Gary Jones – the Labour-supporting, Remain-voting ex-Sunday Mirror editor who took over the Daily Express three years ago – believes the paper has “come a long way” since he began his mission to make it a more positive force for good.
Jones made much upon his appointment of his plan to make the Express more inclusive and move away from the “Islamophobic sentiment” that made him “very uncomfortable”.
He wanted to rebrand the Express away from the front pages for which it had become notorious, rarely deviating from the royals, health breakthroughs (especially on diabetes), Brexit and the weather.
Speaking to Press Gazette as he approached his third anniversary in the role, Jones said: “I think we’ve come a long way. I grew up reading the Express as a child and it was really important to my parents: it was aspirational and a positive force in their lives.
“In the past the Express has had quite limited subject matter, it didn’t really broaden its appeal and I hope we’ve achieved that. We’re not there yet, I don’t think you’re ever there yet.”
Jones quoted Arthur Christiansen, who he described as the greatest Daily Express editor for his tenure between 1933 and 1957, who once said: “Show me a content newspaper editor and I will show you a bad newspaper.”
Jones said: “I’m certainly not contented by a long way. I want to keep improving and keep making it better and delivering what I hope is a service to the readers.
“I think the older you get the more you think ‘actually, we’ve got to do something positive that really has impact otherwise isn’t the whole thing a bit pointless?”
Jones wanted to move away from perceptions about the Express “that weren’t very attractive” and has seemingly succeeded, with the Stop Funding Hate movement deciding to stop campaigning against it within months of the start of his editorship.
“I was keen not to be perceived as anti-immigrant or Islamophobic and I went out of my way to try and prove you didn’t have to do that,” Jones said, adding that he “couldn’t live” with himself if he continued to push those stories.
“I wanted to move the Express away from where it was and just make it more forward-looking,” he said.
“I’ve got a couple of teenage children and the issues of the environment, the way we interact with each other, equality, to me are issues that any modern media organisation has to embrace.
“It was really important for me to leave the past behind and redefine what the Express was about and push forward and to embrace more positivity.”
Campaigning ‘zeal’ is back
A big part of that purpose has proved to be a renewed focus on campaigning journalism, with Jones pleased the paper has “regained that campaigning investigative zeal that has always been attached to the name”.
The Daily Express and its journalist Chris Riches won the British Journalism Award for Campaign Journalism in December after the 18-month-long Time To End Cystic Fibrosis Drug Scandal campaign that successfully fought for a life-saving deal between US pharmaceuticals firm Vertex and the NHS.
The awards judges praised the paper for becoming “a champion for a group that could not speak up for itself and was being ignored and that is the most heart-warming thing you can do as a journalist.
“As a result, it improved the lives of many young people,” they said.
The paper ran a story about the campaign almost every day for many months, which Jones acknowledged is “against journalistic instinct”.
“But the thing I’ve learned is the more you say something the more chances people will listen,” he said.
Jones recalled the “marvellous” moment when Carlie Pleasant, a young woman with cystic fibrosis who had become a major part of the campaign, came into the Express office and “thanked the Express for saving her life”.
He admitted that although journalists usually distance themselves from their stories he “did feel really emotional at that point.
“It was absolutely worthwhile putting the amount of time and energy into the campaign,” he went on.
“It meant a lot to win the award and be able to put campaigning newspaper of the year on the front of the Daily Express to me was something of a turning point which I’m really grateful for.”
Jones said he was also particularly proud of the End This Injustice campaign led by journalist Liz Perkins, which won an overhaul of the family courts system for domestic abuse victims.
“To me that kind of campaigning is really important because it doesn’t affect obviously the majority of people, it’s a sizeable minority, but I think it’s important to keep pushing and to look into areas for people who might be neglected who the system is letting down,” Jones said.
Climate change U-turn
The latest campaign at the Express, which under previous owners had provided a home for climate-change sceptic views, looks to persuade Boris Johnson to “lead the world revolution on green issues”.
Green Britain will run over the next seven months in print and digital to ask readers to sign a petition to boost the tax system to fight climate change and protect the environment.
Jones said: “In the past the Express has neglected to highlight the most important issue we face, namely protecting the planet by collectively doing all we can to make the right choices.
“We are now very much engaged in campaigning for Green Britain and will be highlighting the issues affecting us all and future generations in the run-up to the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow this November and beyond.”
Some of the middle England Conservative readers of the Daily Express were so incensed by Jones’ move from the Sunday Mirror and Sunday People, and what it could mean for their paper, that they flooded him with furious emails – and he tried to answer every one.
“I did at the beginning take it quite personally,” he said. “I would sit there with a bottle of wine and answer… they would say ‘you’re not going to ruin our Express are you?’ and I would write at some length.
“I answered all of them because I felt I had a duty to tell the readers, who I’m really fond of, that I wanted to produce something for them. I don’t have an ego. I don’t see the newspaper as my newspaper, I see it as the team’s newspaper, I see it as the readers’ newspaper.
“I hope they don’t look at my past and hold it against me. I don’t really get that any longer. I certainly got it initially but I think they’ve accepted I am giving them what they want, and to be honest that makes me happiest because if I felt I was letting the readers down I couldn’t do the job.
“Every single day I ask myself ‘is that what the readers want?’ because at the end of the day they pay my salary.”
Fears of ‘impossible’ during pandemic
Almost one-third of Jones’ time in charge at the Express has been spent with the entire operation working from home because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Some national newspapers kept core staff in the newsroom throughout the pandemic or brought more back in after the initial strict lockdown (The Sun still has up to about 15 people in the News UK building) but no-one has been in the Express office since last spring.
Jones admitted he thought it would be “impossible” to put the newspaper together without being able to gather and share ideas at the backbench.
“I really didn’t quite know what to do. I lugged my Apple Mac home. I remember just feeling very depressed… But you’ve got no choice but to get the hang of it quickly because you’ve got to hit deadlines, you’ve got to get the newspaper out.”
Jones felt particularly conscious of the print plant staff who still had to go into work and were reliant on him making decisions efficiently.
“In many ways I became more focused because I had nothing else to do,” he added.
“In the past you’d meet politicians, you’d go for lunch, you’d have more of a mix in the day, and I just found myself sitting at home focusing purely on the content and what we did. In some ways, it was quite a positive experience.”
Not so for everyone, of course, with mental health concerns becoming more prevalent than ever throughout the industry thanks to the pressures of reporting daily about, or simply during, a crisis that affects everyone’s daily lives and has left many juggling family illness or homeschooling.
Jones said he has become “really conscious of mental health and its impact and the sacrifices that people have made”. The year has also taught him to be more accommodating of flexible working, as Reach looks to change its traditional working practices post-pandemic.
But one of the biggest challenges of the past year were the job cuts implemented at Reach which cut about 12% of the workforce, or 550 jobs across its national and regional titles, to make savings of £35m a year.
Jones said: “That was a very difficult period losing colleagues and at the same time maintaining the integrity and identity of what we were doing.”
He said editorial teams across Reach are now working more efficiently and collaboratively, including by sharing content across an internal newswire, but that his priority was to “maintain what the Express is about and what it stands for “.
Print is ‘still a good business’
The Daily Express still sells on average about 250,000 copies, down by 14% from about 290,000 before Covid-19 hit and from 1m a day at the turn of the century.
[Read more: UK national newspaper ABCs, updated monthly]
Yet Jones said he could not see the print paper closing “in the near future” as it is “still a good business and still brings in substantial revenue”.
Some 84% of Express owner Reach’s revenue still comes from print, which turned over £591.3m in 2019, although this was a fall of 5% year-on-year.
His biggest hope, though, is that print sees a comeback in a similar way to vinyl or books, which just hit an eight-year high in sales.
This would help the paper move forward despite having an older demographic in its mid-50s and up compared to the Express website, which on average attracts those in their early 40s.
“I don’t see newspapers disappearing for quite some considerable time,” Jones said. “I’m confident there’s still a market there and people do like to have a newspaper in their hand.”
The latest Pamco audience figures show the Express website has the fourth biggest total brand reach of all UK national newspapers after the Sun, the Mail and the Mirror.
The Express had a total monthly brand reach (print and online) of 27m in Q3 of 2020, up from 22m the year before. Its website now pulls in about 300m page views per month.
According to Comscore, the Express website reached a peak of 31.9m unique visitors in April last year and 25.5m in December.
This compares to average monthly unique visitors in Q3 of 2020 (the latest available Comscore figures) of 38.6m at the BBC, 37.4m at Sun Online, 37.1m at Mail Online, 27.5m at The Independent, and 25.1m at The Guardian.
[Read more: Top 50 online news publishers in the UK]
Self-described “print dinosaur” Jones’ mission when he joined the Express three years ago was to transform and rebuild the print paper, but he has since started to work more closely with Express.co.uk editorial director Geoff Marsh.
“He’s driven it all this way and now my job I suppose is to bring more print attitude, values, campaigns into the brand and build it more as a brand and to look to the future,” Jones said.
In the past there was a “Berlin wall” between the print and online sides of the newsroom, but it has become “much more collaborative” and Jones hopes to help “the Express brand to continue long after I’m dead, and to mean something”.