MEDIA: Time will tell if the European can pull off a tour de force

I’ve been a regular buyer of the European ever since it began its rickety existence in 1990, and now that it’s gone tabloid I’m grimly sticking with it. Call me sentimental, but it is one of those oddballs, like the Big Issue, which no mainstream publisher would ever risk money starting up.

I’ve been a regular buyer of the European ever since it began its

rickety existence in 1990, and now that it’s gone tabloid I’m grimly

sticking with it. Call me sentimental, but it is one of those oddballs,

like the Big Issue, which no mainstream publisher would ever risk money

starting up.



Even while founder Robert Maxwell ripped off pension funds he also had a

vision of sorts and hit upon a brilliantly simple name for his new

weekly title, a paper supposed to rally an idealistic rising generation

behind Europe’s integration, rather than looking to the US. The problem

is that from day one, the European has been unable to create a viable

readership base from a mixture of students, academics and airport lounge

readers and so attract rich advertisers - airlines and financial

services providers.



The European has been as heavily subsidised as a hill farmer, losing up

to pounds 8 million a year on weekly sales of around 155,000. The

Barclay brothers have footed the bill to further their plans to acquire

national newspaper titles to stand alongside the Scotsman. But they have

financial limits.



This month the European has been reborn as an upmarket tabloid - well

that’s the theory - by its new chief, Andrew Neil, ex-Sunday Times,

ex-Economist. He advised the Barclays that it was going nowhere as a

limp 32-page middle-market broadsheet and also dumped its cultural

magazine.



I’ve hung fire for several issues before passing judgment. Alas, the new

64-page European so far is a half-formed experiment. It reads rather

like a ’dummy’ supplement, designed for limited circulation among

research groups. It was the Cinderella of airport lounges before and it

is still far from sorted or readable now.



The most charitable interpretation is that it is in transition, that it

will improve as new writers gleaned from the Economist, Sunday Times and

FT weekend supplement arrive and a five-year plan kicks in. Neil is

repositioning it ambitiously as an upmarket weekly for Europe’s elite

businessmen: there is a new concentration on German news, even talk of a

German language edition. In the meantime he is prepared to see sales

drop to around 100,000, as students fade away and club class bankers are

targeted. The hitch of course is that these well-heeled types are pretty

well catered for already.



I hope Neil sticks with this project. There is a big gap - and marketing

opportunity - in accurate, sustained reporting of what Brussels’

directorates are up to. Neil, never a Europhile, is promising to install

a Sunday Times-style insight team there to stir things up. If the

European ever starts unearthing big EU stories this could become a real

reason to read it.



Its best hope of salvation may lie - ironically for a title conceived as

pro-Europe - in exposing the warts and blemishes of this growing power.



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