LORD DRONE’S MIGHTY FLEET STREET ORGAN,
THE WORLD’S GREATEST ONLINE NEWSPAPER
MONDAY 4 MARCH 2024
Were the staff of Today ready for Eddy? NO
Editor Brian MacArthur, centre, with Eddy Shah, left, and printer Kevin Clarke in 1986
By PAT PILTON
I have been fortunate in my journalistic career to have been involved in the launch of five newspapers. But nothing compared to the excitement, exhilaration, challenge and, yes, trepidation of the birth of Today.
Eddy Shah had raised £18million to launch what was hailed as Britain's first national, full-colour, state of the art, seven-day newspaper. Two million pounds of that went on an extensive TV advertising campaign. One memorable advert saw snooker star Dennis Taylor potting the coloured balls one by one and telling viewers that Today would present the news in "blue, yellow, green, pink, brown — and red all over".
The final advert featured the entire staff in the newsroom wearing sunglasses and "confidently" proclaiming: "We're ready Eddy.” We clearly were not.
We were extremely conscious of the fact that we were at the epicentre of a newspaper revolution. A number of the senior executives had sacrificed senior roles on rival newspapers to join, putting their careers on the line.
But in the main it was, by Fleet Street standards, a small and largely inexperienced team, certainly on the production side. Money was tight and to fill the subs table I recruited mostly from the provinces at below market rate. They learned fast and their enthusiasm was infectious. But the technology consistently let us down. Exasperated with waiting around staring at frozen computer screens, MacArthur asked art director Paddy O'Gara what he needed to get the pages out on time. "Hot bloody metal," was his heartfelt reply.
Most of the time we felt we were a small, barely computer trained, force fighting impossible odds. But there was no shortage of enthusiasm and camaraderie. The front page of the first issue was due to feature a colour picture of the Queen in Australia. But by press time it still hadn't arrived.
The first editions went out with the picture in back and white. Most of the staff departed to the nearest pub and I remember an enormous cheer when someone dashed across from the office to tell us the colour version had finally arrived and would appear in the last edition. But it was fuzzy and printed out of register. Few readers saw it and the paper was mocked as Shahvision.
Brian MacArthur had been editor of the Western Morning News before being head-hunted by Shah. He said he wanted to produce a tabloid Times with the target audience, Middle England. In reality Today — in both content and design — was neither radical nor differed too greatly from its rivals.
There was tremendous goodwill for Today. Fellow journalists and, more importantly readers, wanted it to succeed. MacArthur was a joy to work for. He and Shah pushed themselves and the staff to the limit, and Brian visibly aged in these first few months. But computer failures, printing and transmission issues, Shah vision, and late (or on some days no) deliveries to newsagents meant it was doomed to fail.
Big beast rescuers were brought in. Sir Larry Lamb sat with us on the night desk. Lloyd Turner on the news desk. But we were under-resourced and stretched to the limit. The million a day sales Shah had budgeted for was way out of reach.
After a few months I was head-hunted by Charles Wintour and left to be deputy editor of another new venture, the Robert Maxwell London Daily News. MacArthur described me as a "launch freak" and "obviously a masochist." But he wished me well.
I managed to jinx that paper too, and when Maxwell prematurely pulled the plug after 6 months, I returned to Today which was now Murdoch-owned and totally transformed under David Montgomery. He had arrived at Vauxhall Bridge Road like a whirlwind. That day's paper was already well advanced when he arrived, but he threw the edition completely in the air and started again.
Montgomery was totally hands-on. For many months he worked without a deputy, rarely taking a day off. When he did, news editor Colin Myler or myself (night editor) would be delegated to stand in. A control freak, he insisted that all "finished" pages were printed off and cleared by him. It was the leader page that caused most trouble. With a cartoon taking up half the page and a leader down its first couple of columns, there was little opportunity to be creative with either the design or headline. Monty was seldom satisfied and the page would be thrown back to the hapless sub almost daily. I created the boomerang prize presented to the person who had had his page returned most times on one day. I think the record was 11. I won't reveal who holds it!
There were strict rules for pictures and headlines. No stock pix, no quotation marks in headlines, no straplines or sub decks and therefore no attribution, a difficulty especially when it came to court cases.
The news agenda had changed too. Still middle England but the paper had a more feminine feel. Lifestyle, consumerism, health, fashion, celebrity, royalty, stories relevant to our readers, especially younger ones. Today was more focused and definitely more gritty. Which was not that surprising when women occupied a number of the senior roles. One day when I was taking morning conference I was the only man sitting at the table. I called a photographer in to capture the moment, which must have been a first for Fleet Street.
David was a totally different character to MacArthur. He gained a reputation as being cold and unapproachable. Later at Mirror Group, where he was chief executive, he was given the nickname Rommel "because Monty was on our side".
Jane Moore, recruited by Monty, described him as “a bastard, but a fair bastard". He drove everybody hard, took unbelievable liberties with deadlines, made almost impossible demands, but all in the cause of good journalism.
Aided by the offer of a Sky dish for every reader, he turned Today's fortunes round and was visibly moved when the paper became Newspaper of the Year. Many a good journalist passed through the doors of Vauxhall Bridge Road. Among them: Jane Moore, Amanda Platell, Alastair Campbell, Jonathan Agnew, Jonathan Holborow, Anthony Holden, Jane Reed and former Express men Rory Clements and Len Gould, the latter whom I enticed as sports editor.
I always felt that shyness accounted for much of Monty's apparent coldness. Meet him in a lift and he would seldom engage in conversation; small talk was at a premium and, if he did say good night it would be from his car on the journey home.
Today never totally lived up to its billing, and I had moved on again by the time it closed. But I am proud to have made the journey.
7 February 2024