Shifting of Sands baffles staff

By Dominic Ponsford

A clash of ideas between Telegraph Group editor-in-chief John Bryant and Sunday Telegraph editor Sarah Sands has been blamed by some insiders for her abrupt sacking on Monday after just under nine months in the job.

But others believe that Bryant, taken on from the Daily Mail in November, is acting as a "blame filter" for chief executive Murdoch MacLennan.

Sands’ exit follows that of Daily Telegraph editor Martin Newland, who quit just a week after Bryant’s appointment last year after reports of executive interference in editorial.

Long-established Times business editor Patience Wheatcroft has been taken on to replace Sands, leaving some staff baffled at the apparent U-turn in editorial direction from executives.

Sands was seen as more lifestyle-focused than her predecessor, Dominic Lawson, who came from a serious business and political journalism background and was himself abruptly sacked after 10 years in the job.

Wheatcroft, 54, has spent her entire career in business and financial journalism and has been business and City editor of The Times since 1997.

One Telegraph journalist said: "It seems absolutely extraordinary that having ditched the serious Dominic Lawson in favour of Sarah Sands — and given her the mandate (if not the marketing back-up) to give the paper a fluffier feel (with two new glossy mags, etc)

— they seem to have reverted to an even more serious, business-based approach.

"It all just seems to reinforce the current public image of the Telegraph lurching desperately from one position to another in response to the latest circulation figures/media comment, with no long-term strategy at all."

Sands stamped her mark on the Sunday Telegraph with a £2m relaunch in November which included ditching the gothic masthead and a "more elegant" redesign which included two magazines: Stella, aimed at women, and Seven, which includes listings and arts reviews.

The relaunch has failed to have a major impact on sales and in February, sales were 1.5 per cent down year-on-year to 682,739.

Colleagues of Sands say that up until last week she was optimistic about the future and making plans to turn the circulation around.

Last week Sands had been upbeat, saying that the response from advertisers was extremely positive and they were said to love the new platforms. Disappointing sales were partly a reflection of the lack of promotion.

She said she was most proud of Seven, which she thought was really starting to find its feet.

And in her last published interview, in X-trax magazine, she said: "A lot of the real delight in the new paper has come from our more traditional readers, which has been very nice. People felt the new paper looked more stylish, less stuffy but more substantial."

But an email sent out to staff two weeks ago urged journalists to appeal to the paper’s "core readers" and write more stories about subjects such as hunting.

One Telegraph insider told Press Gazette that it was Sands’ reluctance to take direction from editor-in-chief John Bryant which prompted her exit.

But another well-placed source said: "That’s completely ridiculous. If circulation had gone up rather than down they wouldn’t have put her out — John Bryant has been taken on as a blame-filter for Murdoch MacLennan."

Another Telegraph journalist who spoke to Press Gazette said: "Bryant is so tied up with the daily. It is hard to believe that he would have much input on the Sunday.

"The truth about Sarah is that right from the second week of the revamp, all the senior executives and many of the journalists on the paper thought it had gone wrong.

"It has taken them rather longer to deal with it, perhaps, than they should have done. It may be that Bryant was used as a gobetween to get her to revamp the revamp and she may have resented that."

Former colleagues of Sands on the Sunday Telegraph have paid tribute to her editing style.

Tim Walker, who writes the diary column, Mandrake, said: "It is Sarah’s sense of fun that I will miss the most.

She was wonderful for Mandrake because she shared my sense of mischief and excitement at a great story.

"‘That’ll have them chasing after us at the Daily Mail,’ she’d say… She is a journalist’s journalist and I for one will miss her very much."

Another former colleague said: "She was friendly, enthusiastic, open to ideas and more of a people person than many editors are. I liked her a lot."

Sands, 45, began her career as a reporter for the Kent and Sussex Courier Group, going on to become editor of Londoner’s Diary at the Evening Standard, features editor and then associate editor.

She had been at Telegraph Group for 11 years and, before moving to the Sunday, spent two years in charge of the Saturday edition.

She was credited with injecting it with life and colour and helping it become by far the best selling Telegraph edition of the week.

She is married to former Telegraph Group editorial director Kim Fletcher, who left his job following her promotion last year to avoid a possible conflict of interest.

Members of the Telegraph Group NUJ chapel have noted that Sands’ departure follows the exits of former Sunday Telegraph editor Dominic Lawson, Daily Telegraph editor Martin Newland and managing editor Sue Ryan.

A spokesman said: "In the past nine months, the Telegraph has got rid of four of its most senior editorial staff — at a cost in compensation payments of well over £1m at the very least.

"On its own, that would have more than funded our pay claim — and left something to spare, at a time when the company said there was no money to spare.

"So now we are left wondering where exactly the company is going and where its priorities lie. What does it want — and what value does it place on the rest of its staff, who continue to produce very profitable papers in very difficult circumstances?"

Sands’ exit coincides with the appointment of two new senior editorial executives this week.

Former Scotland on Sunday editor Iain Martin, a long-term employee of Telegraph owners the Barclay brothers, has been appointed to the new role of assistant editor, reporting directly to John Bryant and working across both national titles. Martin, 34, was Scotsman editor from 2001-2004 and then moved to its sister title as editor.

Former Bloomberg global managing editor Edward Roussel has been made online editorial director with a role to "develop the content strategy for telegraph.co.uk and to drive the business forward."

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