The owner of London's Daily Telegraph, Britain's best-selling and most politically conservative broadsheet, has announced a deal to sell the newspaper to two British businessmen who analysts here expect will preserve its ideological stance and special niche in the country's highly competitive newspaper market.
David and Frederick Barclay, multimillionaire twin brothers whose business empire is centered around a discount retail chain, London's Ritz Hotel and a handful of smaller publications, agreed to pay about $1.2 billion for the newspaper, its sister publication the Sunday Telegraph, and the weekly Spectator magazine in a pact announced Tuesday night in New York.
If the agreement stands up to possible legal challenges, it would settle long uncertainty over ownership of the 149-year-old paper, which has been losing circulation and is caught up in a transatlantic corporate feud.
The Daily Telegraph's owner is Hollinger International Inc. of Chicago, which is in turn 70 percent owned by a firm controlled by media investor Conrad Black. Hollinger International is suing Black, its former chief executive, and others for $1.25 billion, alleging financial impropriety. Black has denied the claims, calling them "tabloid journalism masquerading as law."
Black and Hollinger International are also at odds over what to do with the Telegraph. Black said in a statement Tuesday that he opposed the sale that Hollinger International negotiated, partially on grounds that the company's assets, which include the Chicago Sun-Times and the Jerusalem Post, should be sold as a package. He raised the possibility of legal action to stop the sale, which is meant to be completed on June 30.
If the deal goes through, the Telegraph will pass into the hands of two men who rank among the most publicity-shy figures at the top of Britain's business world. The Barclay brothers live on a private island in the English Channel that is a tax-free haven. Born into a humble family in West London, they worked for decades to turn property investments into vast wealth, and have been knighted in recognition of their contributions to charity.
The newspaper they have agreed to buy has fallen in circulation from nearly a million a day a decade ago to 873,000. Analysts said the new owners would have to find a way to boost circulation while not alienating the core readership of increasingly elderly conservatives who treat the Telegraph as their personal preserve.
"They have the oldest reader profile in Britain -- their readers tend to die faster and they haven't found a young audience to replace them," said Roy Greenslade, newspaper critic and professor of journalism at the City University of London.
Newspaper readership in Britain is almost tribal: Families through generations tend to stay with the same publications. The Telegraph has sought to retain loyalists while livening up its front page and brightening its writing. Photos have gotten bigger and articles considerably shorter in recent years, and members of the royal family and celebrities such as actress-model Elizabeth Hurley regularly appear on the front page.
But its right-of-center politics -- which include veneration of former prime minister Margaret Thatcher, scorn for Tony Blair, the office's current occupant, and deep suspicion of the European Union -- have remained unshakeable.
One question is whether the Telegraph should follow its broadsheet competitors, the Independent and the Times of London, in downsizing to become a "compact" -- somewhere between a broadsheet and a tabloid. Last year the Independent boosted circulation by 15 percent and revived its sagging fortunes by going compact.