WHSmith has instructed its stores to move the Daily Telegraph to the magazine section in the latest sign that retailers and newspaper publishers are willing to tear up industry norms to halt falling sales.
The experiment to place the pro-Brexit title beside magazines such as New Scientist and WrestleTalk comes shortly after the newspaper raised its cover price, abandoned the main system for auditing circulation and prepared for a possible sale.
Operators of more than 500 WHSmith stores were told that “with immediate effect” the Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph should be moved from the “news” section and placed with magazines “until further notice”, according to a memo sent on Thursday and seen by the Financial Times.
All the vacant Telegraph spots in the “news” section should be filled with copies of The Times instead, the memo suggested.
Douglas McCabe, a media analyst at Enders, said it would be “extremely odd” for a retailer to decide to treat one newspaper differently from other titles. “This request obviously came from the publisher,” he said.
A spokesperson for the Telegraph Media Group declined to comment on the move. WHSmith also declined to comment on the reason for the switch.
It was unclear whether TMG had paid for the titles to be given a prominent shelf position at eye level.
One employee at a WHSmith store in London said: “Don’t ask me why, we just do what head office tells us to do.”
The billionaire Barclay brothers, the owners of TMG, are exploring whether to sell the newspaper titles, whose profits tumbled 94 per cent to £900,000 in 2018. Although Frederick Barclay and David Barclay began reviewing their business empire in the autumn, bankers have not been appointed.
Like much of the industry, the Telegraph has struggled to cope with double-digit percentage annual circulation declines over the past decade.
Under chief executive Nick Hugh, who has run TMG since joining from Yahoo in 2017, the Daily Telegraph has seen its newspaper circulation fall 34 per cent, from 484,000 to 317,000 copies a day, according to ABC data.
Much of that was driven by Mr Hugh’s decision to end the practice of giving out free copies, known as “bulks”. The Telegraph had been distributing 67,000 copies of the newspaper at a heavily discounted price, which were then offered as free-to-take copies at airports, hotels and some other public places.
Mr Hugh shocked the industry last month by removing the title from the ABC system of newspaper circulation audits, which advertisers have relied on for decades to offer a comparable measure of market reach across publications.
At the time, Mr Hugh said the ABC system did not “accurately reflect the success” of the Telegraph in its drive for online registrations and subscriptions. He said an accountancy firm would instead audit the newspaper’s numbers and circulate them to advertisers. It would mean the Telegraph’s circulation rules would no longer be vetted and agreed by consensus with rivals.
During a staff meeting last month, Mr Hugh offered a more blunt reason for the Telegraph’s withdrawal. “I do not want to be part of a narrative that tells a story of the structural decline of our industry,” Mr Hugh said, according to two people present. Mr Hugh declined to comment when reached on Thursday.
Mr McCabe of Enders said TMG had taken some “bold decisions” recently on leaving the ABC system and putting up the cover price. “The WHSmith approach fits with the Telegraph trying some radical ideas.”
WHSmith and the Telegraph last year ended a controversial newspaper-for-water offer, which saw customers offered a free bottle of water when they bought a copy of the newspaper. During the promotion in airports and train stations, Telegraph copies were sometimes placed for sale in chilled cabinets alongside drinks.
WHSmith said that: “The Telegraph is easily accessible to all customers as part of our news and current affairs offering.”