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Media 1986: Banging the drum for the press

27 Apr 2016  |  Torin Douglas 
Media 1986: Banging the drum for the press

Paris, 1986, and Torin Douglas witnesses a media industry gripped by great change - as well as a colossal 626-page newspaper

When I read the 9,193rd - and final - print edition of the Independent last month, I was delighted to see it take a leaf out of this column, by highlighting the changes that have taken place in the 30 years since it was launched, in 1986.

For those of us who wrote for the Independent in its heyday, when it sold more than 400,000 copies and flourished, the final edition - with its several nostalgic sections - was a great reminder of what Andreas Whittam Smith and his team achieved, before they made the mistake of launching the Independent on Sunday.

And in its special souvenir supplement, it highlighted several ways in which life has changed:

"When our first edition appeared, Tim Berners-Lee had yet to invent the World Wide Web; today it contains at least 4.69bn indexed pages...The combined circulation of the UK's national newspapers has declined from 15m to 8.5m. The price of TV rights to cover top-tier English football has risen from under £50m to more than £5bn. In 1986 Britons had access to four TV channels compared with hundreds today; peak viewing figures for EastEnders have gone from 30m to just under 6m..."


30 years ago this week, the Independent's journalists and ad team were hard at work preparing for their autumn launch. Meanwhile, the cream of the UK newspaper and advertising worlds had just returned from Press '86 in Paris, a conference with an astonishing cast list, as publishers overcame their usual cut-throat competitive instincts and - decades before Newsworks - united to bang the drum for newspapers.

"The Newspaper Experience" opened with a keynote speech from the conference chairman, Bert Hardy, chief executive of the Evening Standard - formerly Rupert Murdoch's right-hand man as chief executive of News International. The next speaker was the editor of The Times, Charles Wilson, who had just led his troops past the union pickets at Wapping.

Later came Peter Preston, editor of the Guardian, Max Hastings, editor of the Daily Telegraph, Lloyd Turner, editor of the Star, Mike Molloy, editor of Mirror Group Newspapers, Richard Stott, editor of the Daily Mirror, and John Lees, editor of the Mail on Sunday's You magazine.

The Guardian's legendary sports columnist Frank Keating was a speaker. So was Joe Haines of the Daily Mirror, formerly Harold Wilson's press chief at No 10. Cartoonist Posy Simmons, Royal photographer Arthur Edwards, restaurant critic Fay Maschler and FT Lex columnist John Makinson all spoke.

So did the ad directors of the Express, MGN, Observer, Guardian, Evening Standard, Telegraph, Mail on Sunday and Daily Mail. Plus the managing directors of the Express Group, Telegraph, News International, MGN and Associated Newspapers. Clive James was guest speaker at the gala dinner.

This was the newspaper industry on the front foot as it faced up to the start of the digital revolution, after months of turmoil.

I was lucky enough to be a speaker too, and I still have the slides and the marked-up script. Re-reading it is a reminder of just how great the upheaval was and the expectations were.

"My topic is 'What Wapping Means to Advertisers'" I said, "using 'Wapping' as shorthand for the whole range of events that have been affecting newspapers in recent months and not simply the move of News International to 1 Pennington Street...

"In two years, eight out of the 17 national newspapers have changed ownership and one title has been launched - two if you count Sunday Today as well as Today. Things have happened in the last hundred days that were unthinkable merely a year ago."

I spelled out the prospects as we saw them at the time:

"There are two distinct elements to the Fleet Street revolution. The first is the freedom from - and relaxation of - union restrictions. The benefits of that include the ability to print larger issues; to give papers a better chance of coming out on time, and in the form the journalists and management want; and to publish papers on Good Friday...

"The second element is the new technology itself: quicker and cheaper colour printing; better black and white reproduction; shorter deadlines for advertising and editorial; and more regional opportunities.

"The combination means lower production costs, more titles, more sections and more specific advertising opportunities. It could mean more people reading newspapers and lower advertising rates."

Was that wishful thinking? After Today and Sunday Today, the next two years saw the arrival of the Independent, the Daily Sport and Sunday Sport, the News on Sunday, the Sunday Correspondent, the Independent on Sunday and a host of new sections from the existing publishers.

After years of thin, monochrome papers, Andrew Neil, then editor of the Sunday Times, announced plans for a 200-page issue within the year, on the model of the New York Sunday Times.

For those who had never seen a copy, I brought one over to Paris and ran through it, section by section, to show people what they were in for. 12 sections in 19 separate parts - 626 pages in all. For effect, I dropped it on the stage with a huge thump. It certainly brought new meaning to the term Wapping.

But the cracks in the newspaper revolution were already beginning to show. Few of the new titles survived. And at Press '86, the editor of Today, Brian MacArthur, literally ate his words, as he recalled in his book Eddy Shah, Today and the Newspaper Revolution.

"I was speaking to an audience consisting of all our rivals and advertising agencies," he wrote. "It was a cynical audience. After showing our 'We're ready Eddy' TV advertisements, I flourished some rice paper and ate it. At least it got the audience on my side."

Next month: 30 years before Gogglebox, Channel 4 videos its viewers - and AGB hits the headlines in Forbes, Time and Variety.

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08 Jul 2020 

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