Jaspan's last interview

By The Drum, Administrator

July 30, 2004 | 17 min read

Andrew Jaspan: Australia Bound

When I met Andrew Jaspan at Langs Hotel on 24 June there was something I wanted to ask him. A media diary item in The Australian newspaper had linked the Sunday Herald editor to a job at The Age, in Melbourne. It seemed unlikely but given Jaspan’s reputation for being well-connected across the newspaper globe it was, at least, feasible. “I had a call from a headhunter,” he told me, “but nothing more”.

But there was much, much more. A series of e-mails had told Jaspan that an opportunity was about to arise in Australia. A meeting with Mark Scott, editor-in-chief of Metropolitan Newspapers, part of the Fairfax Group, was then arranged in London. It took place on 28 April, the same day that the Sunday Herald was named runner-up to The Sunday Times at the Newspaper of the Year awards, also in London. Jaspan later completed three video-conference linked interviews with senior Fairfax, who also own the Sydney Morning Herald, executives. The 7.30am time slots ensured his work at the Sunday Herald was not disrupted. Rumours continued to circulate, but suspicion was kept to a minimum.

Three days after I bought him a bottle of sparkling water, Andrew, his wife Karen and their two sons boarded a plane bound for Sydney. In a move typical of Jaspan’s ability to juggle budgets he had persuaded his potential employer to buy out the £2,500 cost of his family’s two-week holiday to Dubrovnik, in Croatia. After 15 meetings in 14 days, only legal small print stood in the way of Jaspan becoming editor-in-chief of one of Australia’s biggest newspapers.

His subsequent appointment at The Age, announced last week, has proved that Jaspan’s ability to surprise people is as strong as ever. But the announcement has divided opinion in Melbourne. Australian media figures are reported as saying that The Age has lost its identity. Some staff also claim that Peter Wilson, The Australian newspaper’s London correspondent, Australia’s journalist of the year, and a Melbournite, would have been better placed to re-connect the paper with its core audience.

But perhaps they are overlooking the fact that Manchester-born Jaspan has done pretty well north of the border. He is not Scottish, but regards himself as being “of Scotland”, a view endorsed by his contemporaries. “He’s more passionate about Scotland and has got a better understanding of the country than most people I know. I’ve got no doubt that he’ll manage to do the same in Melbourne,” one friend told me last week.

Fairfax were certainly persuaded. “My job will be to carry out an assessment [of The Age] and look at its strengths and weaknesses,” says Jaspan, who was described as a world class editor by Fred Hilmer, Fairfax’s chief executive. “It’s a case of building on strengths. Papers evolve constantly and [Fairfax] want some fresh thinking in how to make the papers the best titles in Victoria. But I do go there with some trepidation because it is a massive job.”

Throughout his time as editor of the Sunday Herald Jaspan has championed the paper’s editorial independence, regularly contrasting it with the Andrew Neil dictated line, real or imagined, that the Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday editors have been accused of swallowing. Jaspan says the fact that Fairfax is largely owned by mutual companies, rather than a proprietor or major shareholders, and its commitment to editorial independence, were key factors in his decision to leave the Sunday Herald. On a practical level his pay will be increased and his editorial influence enhanced given that he is to become editor-in-chief, and a member of Fairfax’s executive management team, a privilege not enjoyed by his predecessor.

But Jaspan does not envisage major surgery at The Age. “There is no crisis there but I have made a commitment to the staff that the first thing I will do when I arrive is hear from them what they think are the issues facing the paper. I do have some ideas of my own but I want to test them out against the senior team and then, once we reach some sort of consensus on what needs to be done, we will decide where we want to take the papers.”

Building a consensus is considered one of Jaspan’s key strengths as an editor. His reputation for being approachable, open to ideas and considerate to staff is well-founded. But although he has run the Sunday Herald without the authoritative hierarchy that exists in many newspapers it has never been doubted that Jaspan was the boss. After all, the paper was his idea.

Soon after launching the Sunday Herald in 1999 Jaspan was offered the editorship of the Globe and Mail in Canada, but he felt compelled to stay in Glasgow. “It would have meant deserting them after five months, so I just couldn’t do that,” he says.

Five years later Jaspan has been attracted to Melbourne by the new challenge; after turning down Canada, and holding no particular desire to work in the US, he says Australia was the only realistic international option open to him. “One thing I am not is a hack for rent,” he says, countering claims that he has always been a journalist prepared to pack his parachute at short notice. “I don’t have a sign up, saying ‘for hire’. When you become an editor it is a very small club you are in and there are very few newspaper groups that I could work for in the UK.”

Having battled with the Barclay Brothers to prevent them acquiring The Herald, the Sunday Herald, and the Evening Times in 2002, and earlier the Scott Trust, who sacked him from the Observer in 1996, Jaspan is at least partly right in his career analysis. He also believes that Mark Douglas-Home is firmly enconsed at The Herald, preventing a move upstairs to Newsquest’s flagship title.

But there are other reasons for moving down under. As editor-in-chief at The Age he will be responsible for 400 staff, as opposed to 50 in Glasgow. As an example of the difference in size of the respective newspaper groups Jaspan points out that The Herald and Sunday Herald will each send one journalist to the Olympic games in Athens. “The Age is sending 23,” he says.

Throughout his time in Scotland Jaspan has attracted praise and criticism in equal measure. His critics say he is a “design editor” who is very good at making papers look good, without necessarily having the budget needed to make the columns of his pages read as nicely as they appear. It is an allegation he refutes entirely.

“What upsets me is that claims like that are a way of putting me down,” he says. “My critics say [the Sunday Herald] is a triumph of style over substance, but if that’s the case people would only buy it once. Design is not that important. People buy it for the content.”

“Critics” is another word often found in articles about Jaspan. His foremost adversary of recent years has undoubtedly been Andrew Neil, publisher of The Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday. Even some of the Sunday Herald’s most avid supporters argue that persistent sniping between the rival newspaper groups, most typically in media diaries and former Scotsman deputy editor Alan Taylor’s diary, has demeaned the Glasgow paper. “It’s just childish and people see through it,” one senior Scottish media executive told me earlier this year. The Scotsman, however, has replied in kind with several bitter personal attacks on Jaspan, who claims that such “knock-about” is largely borne out of frustration at what has happened to the Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday since the papers were bought by the Barclay Brothers in 1995.

“When I edited the Scotsman, and Scotland on Sunday, both had a reputation of being pro-Scotland,” Jaspan recalls. “It wasn’t slavishly so, but it was based out of a desire to have better government for Scotland. The Scotsman throughout its entire existence had been committed to that. But under Andrew Neil [the editorial line] switched round overnight. It became acidic towards Scotland, its teachers, lawyers, civil servants and all the professions. It was an attitude akin to a finger pointing into Scots, saying ‘you are not good enough’. We have pointed this out and, of course, they don’t like the criticism.”

Jaspan describes Neil as somebody he last spoke to “a couple of years ago”. However he acknowledges that were it not for the former Sunday Times editor, he probably wouldn’t be where he is today. “I have no personal animus towards Andrew Neil whatsoever. In fact the reverse is true,” Jaspan says. “My career only really took off after Andrew came to the Sunday Times. I wouldn’t be here, even doing this job, if it hadn’t been for him having confidence in me to do a job for him. I will always be grateful to him for that.”

Jaspan is of course referring to Neil’s decision in 1989 to send him to Glasgow to launch The Sunday Times Scotland. Neil had been concerned about losing sales to Scotland on Sunday, and tasked Jaspan with editionising news, business and sport for readers north of the border.

As an assistant news editor in London it was an opportunity he couldn’t refuse, especially as he took the job on the understanding that it would lead to a more senior role in London. But, having done a good job, Jaspan was poached by Scotland on Sunday, then owned by the Thomson Organisation, in 1991.

He says: “When I left [The Sunday Times] we had an exchange of letters and Andrew wrote a very generous note about my contribution. But at the same time I wanted to run my own show. I had my own views on things – Andrew’s views, particularly on Scotland, are not views that I share entirely. The fact that we cross swords so often now is just to do with the fact that, on certain issues, I think he’s wrong.”

It was at the Scotland on Sunday that Jaspan made his mark, upping circulation and proving his ability to recruit young journalists capable of outperforming the competition. “It was good for me because it meant my brain did not have to stop at the border,” he says. “It gave me the opportunity to look at international and national issues.”

Jaspan was given the chance to replicate his success at the Scotsman, where he was appointed editor in the summer of 1994. But he was offered the editorship of the Observer in 1995 and, understandably, he felt compelled to move back to London. Although he made a promising start, grudges over his appointment festered. The back-stabbing and rivalries typical in newspapers led to his sacking a year later. Although he became publisher and managing director of The Big Issue in 1996, it was the push towards devolution that opened the door for Jaspan’s return to newspapers.

Ironically, it was Andrew Neil, again, who presented him with the opportunity to make his mark. Having re-positioned the Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday as “highly sceptical” of devolution, Jaspan persuaded the board of SMG that the time was right to launch a new Sunday newspaper with an “independent, intelligent, international and [occasionally] irreverent outlook.”

“The beauty of what had happened [at The Scotsman] was that it meant I could come in with a different proposition,” Jaspan recalls. “It meant we could give people a real choice – we could say to readers that there is an alternative, ‘we’re over here’.”

Five-and-a-half years later the Sunday Herald has established itself as an award-winning newspaper. On the day of this interview I counted 113 certificates and prizes in the paper’s conference room. More importantly though, it soon hopes to lose its “loss-making” tag. Revenues are nearly 30 per cent up on last year and Newsquest expects its Sunday title to make a profit in 2004. So is it the right time for Jaspan to leave?

He says: “I’ve done six years [Jaspan was a consultant to SMG for six months before the Sunday Herald launched] and there is part of me thinking I should never let go. But in life you never want to look back and say that you ducked a challenge. I feel that the paper is in a strong position now and it’s at a stage where it can be developed and made even better.”

Jaspan also admits that after five-and-a-half years of Saturday nights spent in Cowcaddens, he is looking forward to getting his weekends back. “The only time I see my kids on a Saturday is when I am on holiday. It is punishing,” he adds.

The Sunday Herald editor will not be drawn on who should succeed him. Although he admits that he wants to see a “smooth transition” he denies that such words amount to coded language for an internal appointment. “Tim [Blott, Newsquest (Herald & Times’) managing director] has invited me to be on the panel that looks at candidates,” says Jaspan. “[Tim] might have a view about where the paper is going. If I’m asked my views I will make my judgement on who I think is the best candidate. It needs someone who understands the paper’s values, but who can also strengthen them.”

For the next three months Jaspan will help Blott draw up the Sunday Herald’s budget for next year. It will be an appropriate swansong on which to part, given that the two men are believed to have shared a fractious relationship when it comes to allocating editorial resources. ”I don’t think it’s any secret that Tim has found Andrew, at best, eccentric, and at worst, downright unhelpful,” one senior executive remarks. Jaspan may be about to head for sunnier climes but few people believe that he will roll over and see his successor given less cash than they deserve.

But having spoken to Blott last week I am in no doubt that Jaspan is leaving Newsquest on good terms. His appointment at The Age has allowed him to leave on a high, confounding his critics again. Time will tell if he has made the right move but one thing is certain. Scottish journalism will be a poorer place without Andrew Jaspan.


As founding editor of the Sunday Herald Andrew Jaspan has given the paper a profile much greater than its circulation – 55,137 in June – would normally attract. There will be no shortage of candidates to replace him. The appointment is a major test for Tim Blott. The managing director of Newsquest (Herald & Times) has only worked in Scotland for 15 months, yet he will have to find an experienced journalist capable of uniting the editorial floor and building on Jaspan’s work to date.

When I canvassed opinion last week no clear favourite to replace Jaspan emerged. However the first name mentioned was Richard Walker, currently deputy editor of the Sunday Herald. One senior staffer said: “I’d like [Richard] to get the job, but it is unfair that he is being portrayed as the easy option. Richard doesn’t agree with everything Andrew does and I’m sure he’d have his own ideas for the paper.”

Another senior executive agreed that Walker, who was considering his position at time of going to press, is a strong contender. “When Andrew set up the paper he looked at what his strengths were. Drawing pages was not one of them so he looked for a top production guy and Richard was it. But if Richard gets the job he will have to find a deputy who has the contacts and networking skills that Andrew has.”

Kevin McKenna, a deputy editor of The Herald, has also been tipped for the editorship. He is known as a smooth, if somewhat laid-back operator. “He is a Glaswegian for a start, has a strong Sunday newspaper pedigree and has flair,” one insider said. Another source added: “He is very much a journalist in the Jaspan [who promoted McKenna at Scotland on Sunday], Sunday newspaper mould. It’s probably the right time for him.”

Joan McAlpine, also a deputy editor at The Herald, had no comment to make when I asked her if she would apply for Jaspan’s job. She is seen as an unknown quantity by most of the Sunday Herald’s staff. “I knew Joan as a writer and she was pretty good, but I never saw her as a future editor,” one insider remarked. She is, however, considered likely to apply.

Charles McGhee, the editor of the Evening Times who was on holiday at time of writing this article, has also been linked to the job, as has Dean Nelson, the former Sunday Times Scotland editor, who currently heads up the Insight investigation team in London. Friends say that Nelson, who commutes to London from Edinburgh, would like another job based in Scotland for family reasons. However close colleagues say he left Kinning Park because “four years in Scottish journalism was enough.”

Other names linked to the job include Stephen Khan, the deputy foreign editor of the Independent, and his colleague John Mullin, the former deputy editor of the Scotsman. Blott is determined to see the Sunday Herald punching its weight commercially and, in the short term at least, the new editor will have to convince him that they can regularly take the paper’s circulation beyond 60,000.

The job advert placed in last week’s Sunday Herald stated that Newsquest was seeking “an experienced editor” and a “proven team player”. However Blott, who admitted to me that it is some time since he recruited an editor has, in effect, issued an open invitation by asking candidates to outline why they should be interviewed for the job. There has been interest from other London-based journalists and people from outside the coterie of usual suspects are bound to be interviewed.

One insider said: “Andrew has done a great job but the paper needs to move beyond the bleeding heart attitude that it has been carrying around for years. The staff can’t just go around saying ‘we’re great but it’s a shame more people don’t buy us’. They need to start asking themselves why more people aren’t buying the paper, and the new editor will have to convince them about that.”

Sunday Herald staff, however, are at least convinced about the kind of editor they don’t want to see inherit Jaspan’s post. “The last thing we want is a stooge from down South who doesn’t understand the paper,” one executive said. Other staffers believe it is the right time for a change of direction. “It’s got to be someone who understands the paper but isn’t afraid to alter certain things for the better,” one source added.

As Jaspan told me last week, newspapers evolve constantly and need to be refreshed, challenged and re-thought through if they are to be successful. His departure offers Newsquest an opportunity to assess the paper’s strengths and weaknesses. Blott should not rush his judgement. The Sunday Herald’s future is at stake.


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