Andy Coulson is widely credited with one of the most important journalistic innovations of the late 20th century -- some, in fact, would say it's the profession's single most important quantum leap in living memory. He, er, regularly had his picture taken with celebrities and then ran the snaps on his showbiz page. No, seriously. His most famous catch was Madonna -- a coup that had colleagues and rivals gasping in envy and astonishment.
But that's not all. Far from it. Coulson was also responsible for dropping the cheesy puns from the page three credits -- these days, as any cursory glance will confirm, the caption has been honed to a stylishly minimalist name, rank and serial number.
Last week, the 34-year-old Coulson, who had risen inexorably through the ranks at The Sun, and was lately the News of the World's deputy editor, was made up to editor. He succeeds Rebekah Wade, who has become editor of The Sun, a role vacated by David Yelland, who will attempt to join the higher echelons of management following a stint at business school.
Coulson, a News Group lifer save for a handful of months on the Daily Mail, came up through the showbiz and celebrity reporting route. His first role of note was as editor of the Bizarre column and he has continued to plough that furrow on his upward progress at both The Sun and the News of the World.
Since the appointment was announced, friends and colleagues have been fulsome in their praise of Coulson as a smooth operator of great charm. They were also quick to forestall doubts about the substance of his credentials as a newspaperman by pointing out that others with a showbiz reporting background (Daily Mirror editor Piers Morgan for one) have successfully taken to the wider demands of the top job. And anyway, Coulson's already tried and tested -- the deputy editor does all the hard work on the News of the World, they imply.
Hard-nosed hacks in the news-gathering engine room of the paper tend to have very mixed feelings about the likes of Coulson and some pine for an old-school editor who's as turned on by crime and sleaze as they are. Which is why Coulson's first act as editor was masterful -- he hired The People editor Neil Wallis as his deputy. Wallis is an old-fashioned newspaperman if ever there was one.
Coulson doesn't do interviews. Clearly, he knows enough about celebrity to understand the importance of preserving the mystique of his new role. Which is a shame, say some observers in the advertising industry, because that is potentially the biggest contribution he can actually make to the newspaper.
Tim Kirkman, the press director at Carat, explains: "Whenever you turn on the TV these days, there's Piers Morgan out there selling the Mirror. Rupert Murdoch's editors must raise their profile. It's important in the long run."
As for the editorial direction he's likely to take, Greg Grimmer, an executive director of Optimedia, says we shouldn't expect fireworks. But Coulson's background could be ideal from one point of view. Grimmer states: "Historically, it hasn't been easy for the paper to position itself in a world increasingly obsessed by celebrity. Ten years ago it was still doing 'Elton John in rent-boy shock' stories. It has never really known what to make of Hello! magazine-type sycophancy. Has the rest of the world caught up with it? Has it been left behind? Is it an outdated institution? Having said that, there is consistency there. The approach has been the same for the past four editors."
From a trading point of view, the advertising side of the paper is being run in a business-like manner. Circulation continues to hover around the 4m mark -- an adequate performance, buyers say, given that the market as a whole continues to decline.
One source says: "The News of the World is still one of the biggest selling papers in the world and you'd have to work pretty hard to screw that up. Rebekah Wade attempted to make an impact [with her campaign to identify known sex offenders] and she got it spectacularly wrong. She made some other very bad calls but it didn't affect her career. It makes you wonder whether it matters who you put in there."
The verdict? Steady as she goes should be the aim -- and Coulson is eminently qualified to deliver. Kirkman states: "The News of the World has a tried-and-tested formula and it reaches 20% of the population. I don't think anyone could be expected to come in and suddenly put 10% on the circulation. Everyone will have views about what works and what doesn't work in the paper. It needs to evolve, it needs keeping up to date but he doesn't want to change things fundamentally."
The Coulson file
1986 Basildon Evening Echo, reporter
1988 The Sun, reporter
1993 Daily Mail, showbiz reporter
1994 The Sun, editor of Bizarre column
1998 The Sun, associate editor
2000 News of the World, deputy editor
2003 News of the World, editor