REVIEW 

What is the Telegraph up to?

At Shift 2014, Newsworks’ second annual conference, held at the British Library on 10 April, all eyes were on new Telegraph boss, Jason Seiken. What surprises would he spring and what clues would he give as to the Telegraph’s digital future? Ray Snoddy was in the audience.

By Ray Snoddy

Last year at the inaugural Newsworks conference, in a compelling piece of newspaper symbolism, Simon Fox, the Trinity Mirror chief executive tore a copy of the Daily Mirror into smaller and smaller pieces - before perfectly recreating the paper.

If anything, Fox, a member of the Magic Circle whose shares have soared since then, was upstaged this year by Jason Seiken, the “digital guru” who became editor-in chief and chief content officer of the Telegraph Media Group in October.

Seiken brought along to Shift 2014 the first person he hired after taking over at the Telegraph – Lewis Whyld - and he is neither a star editor nor a top columnist.

Bring on the drones

Whyld is a former divorce lawyer who now builds drones and, according to Seiken, a former senior vice president in charge of digital at US broadcaster PBS, the Telegraph is already using them “to pretty much go where no journalist has gone before”.

Naturally to illustrate his point, a small drone with a digital camera on board then took off and started flying over the heads of the delegates in the British Library, transmitting close-up pictures back to a laptop.

Drones are increasingly being used as a television news tool - to get otherwise impossible pictures from disaster areas. After the typhoon in the Philippines, they were able to move in and out of houses locating survivors. They can also provide new angles on sports events such as Formula 1, or taking viewers round the Gold Cup course.

Seiken, who looks likes the archetypical geek but has a reputation for being affable, then took another step into what he sees as the eventual future of journalism by demonstrating virtual reality glasses.

Emma Cranston, investment director of Manning Gottlieb OMD donned the goggles and experienced the feeling of jumping off the edge of a cliff on a flying Batmobile.

“It’s a bit more futuristic but eventually it will be a bigger game-changer (than drones) in how we present news and information,” insisted Seiken.

Eventually, virtual reality glasses would become less cumbersome and come down in price and then Telegraph subscribers would, for example, be able to experience, side–by–side with Telegraph journalists, the horrors of war complete with a 360-degree experience of the battlefront.

Jason Seiken likes giving such futuristic demonstrations of existing and emerging technology and indeed he gave an identical one complete with drones and virtual reality glasses at the recent Advertising Week Europe in London.

“By the way, anyone in the audience who is interested in actually taking these technologies for a test run, we have these and other toys such as Google Glass available for hands-on demonstrations in the experience room at the Telegraph,” Seiken told the Shift 2014 conference. It is unclear what previous spartan editors of the Daily Telegraph would have made of “the experience room”.

Jason Seiken’s background

Even before the drones came in to land, the questions were forming: Who is Jason Seiken and is he a clever snake oil salesman or a seer who, more than many, has a vision for a financially sound future for journalism in the digital age?

It is difficult to know for sure where he is coming from, or assess the practicality of his views, because so far, at least, he has decided he is not doing interviews.

But it is easy enough to construct his vision for the future of newspapers both from his experience at PBS, and in recent months, from a number of headline grabbing speeches.

The Seiken CV, particularly in its digital iterations, looks impressive. He worked as a journalist on The Patriot Ledger, a south Boston suburban daily and was later editor of a number of its area editions before becoming founding editor of Washingtonpost.com

A spell in charge of content at AOL culminated in his appointment as vice president for content and programming for AOL Europe, based in London.

Then at PBS, Seiken transformed PBS.org into a top-25 video site according to comScore, by increasing video views from 2 million a month to more than 250 million.

At Shift 2014, and elsewhere, he has put forward an optimistic vision for the future of the media and likes to talk of a coming “golden age of journalism” but one marked by massive disruption and need for innovation.

At PBS, and later at the Telegraph, he told bemused executives they would be judged on a new failure matrix - their performance marked down if they hadn’t had a failure or two to prove they were trying new things, taking risks. You do have to make sure that the failures are small failures, Seiken acknowledged.

The American with a British passport salutes the fact that the UK newspaper industry has “become a glorious petri dish of business models” with The Guardian, The Times, the Daily Mail, the Financial Times and the Daily Telegraph all trying different approaches on charging for digital. All were wished success with their various approaches.

No more “imperial” editors

Because of the profound disruption in the industry, Seiken believes the editor-in-chief must now bridge the once-sacred divide between editorial and publishing and that there is no longer any room for the top-down “imperial” editor of former days, in charge of everything.

“A top-down, command-and-control style can’t grow today’s newspaper because no one person has the skills in print, audio, video, interactive, data, text, mobile, social, analytics, infographics…” and so the list went on.

Seiken believes that creating a digital native culture starts by putting the audience at the centre of everything which means interacting with the audience non-stop – using data to explore what they want and when they want it.

Something seems to be working. Last month, 72 million unique browsers visited telegraph.co.uk, a year-on-year rise of 29 per cent.

And the digital activities of the company are, according to Seiken, bringing in a younger audience. While the average age of a Daily Telegraph newspaper reader is well above 50, more than 64 per cent of the Telegraph’s 1.1 million Facebook followers are aged between 18 and 34.

Yet, despite apparent success and group profits in excess of £60 million a year, there are a lot of question marks and inconsistencies about recent events at the Telegraph Media Group.

Departure of Tony Gallagher

The most controversial event of Jason Seiken’s brief reign, the sacking of the Daily Telegraph’s highly regarded editor Tony Gallagher still appears strange to outsiders.

Obviously Gallagher, who master-minded the paper’s award-winning MPs expenses campaign, must have been removed by Seiken because he was an imperialist editor, or because he was insufficiently enthusiastic about the digital vision.

Apparently not. Those who know about recent developments in the Telegraph insist that Seiken had little or anything to do with the departure.

Over a year ago, TMG chief executive Murdoch MacLennan offered Gallagher the job of editor-in-chief. Gallagher wanted to combine the job with the editorship and the offer was then withdrawn.

Instead Richard Ellis was appointed on a temporary basis while the search began for a new digital guru.

It is believed that John Payton, chief executive of Digital First Media, which runs a chain of newspapers in the US, was approached first but declined.

MacLennan then found and appointed Jason Seiken.

Telegraph executives warn privately that there is a problem. MacLennan, and his boss Aidan Barclay, are convinced that a magic formula can be found to make serious money out of digital. Barclay is partly influenced by the fact that the Barclay family has successfully turned Littlewoods retail into a successful digital only operation and apparently believes the same can be achieved at TMG.

Fool’s gold?

“Murdoch wants Jason to find him the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow,” said one insider, while most digital specialists believe that progress will have to be incremental and that you have to invest and try new things rather than seeking the fool’s gold of a single magical solution.

Seiken, it is believed, has already come under intense pressure to come up with a digital plan, complete with new dramatic money-making ideas, something that may be completely impractical.

All the signs are that Gallagher, who has since become a deputy editor of the Daily Mail, was removed by MacLennan. It was a statement that, above all, the search for the digital pot of gold would go on and that sceptics were not welcome.

Another anomaly has been the gap between the rhetoric about the importance of data and what has actually happened at TMG.

The drone maker may have been the first of Seiken’s hires but one of the first people to go was data specialist Neil Sharman. He was responsible for a rolling focus panel, which had access to up to 10,000 Telegraph readers on a 24-hours a day basis. It is thought it was a cost-cutting exercise because Sharman hasn’t been replaced.

Another person to leave was Graham Horner who was in charge of subscriptions and loyalty and who knew more about subscriber data than anyone else at the Telegraph. He had come to TMG from Coca Cola where he had been in charge of introducing one of the biggest customer loyalty schemes in the UK.

Horner was considered by many to be one of the best in the business.

Reporters have also commented on the fact that while 80 journalists out of a total of 550 lost their jobs at the Telegraph group last year, and were supposed to be partly replaced by 50 digitally focused jobs, so far this has not materialised.

Many people have also noticed that Jason Seiken’s speeches have been heavy on digital optimism and talk of new eras in journalism and very light on details on where exactly the new digital revenues are going to come from.

It may take more than releasing drones at conferences and talking about virtual reality glasses to convince either Murdoch McLennan, or rather more importantly Aidan Barclay, that he knows where the digital pot of gold is to be found.