The paper that broke the mould closed last week. Campaign staff chart
its rise and fall and talk to the players involved
Although the launch issue of Today was a disaster - a pathetically weak
splash was equalled by the appalling reproduction of its much-hyped
colour pictures - it heralded a period of unparalleled prosperity and
growth for newspaper publishers, as new titles and new markets for
advertisers appeared in its wake.
Eddie Shah, a printer turned proprietor, promised that Today, with its
new technology, satellite printing and on-the-run colour, would create a
revolution for readers and advertisers. He was right - it did for
everybody but his own paper, which lurched from crisis to crisis, editor
to editor and through ownership by Lonrho until, in 1987, Rupert Murdoch
took the newspaper off a grateful Tiny Rowland.
With hindsight, some of Shah’s predictions were risible: "Even with
virtually no advertising,’ he said when it launched in 1986, ‘we could
break even with a circulation of 600,000.’ He added that with reasonable
ad volumes, he could break even on 300,000 sales. Some hope.
But although few realised it at the time, Shah unleashed a chain of
events which, among other things, saw the breaking of the Fleet Street
unions. Following hard on his heels came the Independent, the Sunday
Correspondent and David Sullivan’s Sport titles. By changing the cost
structure of newspapers, Shah proved that any entrepreneur with a decent
business plan could raise the money to become a proprietor/publisher.
Murdoch, for one, was quick to see the implications. For years he and
other publishers had been frustrated by the obdurate trade practices of
the unions. They kept costs high and, through their addiction to old
technology, prevented the launch of multi-sectioned newspapers, on-the-
run colour, and regional and additional editions. As a jaundiced
newspaper publisher once observed: ‘The unions effectively decided
whether you ran a 48- or 52-page edition every night.’ But after Shah
came Wapping, and after Wapping came freedom - and not just for the News International titles. Now on-the-run colour is standard for nearly all
papers, and has boosted revenues and attracted new classes of
What next? Media buyers will lament the passing of Today, not so much
for what it was but because it was a useful stick with which to beat the
Daily Mail and Daily Express. Those papers, meanwhile, see the
opportunity to pick up a few hundred thousand readers. For the Mail,
Today’s demise is a chance to rub its rival’s nose in the dirt. If the
Express cannot at least put on some sales, then it is in a much worse
condition than anybody thought.
Last, but not least, the Telegraph management will be wondering whether
Murdoch’s decision to close Today signals the beginning of the end of
the price war, or just a lull before a new onslaught breaks out
What was it really like? Campaign tracks down the people who made Today
Brian MacArthur: edited Today from its launch on 4 March 1986 to
December 1986. He is now associate editor of the Times
‘Our hopes with Today were to launch a revolution: to introduce
electronic production, colour, less of a role for the unions,
distribution by road and not rail, and satellite printing. All of these
goals were achieved.
‘We launched with an editorial staff of 160, which was tiny for a
national newspaper at the time. We were mid-market, right alongside the
Daily Mail and the Express, we were colour, a decent, nice tabloid, but
we had a liking for the SDP.
‘Target sales were initially 400,000, but then Eddie Shah said he wanted
a circulation of one million to be serious. This decision was one of the
reasons it went wrong. The production process couldn’t cope with one
‘Things started to go wrong right at the beginning because of the
difficulty of the launch. We never really hit the ground running. We
never got the lift-off with sales that we needed - the paper always
struggled at around 400,000-500,000.
‘I am saddened but not surprised by the decision to shut down Today. Its
legacy has to be with Wapping and Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch got there
first, but Shah does deserve a place in history because, before Murdoch
even thought of Wapping, Shah had taken on the NGA and won - the first
time it had been defeated.
‘The paper also achieved all its launch goals and it has created bigger,
Derek Morris: is the joint media director of BMP DDB Needham, which
handles major press advertisers such as Boots and Do-It-All
‘Today will be missed. Its closure is a loss, but it will not leave a
‘Although it is tempting to think Today was the runt of the newspaper
litter, it wasn’t an insignificant title. It was bigger than the
Guardian, the Evening Standard and the Independent.
‘The main loss is of a medium that offered frequency at a good value
against a younger audience. It was a good tool to reach around 600,000
people a day.
‘All other newspapers are candidates for Today’s advertising revenue and
readers, but one should not forget that the paper had drifted
downmarket. It had drifted away from the middle-market home-owning
public as it went for the easier, bigger numbers.
‘Other papers will battle for Today’s customers. There are so many
levers they can pull - they might all expand to offer better value for
money, or cut prices or launch major promotions. It does not follow that
the closure of Today is bad for the market or that prices will go up -
the market is not as straightforward as that.
‘There may be one less title now, which might suggest press buyers’
negotiating tactics will be weakened. But the fight will now be on
between all titles competing to soak up the money that is slushing
around, and that can only be good for press advertisers.’
Jane Reed: News International’s corporate affairs director who issued
the press release announcing Today’s closure, was the paper’s launch
‘I knew Brian [MacArthur] well and he asked me to suggest some names.
But when I went to see him he immediately offered me the job. I was
desperate to get into new technology and Eddie was the only person doing
anything about it.
‘There was a great sense of history about the launch - probably too
much. We all felt we were part of something ground-breaking. But it was
ill-fated because of the technology, even though it was in use in
America and, amazingly, Turkey. But we were first in the UK and whenever
it went wrong we got two systems support girls from Izmir who couldn’t
‘Before we launched I knew it wasn’t going to work. The budgeting was
completely wrong. Then Lonrho moved in. They knew they’d have to sell
when they asked me [as managing editor] to cut another pounds 500,000
off the budget and I told them we’d then only have the news wires to
‘What it proved was that only editorial quality matters. The closer we
got to a conventional newspaper, the more successful it became.
‘I went to the newsroom at 4.30pm last Thursday. And do you know what
they were doing? Producing a newspaper, that’s what. I had a little cry
Mark Pritchett: ad director of Today from its launch until June 1987, is
currently group ad director of the Daily Mirror
‘Working on the launch of Today was a hugely thrilling time. The pace of
life was extraordinary and there was a real spirit. I joined in June
1985 and Brian MacArthur and I put our teams together in a room at the
back of the canteen at WCRS.
‘Because of the new technology, we were able to offer rates and late
copy deadlines no-one ever thought possible. Our original rates were
pounds 4,600 for mono and pounds 9,600 for colour. We had in excess of
pounds 10 million net under our belts going into the launch.
Significantly, a lot of this was in colour, much of it from advertisers
you wouldn’t have expected to go in newspapers at the time.
‘But on the production side, things got behind schedule. The same kit
that produced provincial newspapers successfully struggled with the
bigger runs needed by a national.
‘In March we went for it. The colour registration was poor and problems
on the distribution side meant it was very late every morning for some
time. Sales fell dramatically, from around one million during the first
few days down to 300,000-350,000 not so many weeks later.
‘Advertisers were sorely disappointed, but most were understanding. They
wanted Today to succeed.
‘Which it did. It changed the face of the industry, re-inventing it as a
profitable business. Alas, Today never found the profits it wanted
Sam Hurford: is now an art director at Young and Rubicam, but worked on
the Today account at Yellowhammer
‘WCRS’s launch campaign focused on the boast that the paper was printed
in colour and that the ink didn’t come off on your hands. But people
didn’t care about colour and felt they were having it rammed down their
‘When Yellowhammer took over the Today account, no-one knew what it
stood for - on politics, current affairs or even fashion. They just knew
the ink wouldn’t come off on your fingers or your backside. In
Yellowhammer’s research, one consumer joked the paper looked like a
‘Murray Partridge, my copywriter, and I created a poster and TV campaign
that aimed to bang out what the paper stood for. One execution, which
provoked a record number of complaints to the ASA, read: ‘Would Britain
be better off with a hung parliament?’ and showed Margaret Thatcher,
Neil Kinnock and David Owen being hung by the neck.
‘Sampling shot up but the trouble was people read the paper and realised
they didn’t like it. It’s a truism, but there’s nothing like a good ad
to kill off a bad product. Having said that, Today was a lively and
‘When David Montgomery came in as editor he described our ads as
‘trendy, half-baked and airy-fairy’ and shifted the business into
Saatchi and Saatchi.
‘It’s a shame the paper has closed. It’s a classic case of setting off
on one tack and then changing to another, and another. The result - a
Dominic Midgley: worked for two years on Campaign and has been a
features writer on Today since 1992
‘The first inkling that something was up came at around 10.30am last
Thursday when a Sunday Mirror hack called to say our editor was going to
the Daily Express and Today was to be closed.
‘The idea of Richard Stott, a dyed-in-the-wool Labour man, going to edit
the Major-loving Express sounded more than a little improbable, but it
was clear all was not as it seemed.
‘Fresh speculation arrived with every phone call. There was talk of
meetings at the Savoy. Murdoch had been seen at the Mail building in
Kensington. The Harrods boss, Mohamed Al Fayed, had revived his bid.
‘Eventually, at around 3pm, we were told there would be a meeting on the
editorial floor at 4pm. A couple of the more enterprising photographers
snapped away as an uncomfortable-looking Les Hinton, chairman of News
International, announced we were indeed to close.
‘Stott said the paper had built a castle of campaigning journalism and
paid tribute to the talent and commitment of the staff, blaming ‘the
granite face of the balance sheet’ for the closure. He also denied he
was to go to the Express - ‘I want to stay in newspapers’.
‘It was rare light moment. Secretaries cried and Stott looked close to
tears when the backbench veteran, Vic Mayhew, praised his leadership and
thanked him on behalf of the staff.
‘Then it was back to work to produce the final edition, complete with a
four-page insert plugging the Sun. They had been working on it since
11am that morning. Thanks for the tip-off, chaps.’