by Martin Veitch

Telegraph CIO Paul Cheesbrough explains the paper’s digital reinvention

Jul 02, 200911 mins
IT LeadershipIT StrategyMedia and Entertainment Industry

The offices could easily pass for those of a Microsoft or a Google, both of which – not entirely coincidentally perhaps – are near neighbours to this Victoria, London site and former trading floor of stockbroker Salomon Smith Barney. The escalator automatically starts into action when you stand on it and there are lozenges of colour that set off the towering glass structures all around, with images of the great and the good: Sir Richard Branson, Andre Agassi, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Linford Christie and Dame Judi Dench stare down into a reception boasting the requisite modern office accoutrements of soft furnishings and an island café. The whole place is open plan with huge video screens tuned to digital news channels, displaying news feeds and even Twitter Tweets. You wouldn’t have to be Loyd Grossman to work out that it might be a media company that lives in a house like this, but you might be surprised to learn that since a move from Canary Wharf in 2006 it has been home to Telegraph Media Group, publishers of the Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph newspapers. This is the company that has its best-known brand referred to as the ‘Torygraph’ and is equated with (hopefully) fictitious, ancient readers such as Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells and Sir Bufton-Tufton, many of whom preferred the atlases when much of the world was pink. But the organisation is changing and it wants the world to know it, as the recent investigation into MPs expenses, which exposed even Tory shadow chancellor George Osborne. From being a print–dominated firm, the Telegraph Group aspires to be digitally-led, and from having an oldie demographic it seeks to recruit younger readers. The plan is to become an innovator in web publishing, taking full advantage of multimedia, immediacy, community and general dynamism of the online realm; hence these offices, new appointments, a redesigned workflow and partnerships with some of the biggest names in bleeding-edge technology. For those of us of a certain age, what is striking about Telegraph 2.0 (a term one-time editor the late Bill Deedes certainly wouldn’t have used) is its youth. Daily Telegraph Editor-In-Chief Will Lewis is in his late 30s and CIO Paul Cheesbrough is just 34. Cheesbrough has squeezed a dense CV into his short working life. Born in London but raised in the Midlands (he remains a committed Aston Villa fan), Cheesbrough swooped way south to Bournemouth to take a degree that should be far more common in this country, combining business and technology and incorporating modules in risk management, business strategy and logistics, as well as pure IT and software development. “I must be one of the only people who still uses their -degree every day at work,” he says.

From there, he joined IBM’s graduate training scheme and was soon specialising in the media sector for Big Blue’s consulting wing, IBM Global Services. One task saw him put up in front of BBC Director General Greg Dyke and his predecessor John Birt to explain digital archiving. As an external consultant for the Corporation, he became part of the coterie close to Dyke and then was sent by the broadcaster as a consultant on stints with other media giants, including 20th Century Fox in Los Angeles, SABC in South Africa and BBC Worldwide in New York. Cheesbrough was then formally recruited by the BBC as technology director of the BBC’s Digital Curriculum education initiative. He remained quite close to Dyke and sat in one of his last meetings, together with a certain Bill Gates. When Dyke was forced to leave in the wake of the Hutton Report on the “sexed-up dossier” Iraq arms affair, Cheesbrough recalls that the whole of the BBC took a deep breath. “As a manager he was second to none and his aim was to make the BBC the most creative organisation in the world,” he says. Cheesbrough also worked with the BBC’s then boss of new media Ashley Highfield, now ensconced as Microsoft UK managing director, and describes him as “a great guy. There are very few people who can manage a technology function and consumer-facing web organisation”. That is just the challenge Cheesbrough has at the Telegraph, where he has been for a year and a half. But, after the globe-trotting, mega-media world of the BBC, what attracted him to the new role? “At the BBC, I was approaching the eight-year crossroads,” he says. “Most people [at that point] will stay for the rest of their career. It was fun but I was keen to get back to the commercial sector. If you go too far beyond that [eight-year point], your commercial skills get out of touch. The challenges [at the Telegraph] were probably greater, even though the organisation was smaller. At the BBC you can make an impact but feeling and touching that impact can be difficult to do.”

New media for old The opportunity at the Telegraph was to flip the old media model in favour of new media and Cheesbrough says that the new management was re-energising the -organisation. “The model changed tremendously when the ownership changed,” he says of the arrival of Murdoch MacLennan to the group in the wake of the Barclay brothers’ acquisition in 2004. “The view was taken to modernise it. Before, it was very much about the old guard running it, print media and almost denying the decline of newspaper readership and the phenomenal growth of the internet. The recession is definitely forcing that internal question [of online versus print] again and the litmus test for me is which media organisations see Google as a partner or a competitor.

We’ve chosen to partner but a lot see them as the arch-enemy. There’s a new leadership team in place here and the ownership believes 110 per cent that the future is digital.” The opportunity for UK media firms is enormous, of course, because for the first time they can break through the borders of the markets in which they print and distribute the physical medium of paper. “The thing not to underestimate is the global opportunity,” Cheesbrough says, adding that readership is now parcelled up into three segments with the UK one third, the US another, and the rest of the world (largely the Asia Pacific countries) making up the final third. Another opportunity is to fundamentally change the demographic. The average age of the Telegraph print reader is 55 with an equal balance of men and women represented, whereasthe online Telegraph reader has an average age of 40, although there is a distinct bias (like most things on the internet) in favour of men. Enthused by management and with a seat on the executive committee, Cheesbrough has set about rethinking IT operations, building a lab that encourages anybody at the company to come in and try out new technology-enabled ideas. Projects are of the ‘try it once, try it quickly’ variety with fixed timings to see if they can fly in a matter of weeks. Project creep has been much reduced and an inherited content management system project was reshaped with incremental rollouts by department. Partnerships have been created with the likes of Apple, Google and Adobe, and an enterprise architect has been hired to apply discipline and maintain a common structure. Key performance indicators are used for the same reasons of rigour. There are “fewer suppliers, but the right suppliers” and sharing risk and reward is encouraged.

Changing faces There has also been plenty of change within the IT department itself, with about a third of the team having changed. There are now about 60 people working in IT, from the 70-plus inherited but Cheesbrough says the Telegraph “is not changing the cost base. Even during this difficult time, it’s about changing the capability”. Even the rapid rate of churn was anticipated. “I was eyes wide open to it because it was an unloved function,” he insists. Part of the change process involves taking a bold attitude towards technology choices and Cheesbrough has offered a bear hug to the software-as-a-service movement of applications hosted on the internet by third-parties. He is a cheerleader for, saying he spent more time on documenting requirements than the four months spent implementing the CRM system. He uses another web-based system, SuccessFactors, for managing the performance of employees and to “connect all the dots together about performance from setting objectives, monitoring progress, providing training, rewarding top performers and developing others”. FogBugz and 37 Signals’ Basecamp are used for software development project management and Amazon’s Elastic Compute Cloud environment is being deployed to capture snapshots of the Telegraph’s databases with Business Objects’ analytics run against them. But Cheesbrough might be best known for becoming one of the first UK CIOs to make a significant commitment to the Google Apps suite over Microsoft, having bought a licence for the entire 1400-user estate and announced that some key Microsoft programs will be phased out. “I was as sceptical as others about cloud computing in general,” he recalls. “With Google Apps we put it into the mix really as a negotiating lever with Microsoft, but the feedback from users spoke for itself.” Was there also an element of putting on a new public face and showing that the new group was bold rather than old? “There’s definitely a message that the Telegraph is changing and technology is at the heart of that change,” says Cheesbrough. “We’re trying to change perceptions of our brand.”

Open minded Cheesbrough is certainly no enemy of Microsoft (he views Bill Gates as an iconic figure who “thinks at a million miles per hour”), but he believes that having an on-demand infrastructure at the Telegraph will provide the agility and value to take focus away from in-house maintenance and in favour of innovation. Similarly, he favours open-source and social networking tools and he has presided over a change in favour of Apple client devices that now sees about 10 per cent of the company using Macs.

“The key thing for me is usability,” he says. “When you look at Twitter and social networking tools, it’s only when you knit them together that you’ll see the enterprise toolset change dramatically. You need them to join up so you work with colleagues in the same way that Facebook organises your personal life. You need to have Google Apps joined up with LinkedIn – there’s a huge opportunity there.” Even without that rate of change in technology, Cheesbrough has his hands full, overseeing heads of operations, service delivery and planning as well as the 95 per cent of projects that are digitally focused. To maintain direction, Cheesbrough has a strong sense of what his role is. “My style is focused on leadership and being quite specific about how we get there,” he says, “Every 90 days we map our progress based on specific scores. It’s KPIs, but not KPIs for KPIs’ sake.” Like many peers, he sees more server virtualisation, virtual desktops and remote access projects in the offing. Speaking of peers, Cheesbrough also attends meetings with other media CIOs from News International, Mirror Group, The Economist, Guardian News & Media (also a Google advocate) and other like-minded individuals. “We’re all facing the same challenges,” he says.

Prospects for print Maybe they discuss what happens next to print. Some see it as ‘dead trees’ but Cheesbrough isn’t so sure, noting that technology can also be applied to making newspapers more efficient to produce, assemble and distribute. “If you’re putting all your eggs in one basket that’s not healthy,” he says. “The strong papers will survive but there will be some pretty strong brands that don’t come through this. You’re seeing it a lot now in the US local newspaper market but in the Nineties people said that TV was dead and yet we ended up with a truly converged device. It’s sometimes good to look back.” And of course, just as with the news, there will be unforeseen events to accommodate. “I can see about 18 months out in terms of taking the function where it needs to be but I don’t doubt there will be a huge number of opportunities when the economy comes back,” he concedes.

Of course, such are the high stakes and issues of profitability engulfing big media organisations today, there is no guarantee that the Telegraph will successfully complete its transformation and opinions remain divided over its prospects. As a Guardian profile has put it, “Murdoch MacLennan has brought about either the dizzying decline or the dazzling transformation of the Telegraph Group, depending on your point of view.” But if bold bets, the vim and vigour of youth and willingness to change are anything to go by, the group may yet be able to shrug off that old ‘Torygraph’ tag.

The Guardian is using IT to reshape its newspaper led business” href=”″>Read about how rivals The Guardian is using IT to reshape its newspaper led business

Paul Cheesbrough: CV

Education: Degree in Strategic Systems Management and MBA

1996-2000: IBM, working as a software engineer and then a media consultant

2000-2007: BBC, working initially as a consultant and then moving on to be the Head of Technology for Production, and then the Controller of Digital Media

2007-Present: CIO, Telegraph Media Group