The intense speculation over who the next editor of The Age will be has
prompted one international journalist to tell potential readers a
little more about one of the leading candidates Scottish editor, Andrew
Jaspan.
Surely you can’t be serious that Fairfax management is looking to hire
Andrew Jaspan? The editor of five papers in 10 years before being fired
from The Observer and landing at The Sunday Herald in
Scotland. When his name was first mentioned serious observers of
British newspapers such as myself, and those of us with high hopes for
a revival at The Age, thought it was a quaint way of showing
that the search for a new editor would be global. Has Fairfax done its
homework or has it been swayed by Jaspan’s well-known ability to talk
the talk?

Jaspan’s tiny paper – it ranks 12th in circulation among Scottish
Sunday papers – is, at least, big enough to have its own website. But
if you do a Google search for it, it will tell you it is “The Sunday Herald
– Scotland’s award-winning independent newspaper”. The site touts the
paper as a world-beating publication with more than 100 awards. Really?
In fact, the “best newspaper” etc awards are all from things like the
Scottish Newspaper Association or the Guild of Photo Editors”, and many
of the awards cited are simply for ENTERING an award, not for actually
winning anything. For instance, Reporter of the Year – Nominated, or
Cartoonist of the Year – Runner-up, and Young Journalist of the Year,
Nominee. Let us hope he brings slightly higher standards to The Age.

But journalistic standards are not what Jaspan is about. He is well
known for his presentational skills – more of a newspaper marketer than
a hard-headed journalist. This is how one columnist here in Scotland,
Terry Murden, put it after he was sacked as editor of The Observer (and at least he had a real staff at The Observer. At The Sunday Herald he has a staff of JUST 38. Crikey probably has as many contributors):

“So Andrew Jaspan is looking for a new job. Sacked as editor of The Observer
on Friday he appears to have become a victim of the London old guard
who were clearly unwilling to allow him to survive on charm alone.

“In the coded language which followed his dismissal it was clear that
they favoured the ”thinker” (Will Hutton, the new man in charge) over
the ”technician” (reference to Jaspan’s presentational skills). Some
would say he suffered because he failed to entice to London enough of
those who had previously helped make him great and that Fleet Street’s
finest would not be swayed by a design-over-content philosophy which
worked for him at Scotland on Sunday.

“I recall one meeting with Jaspan when he described a critical profile of him in The Sunday Times Scotland as a ”shitty piece of journalism”. He accused us of not even bothering to contact his colleagues at The Scotsman where he was then editor to ask their opinion of him. Sadly, Andrew, we spoke to quite a few.”

I know very little of Peter Wilson, the journalist Crikey mentions as Jaspan’s main competitor for the job at The Age.
But a simple web search tells me he is (a) from Melbourne – surely an
advantage for a paper that most of my friends still in Australia feel
has lost its Melbourne identity, (b) Australia’s journalist of the
year, and (c) a well-rounded, well-travelled, “thinking” journalist.

Sadly, if style over substance is what Fairfax wants, Jaspan seems to be a clear choice over Wilson.

Meanwhile another contributor writes:

Don’t know if Jaspan wants or will land The Age job – but the above
piece reflects the view that anyone who works in UK newspapers will
have supporters and enemies. Here is another perspective on
Andrew Jaspan:

The Soverign Editor

Talking to Paul Hutcheon, editor of Holyrood magazine, Andrew Jaspan
says that he will need more resources if he is to improve the Sunday
Herald

A PEEK inside the Sunday Herald‘s conference room confirms
Andrew Jaspan as an eccentric. Giving me a guided tour of the awards
that line its walls, he’s like a proud father showing a stranger the
achievements of his offspring. The presence of three clocks (one each
for London, Glasgow and Edinburgh) adds another touch of surrealism,
especially when none of them is working.

It’s an appropriate retreat for one of Scotland’s finest editors. A 5ft
4in dynamo, he brims with energy, ideas and mischief. He is known for
being considerate, often making staff feel part of a team by throwing
parties and taking them away for weekend breaks. Whereas editors like
Charles Moore sit in a separate part of the building to journalists
(or, in Andrew Neil’s case, a separate country), Jaspan feels it is
crucial to work on the same floor as his staff.

The flipside is that he has a reputation for being a control freak. The Sunday Herald
may be a team, but there is only one captain. Editorial independence,
he says, is more important than a big budget, and he’d never swap the
first for the second.

“When Newsquest took over this year, they gave guarantees and they have
been true to their word. There has been no change at all. I have not
been called in at any stage and asked, ‘why are you doing this?'”

Editing the Sunday Herald is another highlight in what has been
a rapid rise up journalism’s greasy pole. Born in Manchester in 1953,
he started as a reporter at the Daily Telegraph in the early 1980s, before moving to the Daily Mirror as a sub in 1982, eventually becoming assistant news editor at the Sunday Times
in 1985. At this point, he had an excellent working relationship with
Andrew Neil, so much so that Jaspan was dispatched north to edit the
paper’s Scottish edition. After two successful years, he moved to
Scotland on Sunday, where he revamped the paper and boosted circulation. From there, he replaced Magnus Linklater as editor of the Scotsman. In a few months, he was credited with having vastly improved a paper that was stuck in a rut.

After making an impact at the Scotsman, his name was linked to a
succession of other jobs. Just before Christmas in 1995, Peter Preston
called him at home and asked if they could talk about the vacancy at
the Observer. After numerous meetings, he was offered the post.
As one of the top positions for any liberal journalist, it was
something he couldn’t refuse.

However, the dream job soon turned into a nightmare. Instead of having
the full support of his colleagues, he found himself sitting in
meetings with people who had applied for his job. The paper’s staff was
“divided and demoralised”, and the management team that had appointed
him was soon replaced. Jaspan was also beginning to have problems with
Hugo Young – “for reasons I don’t want to elaborate on”. After a year,
Jaspan left the Observer. It is clear that he has regrets about leaving the Scotsman.

“I’d just changed the paper – it was great,” he says. “I wanted to
continue editing it and I also enjoyed living in Edinburgh. In many
ways, I’ll never know if I made the right decision. However, if I get
maudlin about it, what brings me back to life with a bump is that if
I’d stayed there I’d have ended up with Andrew Neil as my boss.”

After a spell at the Big Issue, he returned to newspapers by starting one of his own. In fact, to describe him as the Sunday Herald‘s
editor is a disservice – the paper was his idea. He created the
business plan, organised the focus groups, put the numbers together,
met with potential investors and struck a deal. After convincing SMG to
publish the paper in September 1998, staff were appointed by Christmas.
With an editorial team of 38, Jaspan launched the Sunday Herald in February 1999.

It was a very risky project. As the Sunday Scot, the Sunday Standard and Business a.m.
showed, it’s difficult for new titles to survive in an already crowded
marketplace. Part of Jaspan’s skill has been to get people to believe
the hype. In the Sunday Herald‘s case, he has positioned it as
being ‘different’ to the other papers that have the jitters about
devolution. He sees it as filling the space left by other newspapers,
most notably the titles owned by the Barclays.

“We’re not great believers in the spiteful journalism that a number of
other papers find more to their liking. This involves trying to
understand where political parties are coming from. We are trying to do
a more thoughtful weekly approach to journalism, different to the
yah-boo stuff the dailies have to do,” he says.

Apart from supporting devolution, he says that five things characterise
the paper’s approach to politics. First, it is pro-enterprise and in
favour of wealth creation. Second, it doesn’t endorse political
parties. Interestingly, he even says that political journalists
shouldn’t hold party cards – “I don’t think you can deliver the service
the reader expects and trusts if you belong to a political party.”
Third, it recognises that devolution is a process rather than an event.
Fourth, it believes that Scotland’s role in the world must be
scrutinised. Lastly, the paper must have an “open agenda”.

“We don’t approach things with a fixed agenda that has been thought out
in advance, which can be applied to any story, situation or person,” he
claims.

It has been quite a successful formula. In four years, the Sunday Herald
has acquired a reputation for strong reporting and intelligent coverage
of politics. Rather than trashing politicians, the paper tries to focus
on policy.

Another plus is that the paper has acquired an unusually young readership. While 65 per cent of the Herald‘s readers are over 45, the same proportion of people buying the Sunday Herald is
under 45. While many newspapers are watching their core readership die,
Jaspan is tapping into Scotland’s most lucrative and untapped market.

But for all its strengths, the Sunday Herald isn’t perfect. The
magazine is weak and the paper can occasionally read like it is written
for social workers. It is not afraid to point the finger – but never at
Scotland’s centre-left establishment. And while Jaspan is passionate
about the “open agenda”, some of the news reports represent the closed
agenda he loathes. The health and environment correspondents, for
example, are clearly suspicious of multinational companies, and their
coverage can, at times, be a little over the top.

The financial state of the paper is a worry. The Sunday Herald
wins awards but it doesn’t make a profit. Scotland’s Bright Young
Things might read it, but it is not clear whether there are enough of
them to keep it afloat. There are fifteen Sunday newspapers on sale in
Scotland – the world wouldn’t end if there were one fewer.

“This year ought to be the last in which we lose money,” he says. “The
plan was to break even next year. But look at it this way: when SMG
bought the Herald and Evening Times, they paid £120m.
Five years later, they sold three papers and got £216m. I don’t think
they would have got £216m for two papers. It is not making money, but
we are an asset.”

Does he think that the Sunday Herald will be around in five
years time? “The approach of the company is to say that Sunday is no
different to Monday. If you have got a press that operates seven days a
week, it makes sense to get revenue from a press that would otherwise
be idle. It’s part of the service,” he says.

Whatever happens to the paper, Jaspan can claim to have broken into one
of the most crowded newspaper markets and made his product an
established part of Scotland’s political landscape. He’s taking readers
from his old foe Andrew Neil and giving Scots something to look forward
to on a Sunday. Gannett may be setting the timer for the Sunday Herald, but the clock isn’t ticking on his career.

Peter Fray

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