particularly thoughtful over is the yield of the business.'

Myerson will bring a famously hard-edged negotiating style to his pursuit of those yields, but the prospect of dealing with a tough talker is not the issue grabbing the media industry's attention at this point in time.

Sources instead talk about the dramatic fallout within Express Newspapers from the latest unexpected twist in a newspaper saga that would do a Jeffrey Archer novel proud.

Myerson's departure from Express Newspapers involved a court case and allegations of bugging and corporate espionage. A record of his time at the group was published this year in the former managing director Andrew Cameron's book Express Newspapers, in a chapter entitled Sex, Scandals and Spies. In it, Myerson, who Cameron describes as 'probably the most distasteful and unpleasant man' he has met, engages in bullying, infidelity and extensive fraud. It's a record that eventually led to his downfall.

These are not just frivolous, juicy details. They represent issues in Northern & Shell's acquisition that Myerson and his colleagues must quickly solve if they are to lay to rest the nagging question: 'Can Lord Hollick's Express Newspapers live with its new owners?'

Myerson, for one, seems to recognise the importance of building bridges quickly. 'I've made it absolutely clear to people that my objective is to improve the fortunes of the group and the ad sales department,' he said. 'We are business people and we are not here to turn things upside down. We will work to placate people and make them feel comfortable.'

When speaking to Campaign on Monday, Myerson was forthright in stressing the importance he'd attached to getting an early meeting with Bogie in particular. However, agency sources continued to speculate that both Bogie and the managing director, Andy Jonesco, were due to leave Express Newspapers after one of Northern & Shell's first decisions in charge involved displacing them from their offices.

In the existing job market, losing top sales talent is a major blow and one that Express Newspapers's new owners must move fast to restrict. It wasn't helped by speculation earlier this week that Myerson's wife Renee, who heads ad sales for OK!, would be taking charge of Express Newspapers's sales when her team moved over to Ludlow House. It's a story that Myerson furiously denies.

Instead, the Northern & Shell joint managing director stressed the achievements of Express Newspapers's incumbent ad teams, working through staff shortages and against a background of circulation drops. It's an 'all hands to the pump' attitude that Myerson said he's learned to appreciate in his time working at a smaller operation.

However, even if there is no immediate movement of personnel from Northern & Shell to Express Newspapers, it is far from clear how independent the newspapers will be allowed to remain. Northern & Shell, after all, does have an editorial director, Paul Ashford. This is a position, standard in magazines, which could be expected to chafe with newspaper editors used to dealing directly with the proprietor.

On Monday, Myerson insisted that Rosie Boycott, the editor of the Daily Express, would have the discretion as to when to use material, photographs or contacts from OK! magazine. However, he was equally insistent that both he and Desmond would take a characteristically hands-on approach with Express Newspapers and convinced that OK!, in particular, could help push the titles with the key demographic of women aged 18 to 34 years old.

The potential tensions here are clear. By Tuesday, Boycott's political editor, Anthony Bevins, had quit and speculation about her own future continued apace. On Monday, Myerson talked of the Daily Express continuing its tradition of campaigning journalism and benefiting in that from Northern & Shell's truly independent status. It remains to be seen, though, whether his vision of a paper led by 'issues, not party politics' will be defined by the editors of Express Newspapers or the directors of Northern & Shell.

In the end, though, the new era at Express Newspapers will be judged on how effectively Northern & Shell can pick the individual papers off the canvas and get them punching at a similar weight to the Daily Mail. Myerson has been making all the right noises on this score. 'There has been substantial under-investment for a number of years,' he said. 'It's important to understand that our investment and input will define the future of this group.'

That's an approach that worked for Northern & Shell when taking on Hello!.

Whether it can out-invest the resources of the Daily Mail remains an open question.



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