William Lewis

Doctor of LawsWilliam Lewis

Monday 12 July 2010 - Orator: Professor Judith Squires

Mr Deputy Vice-Chancellor,

William Lewis, former editor-in-chief of Telegraph Media Group, was named journalist of the year in the 2010 British Press Awards.  This was one of six awards won by the paper for its coverage of the parliamentary expenses scandal. Collecting the prize, Will Lewis said: ‘If there was ever a story that proved that news still sells newspapers I suspect this was it.’ Judges praised the Telegraph’s series of revelations as ‘an incredible scoop, superbly executed’ with ‘brilliant forensic teamwork’.

Will Lewis grew up in Hampstead Garden Suburb in north London, where, like his brother and sister, he attended Whitefield School, an ex-secondary modern that was genuinely ‘comprehensive’.   He came from a middle-class family, but his parents were strong advocates of Comprehensive education, believing that the most important thing about schooling is your ability to get on with people. 

Will wanted to follow in his brother’s footsteps by studying at Oxford University, but had to deal with the disappointment of not being accepted. Instead, he came to Bristol to study Politics and Economics and with hindsight he is hugely pleased that he did.  Being here enabled him to develop his ability to get on with people from diverse social and cultural backgrounds.

Will has had reason to be grateful for learning the skill of interacting effectively with people.  In the industry that he has been in since, you absolutely have to be able to lead, cajole and socialise with all kinds of people.  One commentator recently remarked of Will Lewis: ‘He's really good at schmoozing. He can work a room and he knows how to talk to people, whether it's in Buckingham Palace or a working men's club.’  

During his three years at Bristol, Will also learnt that success was dependent on two main factors: hard work and a willingness to take risks.  In the finals exam for the course on ‘Thatcherism’ that he now describes as ‘the most exciting thing I’ve ever done in my life’, Will chose not to take the risk of including his own analysis.  He missed out on a First Class Honours, but this lesson was to prove profoundly important in his subsequent professional life.

Bristol was also personally and socially important for Will.  During Freshers' week he met his wife, Rebecca, at that most romantic of places - the SDP stall at the Students Societies Fair.  A couple of decades later, and now with three children, Rebecca and Will are testament to the fact that the ‘student experience’ is an emotionally and socially, as well as intellectually, rich one.  During his time at Bristol, Will wrote for Epigram, the Bristol University student newspaper, and captained the university football team, meeting many of his closest friends and future colleagues.  James Landale (BBC deputy political editor) and Laura Trevelian (BBC’s United Nations correspondent) both studied Politics with Will, with James acting as his first editor at Epigram

Other than wanting to be captain of the England football team, Will didn’t have any clear career plans.  He applied while at Bristol for Shell and for Proctor and Gamble, but it became clear to him that he wasn’t a ‘Shell person’.  Bristol gave him the confidence not to do something that didn’t feel right.   Instead, he applied to City University for a Postgraduate Diploma in Periodical Journalism.   From there he went to the Mail on Sunday as a business reporter, and – back home living with his parents - took regular calls from Gordon Brown, Shadow Secretary of State for the Department of Trade and Industry, who would give him a quote every Saturday morning. 

But it was his eight-and-a-half years at the Financial Times that were his formative ones.  He remains particularly proud of the story that he broke while at the FT on Thanksgiving Day 1999.   He had been sent to America with a small team of five to take on the Wall Street Journal.  Before long he broke the story of Exxon’s merger with Mobil: the largest industrial merger of all time.  This story helped put the FT on the map in the US.

After New York, Will returned to the FT as Head of News, where his interest in the online use of media really developed. The FT adopted a new editorial strategy in 1996-7 and became one of the first places to practice the concept of ‘owning’ a story that was released online then taken on in the paper the next day.  It was in the financial world that this integrated approach was most advanced; in this sector that customers first wanted news on their phone, across different time zones; here that US exclusives which emerged after the UK paper had gone to bed were published on FT.com.  ‘That’s when the love affair began’, says Lewis about online news media.

Will left the FT in 2002 to become Business Editor of the Sunday Times. This was something of a rite of passage, and was the most difficult job he has ever had.  He had to run all the sections, edit the paper, lead the team, write a column each week, and act as lead reporter.  The whole thing, Lewis says, was ‘brutal’: but he learnt more, and faster, than anywhere else. 

After three-and-a-half years at The Sunday Times Will joined the Daily Telegraph in August 2005 as City editor, and was quickly promoted to deputy editor.  In October 2006, he became the youngest ever editor of the Daily Telegraph.

The Barclay brothers bought the paper in 2004 at what turned out to be an inflated price. Lewis's first job was to institute a harsh round of cutbacks and redundancies while simultaneously moving the operation from Canary Wharf across town to Victoria in what was billed as the largest open-plan office in central London. At the same time, he set about repositioning the Telegraph, until then a newspaper with a limited internet profile, at the forefront of digital technology.

When he first started at the Daily Telegraph the presumption was that newspapers were dying.  Lewis accused the newspaper industry of being ‘lazy, bloated and arrogant’ and having ‘taken readers for granted’.  Hugely bureaucratic and out-dated processes were still in operation: when a reporter filed a bit of copy it went through 13 people – a process that actually inserted errors, which had to be recorrected later.   Will Lewis’s key achievement was to look at the entire process again and to introduce the ‘hub and spoke’ system of production (that ensured that no piece of copy was seen by more than three people), coupled with a hugely increased emphasis on online coverage and an integrated approach to news dissemination.  The Telegraph became one part of an integrated multi-media coverage: owning a story, distributing bits of content throughout the day to generate continual momentum.  Better cost management says Lewis, can lead to better journalism. 

As editor-in-chief, Will Lewis proved this point by overseeing the Telegraph's investigation into the parliamentary expenses scandal in May 2009.  Doing it was, he says, a ‘hateful experience’: the worst three months of his life.  He is only now able to look back at it and feel proud.  He is particularly proud that he unsettled the idea that the Telegraph was the ‘Torygraph’.  It would have been tempting with the expenses story to simply attack Labour, he says, but the paper targeted MPs of all parties in equal measure.  For Will, this reflected an important shift in the paper’s approach, focusing on the readers’ needs rather than playing to a political agenda.  The impact of this shift was profound: the expenses story was instrumental in the outcome of the election, ushering in coalition politics and likely electoral reform. 

So what is the next big challenge for Will Lewis? It is, he says, to help realise the potential of journalism in the digital world.  After a period of perceived decline, a new model of  exciting journalism is beginning to emerge and the industry is about to be rejuvenated:  iPad, touchscreen technology, the ability to blend words, sounds, smells – all offer exciting new opportunities.  Will Lewis, with his boundless energy and enthusiasm, his renowned ability to engage with people across the social spectrum, his passion for new technology and entrepreneurial flair, is sure to be leading the way as Group General Manager of News International.  His rather modest message for those graduating today is: ‘If I can do it, you genuinely can do it.  If you try hard enough you get places.’ 

Mr Deputy Vice-Chancellor, I present to you William John Lewis, as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.