Today the paper that changed the world

The paper that broke the mould closed last week. Campaign staff chart its rise and fall and talk to the players involved

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

advertiser.

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

somewhere else.

What was it really like? Campaign tracks down the people who made Today

happen

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

million papers.

‘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,

brighter newspapers.’

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

big hole.

‘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

features editor

‘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

speak English.

‘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

rely on.

‘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

then.’

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

itself.’

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

throats.

‘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

Bejam freesheet.

‘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

buzzy account.

‘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

confused consumer.’

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.’

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