John McLellan interview

By The Drum | Administrator

April 16, 2002 | 8 min read

Standing tough: McLellan believes that the regional press is not being threatened by the internet and mass media.

John McLellan bustles into his lavish Holyrood office and apologises. He wakes up his monitor, hangs his jacket over the back of the door and scans the front page of the Scotsman sitting on the top of a large pile of dailies. He apologises to me again.

Nine o'clock meetings are never relished, but after two nights on the tiles McLellan could perhaps be forgiven for his 45-minute delay.

Last night he was playing host at the Evening News' Business Excellence Awards. The night prior to that, he had been on the other side of the fence, picking up the award for Newspaper of the Year 2002 on behalf of his former newspaper, the Edinburgh Evening News. The work of an editor is never done.

McLellan moved his editorial reins from the Evening News earlier this year to fill the void created by the departure of Margo Wilson at Scotland on Sunday, who is on maternity leave. A temporary move, maybe, but as his jacket slumps on a hook on the back of the door, McLellan gives an impression of being quite at home. Already he has made changes at SoS, scrapping the At Play magazine in favour of The Review, a broadsheet mag.

McLellan's switch has been just one of many changes in editorship this year and, as chairman of the STNS editors committee, he is in a prime spot to witness the unfolding events.

"The committee provides a very graphic display of the changing world of editorships," he chuckles. "There are new faces at every meeting."

However, despite the recent influx of fresh-faced talent McLellan would challenge anyone who said editing was now a young man's game: "If you have got the energy you do the job, no matter what age you are - so long as you avoid the Opal Lounge at two in the morning..." he says, rubbing his eyes and glancing enviously at my, now drained, coffee cup.

"As with everything, I think that the only generalisation that you can really make is that it is generally hard to make generalisations. There is an interesting mix of people editing Scotland's newspapers just now.

"The values of individual editors change from person to person, but still a good story is a good story and it is news that sells newspapers. I think that the newspapers that lose sight of this are the ones that get in trouble. We aren't magazines, we aren't television programmes, breaking news remains our USP.

"It is easy to be deflected in this day and age and think that the day of the newspaper has passed, especially on a regional basis, with the internet, television and local radio, but whilst the days of mass circulation for local papers may be gone, there is still very much a need and a demand for solid regional journalism, because it is still the only stage where local issues genuinely get played out. The place of the evening paper is extremely important."

McLellan joined the Evening News in 1993 from the Newcastle Journal. Four years later he took control, transforming the paper into its current format. And, as McLellan transports his dictionary and thesaurus to his new SoS office at the end of the corridor and his former deputy, Ian Stewart, unpacks in the space left vacant, grabbing the reins of the evening title, McLellan says that the transition is more of an evolution than a revolution:

"The big leap was in 1999 when the paper went much more dramatically blue-top. But the transformation of the paper into a much more restrained style really kicked off when I took over the paper in 1997. There was a period of evolution that lasted two years that was symbolic of what we had done. It wasn't an overnight change - well, it was in design terms, but not in philosophy, which had changed some time before that.

"The problem with the Evening News is that it had gone through so many changes since 1989. The process of change has never really stopped; perhaps there has been too much. It has gone through so many metamorphoses that it has been difficult. However, the last couple of years have allowed the paper to bed in a little bit."

Perhaps it is this recent consistency that has allowed the Evening News to flourish, suggests McLellan: "The News provides a very solid service. Papers need a consistency from Monday to Saturday. If you have paid your 30p you need to know exactly what you are getting. It doesn't matter what day of the week it is, it is the same value and regional papers have problems because of the variations in their classified markets. It is important that you don't feel short-changed and that you get the same level of service every day.

"The days of mass evening circulation, with people pouring out of factories and picking up their evening paper, are long gone. The monopoly that evening newspapers had on a variety of different pieces of information - racing results for example - has disappeared. But one thing that they still have is the platform to debate the issues on a local basis. And nobody else can do that. There are lots of disaster stories around."

He pauses, looking for the right words: "If you see your competition as the Sun, then you are missing a trick. If you are selling information rather than a particular style of newspaper then you will succeed. Newspapers up and down the country all tried to follow the Kelvin McKenzie example and you got this terrible, pastiche kind of journalism. You can't do that 'phwoarr' journalism that worked really well for the Sun in a local evening paper. It can't be translated into the local marketplace, it just doesn't work.

"I've always believed very strongly in telling a story straight. Cut all the crap and just get to it.

"Local newspapers have tried desperately to find the secret. Solid news that is close to the people that you are selling to remains the answer.

You have to be serious about tackling issues, but realise that you will no longer sell 200,000 issues a night and still get on with it."

McLellan grew up in Glasgow's south-side, and while doing his milk run as a kid he remembers sitting down with a copy of the Herald and a half-pint of milk to take in the morning's news. To this day McLellan still admires The Herald under the editorship of Mark Douglas-Home, but although he doesn't wish to become obsessed with the great Scotsman/Herald rivalry, he has no option but to view SMG's publications as rivals:

"The quality Sunday newspaper market is over-crowded, there is no doubt about it. There are an awful lot of newspapers out there and we are scrabbling about for sales in a relatively small pot. As a pan-Scottish quality Sunday newspaper, the Sunday Herald has to be regarded as a rival because it is fighting for the same sales as we are. We want to sell lots of newspapers in Glasgow and they want to sell lots of newspapers in Edinburgh.

"The Sunday Herald was created because of the threat that Scotland on Sunday posed to the Herald's classified market. That's why it is there. There was a real threat because we were selling an awful lot of newspapers in their home territory. The Sunday Herald had to be launched to protect their markets, they had to limit Scotland on Sunday and that is what they have done. They had to come out with a creditable publication and that is why we see the Sunday Herald as it is today, and it is very good at what it does. So it is hard to regard it as anything other than a rival.

"I have a different view as to what we should be doing. There are openings in their mix to exploit, but I don't want to ape what they do, and I'm not fixated by what they do, but I think the SoS should develop its own way forward. There are gaps, we can offer choice and let the readers make their own minds up."

So, as McLellan's jacket hangs loosely from the back of his SoS door, the Newspaper of the Year hat stand sits resplendent in Ian Stewart's office, offering a resting place for the jackets of the 80 or so people who worked so hard to win the award; but for how long?

"It was very strange for two quality, broadsheet newspapers, like we produce here, not to be represented at the awards," says McLellan, leaning forward. "I don't think that will be repeated again."


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