Telegraph chief aims to make it third time lucky

As the third editor of The Telegraph in a year, Will Lewis hopes to achieve what the others weren't able to.

Church backs legal rights for parents who live in sin," The Daily Telegraph's front-page lead headline intoned. No, not 100 years ago - though the story would indeed have been big news in the Edwardian era. Nor even 30 years ago, when Mary Whitehouse, that renowned rider of hobby horses and ferocious guardian of public morals, was still in her pomp.

No. Astonishingly, the headline ran last week - a matter of days into the reign of the paper's new go-ahead editor, Will Lewis. The notion of "living in sin" began losing its currency rather a long time ago, and the phrase has since acquired a quaint fustiness redolent of maiden aunts and sequestered rural backwaters. Perfect, you could argue, for the paper's existing readership - but it sent a rather strange signal to the wider world.

Not the greatest of starts for the regime of an editor heralded as a great moderniser. But perhaps we shouldn't be too quick to judge. He has a lot of heritage to confront before you can truly say he's put his stamp on the paper. And after all, only The Sun, arguably, can rival the Telegraph for the aplomb with which it pulls off seemingly effortless feats of self-parody.

So, let's be charitable and say merely that the headline is a timely reminder of the challenge Lewis faces. He's the paper's third editor in just under a year; Martin Newland resigned in November 2005 to be succeeded by his new boss, the editor-in-chief, John Bryant, on an interim basis. Lewis, who's 37, previously spent eight-and-a-half years at the Financial Times, rising through a succession of positions.

His career gained new impetus when, at the tail-end of 2002, he left to become the business editor of The Sunday Times. But the blue touchpaper was well and truly lit when he was invited to join the Telegraph last year.

Lewis had been hired as the business editor, but even before he joined he'd been promoted to the role of joint deputy editor. Soon after, he was revelling in the title of managing director, editorial. Still, his promotion last week took most observers by surprise and even prompted mischief-makers on rival titles to point out that, technically, this was actually a demotion.

Colleagues say he is just the energetic sort of chap to drag the paper - and indeed the whole Telegraph brand - kicking and screaming into the 21st century. They're more than a little relieved that the months of uncertainty (below decks, they'd begun to suspect that the supposedly short-term Bryant tenure was likely to drag on for ever) are over. The jostling for position and festering discontent that accompany management drift will now, everyone hopes, cease.

And as for his 21st-century credentials, they're more than sound, at least when it comes to issues of technology and process. It was Lewis who masterminded the move of editorial staff on both the Daily and Sunday Telegraph titles to their new offices in Victoria, where they're being retrained as multi-tasking, cross-media journalists developing content for the group's websites as well as the print titles.

That in itself has trailed morale problems in its wake, because more than 50 editorial jobs will go as a consequence of the restructure - and the foreign desk has been particularly hard hit. The Telegraph used to pride itself on the depth and quality of its international coverage. Well, it's not so proud now.Those difficulties aside, observers say that Lewis' challenge is now two-fold. He has to reinvent the Telegraph brand as a multi-platform entity fit for the internet age; and he has to attract a new generation of middle class, centre-right readers. Nothing to it, really.

But the numbers remain rather sobering. The Daily Telegraph's headline circulation for September was 901,930 - down 0.26 per cent year on year. The long-term trend is inexorably downwards despite heavy (and expensive) promotions and a growing reliance on bulk sales. Even more worrying is the paper's age profile - 37.7 per cent are over 65 years old and a total of almost 60 per cent are over 55 (Jan-June 2006 NRS).

Steve Goodman, the managing director of print trading at Group M, comments: "It has been said over and over again, but the biggest worry must be about finding ways to attract younger readers. I know the issue of whether the Telegraph should go tabloid is often raised in this context, but I don't think that this is really an issue of format at all.

"The Telegraph is a phenomenally strong brand and, the thing is, we've seen new products launched recently in the London market (freesheets from News International and Associated Newspapers) that have successfully targeted a younger reader. So we know it can be done - and I thoroughly approve of what they're doing with the move to Victoria."

Does Lewis have what it takes to effect real change? He's relatively posh, as you'd expect, and he exudes confidence. That said, there's a streak of good old-fashioned eccentricity in his make-up and he sometimes adopts a bumbling sort of persona - although this doesn't entirely succeed in disguising both a razor-sharp wit and a ferociously ambitious outlook.

A succession of recent editors have recognised that the paper must rejuvenate its attitudes or die. They've all struggled to make much of a difference. Fans of Lewis argue that he will not easily be distracted from his goals and he certainly won't be lacking in courage.

Is his Conservative world one in which people, some of whom may actually be parents, may be said to be "living in sin"? More concretely, is it one that can countenance David Cameron as a future Prime Minister? Under the ownership of the Barclay brothers and their chief executive, Murdoch MacLennan (ex-Associated Newspapers), the political and moral conscience of the Telegraph has been entrusted to columnist Simon Heffer (formerly the heart and soul of the Daily Mail). Heffer does not much care for Cameron.

The Telegraph - and indeed Lewis - may have to. It will be fascinating to see what happens when push comes to shove.